Migration Takes a Bow at Cannes Film Festival

by Kaye Viray (and Agence France Presse)

LAST week’s Cannes Film Festival was an eye-opener for the way migration is now a major theme of our times. 

Films now regularly depict people setting off for a new country, bearing little more than dreams of a better life. But behind the romance of every film touching on migration comes the reality that so many of those moving from their homelands soon discover that reality is not as rose-tinted as they imagined it might be. Many face the perils of trafficking, exploitation, aching loneliness and rootlessness. All of this is grist to the film industry's mill.

Migration is rightly described as one of the great issues of globalization, has too often been skated over in popular culture, especially at the movies.  Not any more. The award for Best Screenplay at the coveted Palme d’Or on Sunday went to Tian Zhu Ding (“A Touch of Sin”), a brutal portrayal of peasants who head to the cities for work in China of today.

The theme is familiar: People struggle to keep their humanity as they work long grinding hours in garment factories owned by exploitative foreign bosses. Relationships flounder and families grow distant. As a review from Agence France Press put it: “To live with dignity, violence is their only choice — a theme that also runs through ‘wuxia’ martial arts movies.”

“The wuxia films are what gave me the inspiration,” director Jia Zhangke told AFP. “There is a spirit of nobility which runs through these films, and it is the same one you will see in some people in today’s society.”

Desperation and violence also lie at the core of “The Immigrant,” in which Marion Cotillard stars as a Polish immigrant who arrives at New York’s Ellis Island in the 1920s and becomes ensnared in bad company.

Director James Gray said he wanted to make the movie as a period piece, reminding people today that immigrants may be despised when they arrive, but they eventually become accepted as part of a nation’s wealth.

“Immigration is one of the most important aspects of a dynamic culture,” he told a press conference. “It enriches a society. It doesn’t debase society.”

Other films, also well-received, touch on the plight of clandestine immigrants.

“Stop-Over”, a 149-minute documentary by Iranian-Swiss Kaveh Bakhtiari in the Directors’ Fortnight screenings, follows a group of Iranian men who are smuggled across the border from Turkey to Greece but can go no further.

La Jaula de Oro (“The Cage of Gold”), by Mexican-based Spanish director Diego Quemada-Diez, tells the odyssey of teenagers desperate to cross into the United States.

Quemada-Diez said he was drawn to make the film after speaking to migrants who had braved violence, theft and arrest in their quest for the land of gold. “I felt their outrage in the face of global injustice, in the face of impassive governments,” he said. “I had the feeling that the stories they told me had to be told to others... to make people reflect.”

“Born Somewhere” by Mohamed Hamidi explores the ravaged connections that come from migration as a young Frenchman returns to his family in Algeria. He meets a cousin who thinks of only one thing: shrugging off the poverty and hassle of life in North Africa and living in France.

Over the last decade, thousands of economic migrants have arrived on the shores of Europe, and hundreds have drowned en route, sometimes ditched by their smugglers.

Does this mean vulnerable migrants around the world will be able to get the attention they need? Who knows?  But these films are certainly raising awareness about the plight of migrants, ensuring that the subject is entering the mainstream of our popular culture.


 Kaye Viray works for IOM communications. Reporting by Agence France Presse.