June 15, 2011 -- This intense film follows a former Russian teacher living illegally in Belgium who is captured and is fighting against a brutal system trying to deport her. The story, however, is universal in that there are people all over the world in similar situations, including in the United States, where illegal immigrants sometimes live in virtual slavery, victims of organized crime, unscrupulous employers and leaders who use them as political scapegoats. This 2010 film, being released as part of the Film Movement collection, won the SACD Prize at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival for best French language film (some of the film's dialogue is also in Russian).
The main character of this film is Tania (played by Anne Coesens). She is living in Belgium illegally with her son, Ivan (Alexandre Gontcharov). The early part of the film depicts her everyday life, which is hard. She has to pay off a local mob boss, Novak (Tomasz Bialkowski) to keep her forged papers up to date and to pay for her apartment. If she doesn't pay up on time, Novak can simply inform on her and she'll be deported, along with her son. A former teacher, she works as a hotel maid with her friend, Zina (Olga Zhdanova) who is also an illegal. It is not an easy life, but apparently it is far better than the life she had in Russia. She is willing to do whatever it takes to stay where she is.
Tania's resolve is put to the test when she is captured by authorities and put into a detention center. Tania refuses to give her name to the authorities, who are unable to identify her because she has burned her own fingerprints off with a hot clothes iron. Ivan escapes capture and is taken in by Zina. In the prison-like environment of the detention center, Tania is befriended by another prisoner, the beautiful and defiant Aïssa (Esse Lawson). Aïssa tells Tania that if she can last five months in the detention center she will be released if authorities cannot identify her first. Tania's lawyer also tells her since the authorities failed to confiscate her fake identification papers, they have no evidence to convict her of illegal activities. All she has to do is wait.
Tania is worn down by authorities at the detention center, who threaten her with prosecution. She is also sick with worry about her son, who she fears is working for organized crime in order to make money, but she fights against deportation desperately. The battle becomes a matter of life or death before the end. Tania's imprisonment and her struggle to avoid deportation is inspiring. It also reveals dark and disturbing aspects of the treatment of illegal immigrants. Director Olivier Masset-Depasse, who used as inspiration the brutal prison film “Midnight Express,” noted that “Belgium has already been convicted four times by the European Court of Human Rights for inhuman or degrading treatment. That shows you to what extent my country lives up to its ideals.” While some guards in the movie are shown to be brutal, others are compassionate, but all are caught in a system that denies prisoners basic human dignity and adequate protection against mistreatment and violence.
Tania, being caucasian, undoubtedly evokes more sympathy than the character would if she was black, brown, Muslim or some other unpopular minority. Also, her desperate struggle for freedom is placed in the context of her love for her son and her single-minded determination to make his future a bright one. Anne Coesens is utterly convincing as Tania and she carries most of the emotional burden of this film, along with Esse Lawson who shows a childish sense of play along with vulnerability as Aïssa, the proud, defiant, but terribly brutalized prisoner desperately trying to avoid deportation to Mali. This is a film with a message, but it doesn't preach. There are no lectures about human rights. The message portion of the film is reserved. The primary focus of the story is Tania and her love for her son. This film rates a B.
Also on this same Film Movement DVD is an award-winning short film from Italy, “Rita,” about a young blind girl who shelters a stranger who is in big trouble and asks a favor in return. It is a very unusual and moving story about desperation, dependence and loneliness. The 18-minute film, starring Marta Palermo, won the top short film award at three different film festivals. For more on the Film Movement series, check out the official Film Movement web site.
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