Lots of heavy drama on the closing day of IFFR, with 'Tyrannosaur', 'Incendies' and 'Illégal' in a row. The last one, a furious indictment of the Belgian asylum system, proved the most urgent as it lays bare a highly sensitive and seemingly insoluble issue in the whole EU - which, as 'Illégal' shows, is at heart not a judicial or political but a moral problem.
'Illégal', directed by Olivier Masset-Depasse, follows Belarusian Tania (Anne Coesens) and her son who have been living in Brussels illegally for eight years. Both speak French, she works, he goes to school - in short, they've built up a life there. But when Tania is arrested during an ID check, while her son manages to get away, she gets caught up in the dehumanizing bureaucracy of detention centers, voluntary repatriations and other legal euphemisms.
Though the film starts with Tania choosing illegality for her and her son after being denied political asylum, it is not concerned with her backstory, nor do we learn much about the stories of the other people in the detention center. It is simply not the issue, and this is voiced sharply by Tania when one of the guards in the detention center asks her why she goes to such lengths to stay in Belgium. Tania counters: "Are you asking me whether I've suffered enough to be allowed to live in your country?"
Focusing on Tania's desperate struggle to avoid repatriation, 'Illégal' shows the cruel and often brutal treatment illegal people receive - and to what lengths Western goverments are willing to go. In the same way that asylum seekers will try to find loopholes in the procedures in order to stay, governments are pushing the limits of what the constitution and international treaties will allow to get rid of them. This asymmetrical battle leads to painfully embarrassing scenes, such as when Tania is forcefully put on a plane by three guards while a fourth films the operation, "to avoid any legal mistakes".
As a starting point for debate, the film raises difficult questions about European immigration policies, and about the concept of illegality. One thing is clear though: the humiliating treatment of these people makes Fortress Europe rapidly lose the moral justification for its policies. In a telling scene, one guard can't justify her work anymore and walks out, as if to say: not like this.
Update: In a subtle way the film's title adds to its message. As Masset-Depasse notes in a Cinema.nl interview (in Dutch), the title of his film is the male 'Illégal', as opposed to the female 'Illégale', making it a reference not to the status of his female protagonist, but to the inhuman system she is trapped in.