Every year the Academy honors five films in the Best Foreign Film category, and in a genre that’s already tough to market, an Oscar boost is a blessing for many films that would otherwise face a much tougher road to finding an audience. However, what people often forget is that those five nominees are whittled down from dozens and dozens of submissions from nations around the world and the reality is, most of those films don’t see a release on our shores. While Belgium’s entry “Illégal” didn’t make the cut, the film by Olivier Masset-Depasse is getting a release and the subject matter will strike close to home.
Winner of the SACD Prize at the 2010 Cannes Director’s Fortnight, the film centers on Tania (Anne Coesens) an illegal Russian immigrant in Belgium who is arrested and gets caught in their brutal, Kafka-esque maze of detention centers where she fights for her freedom. Masset-Depasse shines a harsh light on the system in the film and it’s a subject that nearly every industrialized nation is facing right now. We spoke with Masset-Depasse about the film that not only opened his eyes, but those of people in his own country too.
The director first got the seed of the idea for the film after catching a news report on television which stuck in his brain and prompted him to do some more digging. “I went and did some research on the web and the more I discovered and the more I was learning about this subject, the more I found [the conditions in the detention centers] to be atrocious. So that’s how I started to think I should make a film about it,” Masset-Depasse explained. He got some serious help: “I conducted an investigation for one year along with a journalist who specializes in this topic. For me, it was very important to get the facts right for the film and it was essential to interview illegals as well as the players in this story like the wardens, the guards, the transfer officers and so forth. The most important thing was get inside those centers and we managed to penetrate those centers several times which is — theoretically — practically impossible. So we were able to get a very precise idea of what was taking place inside.”
The film peels back the layers of violence and dour conditions inside these centers for illegals, where they are kept until their paperwork and deportation is sorted out, and it was a revelatory experience for the helmer. “[When] I entered the family zone it was very shocking. You’d see children in pajamas next to their mothers who are half-haggard on medication. It gave me a sensation of purgatory with people hanging around endlessly with nothing to do,” he described. “And [there were] the tales of violence that took place and the violence was mostly perpetrated by the transfer police. Now I’m not saying that what we see in the film happens every day, but I am saying that it’s happening way too often.”
Surprisingly, financing was no more difficult to come by for the film than usual, however, getting cooperation was another matter. “The difficulty came when I was looking for locations to shoot the film. For example, Brussels airport refused to let us shoot there. Getting access to uniforms and props from the police was more difficult [as well],” Masset-Depasse said about the shoot, but ultimately it seems to have touched those who have seen it. “There are a lot of influential people in politics that did see the film and as far as the audience, there is no doubt that everyone who saw the film were very disturbed and had their eyes opened to what was happening,” the director said about the reaction to the film in his native Belgium adding, “but one has to be honest, most people see things and they forget. During this time of recession and terrible economic stress the illegal tend to be the scapegoats.”
Much of the film’s power comes from the lead performance of Anne Coesens and the helmer credits his long working relationship with her as well as extensive preparation as the key to her turn in the movie. “With Anne, we’ve known each other for the past ten years and everything I’ve ever made I made it with her. So we know each other very well,” Masset-Depasse explained. “But of course, she didn’t know Russian so she worked for about five months with two Russian language coaches to learn the part. We worked together on all the background story of Tanya, to own her story and what happened to her [before the events in the film]. And we rehearsed a lot before filming, because for me it’s very important that the actors own their character before we come on the set. My role once the shooting starts is to make sure the actors don’t overthink things.”
But after spending so much time with such heavy subject matter, you might think the director will be going for something a bit frothier for his next effort. Guess again. He plans to riff on another element of illegal immigration, albeit in a more broadly appealing film. “It’s going to be a spy film and the main character will be an American CIA agent. And the lead female part will be based on a true story, and it will center on the subject of passport trafficking. It will be in the same general idea, but a little more cinematic.”
“Several scandals were discovered around embassies,” he said about its inspiration. “Basically, in “lllégal” I showed where we invest our money in things that don’t work — such as the detention centers — and in my next film I’m going to talk more about where the government should put their money, such as against the mafias that are corrupting embassies and officials. Because they need their collaboration [in their trafficking].”
It’s undeniable that Masset-Depasse is thrusting himself into subject matter that is a hot-button topic for many, but with a dedication to research and passionate voice behind the camera, he is a helmer to keep an eye on. “Illégal” opens in limited release on March 25th.