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Luck smiled on Philippe Lioret when searching for the right 17 year old Kurdish lad to play the lead in his acclaimed and award winning drama, Welcome. “Filmmaking is 50-50 luck and hard work,” Lioret tells Andrew L. Urban during a visit to Sydney.

It was one of those strokes of luck that every filmmaker needs: Philippe Lioret and his team had been searching far and wide – from Turkey to Sweden, to London, to Paris - for the young man who could portray Bilal, the central character of their film, Welcome. He has to be Kurdish, 17 years old, a good swimmer and credible as an actor. “We found a lot of fine young men, but none of them were ‘him’….” says Lioret during his Sydney visit, coinciding with the French Film Festival and the eve of the film’s Australian release (April 1, 2010).

"the pivotal role"

Still not sure who to cast in the pivotal role of Bilal, Lioret was conducting auditions in Paris for the role of Mina, his girlfriend, who now lives in London with her family, and the key reason for Bilal’s determination to get to London, anyhow he can.

When Derya Ayverdi came to audition, Lioret was instantly sure she was his Mina. As she was leaving, he wondered whether she knew of any 17 year old Kurdish boys he could audition. No, Derya replied, none come to mind who’d fit. There’s my brother, Firat, she added, but he’s such a useless layabout … Lioret was desperate enough to try. Firat turned up, and sure enough, says Lioret, he strolled in chewing gum and all too casual.

“But I persevered … I thought I’d call him back and if he came back, travelling across Paris suburbs several times, I’d know he was somewhat interested.” Firat did indeed come back, but his screen test was awful. “It was no good at all, but of all the young men I’d seen, he was the only one who moved me. I gave him the part. And two weeks into the shoot, he was giving a performance on par with Vincent Lindon,” says a still-surprised Lioret.

And that’s a big compliment from Lioret, who regards Vincent Lindon as one of France’s finest actors. “Half way through the writing I decided to find out more about the key characters,” he explains, “and thought of Vincent. We had lunch and I told him the story, and he said he didn’t want to wait to read the script. He wanted the role.”

The role he wanted is that of Simon, a swimming instructor in Calais, just about to finalise his divorce from Marion (Audrey Dana), one of the many volunteers helping to feed the refugees around the port – of whom Bilal is one. On an impulse and against the law (but to Marion’s approval), Simon offers Bilal and his friend Zoran (Selim Akgul) a bed for a night or two and is soon helping Bilal to improve his swimming – as Bilal plans to reach England, even if he has toi swim across the channel. Complications change everyone’s life.

"the moral and ethical complications"

Although far removed from Calais geographically, Australians may well recognise some of the moral and ethical complications of the themes explored here. They may also be aware of the well publicised refugee situation around Calais, where thousands of mostly young men from mostly the Middle East are creating a large, desperate camp as they seek ways to get to England for a better life, reunite with families, escape their misery. With legal means closed, they resort to illegal ones. This story springs from amidst that human chaos, exploring the universal moral and emotional challenges, although as Lioret points out, the story is as much about the two romantic relationships as they clash with a cruel world.

The story has parallels with France during the war when Jews were hidden and smuggled to safety at great risk; or to the border between the US and Mexico … or indeed, to many other regions where people seek refuge in a new land.

The film has had an impact in France, where the subject of ‘the welcome law’ which forbids providing assistance to asylum seekers is divisive. Thousands continue to congregate around the port of Calais, an area now referred to as ‘the jungle’. Solutions seem almost impossible, especially now with youngsters escaping Afghanistan – not for economic reasons, but in fear of the Taliban. Those who’ve experienced it, like Lioret and some of his team, who spent three weeks living amongst the refugees, come away with greater understanding of the human scale of the problem – and that’s reflected in his film.

Published April 1, 2010

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Philippe Lioret


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