Belgian director Olivier Masset-Depasse's interest for illegal immigration led him to do his second feature film, Illégal. According to him, "illegal immigrants" deserve a chance to get its host country's citizenship as long as he/she isn't a criminal.
It tells the story of Tania, a Russian illegal immigrant (Anne Coesens). She's been denied by the Belgian government as a political asylum seeker. One day, when she can't produce her papers in front of two Belgian cops, she orders her son to run and she's brought to a detention centre for illegal immigrants.
His interest came when he saw a news story on TV about a detention centre for illegal immigrants. "I was so shocked, because the centre featured in the story looked like a prison for child. Usually, I forget the news I see on TV." He then decided to investigate for one year with a journalist and a lawyer to see how illegal immigrants are being treated.
"These detention centre are uneffective, because our government keeps under locks innocent people" Masset-Depasse believes. "The criminality rate among illegal immigrants in Belgium is only at 15%." He also suggests that Europeans have no reason to be afraid of immigration given that Western European countries "only receives 5% of the international immigration".
While he's born in Belgium, Masset-Depasse also relied on his own experience to walk in the shoes of his film's lead character, Anna. At 18 years old, he wanted to live in the USA. Once there, he lived a homeless Chilean friend. When he no longer got some news about this friend, he feared being taken in custody by American immigration officials.
"I decided to have an European character, a Russian I should say. Most stories you hear about illegal immigration are about Arabs, Africans and Asians. Yet, there are "illegal" immigrants coming from Europe itself" he says. "By having a white lead character, I wanted white viewers to be able to relate to Tania as much as possible whilst they think about what should be done with "illegal immigration". Besides, Russians are culturally Europeans."
Masset-Depasse also adds that "there is a strong Russian community in Belgium". At the same he lives well with the fact that his lead actress, Anne Coesens, isn't of Russian heritage. "I believe that Anne did a great job at sounding like a Russian." What matters, he thinks, is the film's message.
On welcoming immigrants
Through this journey, Masset-Depasse also came to believe that we don't have to know why immigrants come in a given country. Hence, the reason why we never know why the character of Tania immigrated to Belgium, he says. "Nobody has to know why an immigrant left his native country. They just starve in their native country and that's all there is to know. Knowing more is acting like a government official. It's a display of shamelessness."
"Our government should grant the citizenship to innocent people who are considered as being illegal immigrants. In return, these new citizens must promise to blend in our society," he believes.
"The real problems are the organized criminal groups who use illegal immigration to make a killing. They corrupt European government officials to get fake papers and I fear the criminals' growing power in European politics." Before we end our conversation, Masset-Depasse said that the exploitation of illegal immigrants by organized criminal groups can be the subject of his next film.