There are no good statistics on unaccompanied minors seeking asylum in Europe and elsewhere around the world, but the information assembled by international organizations such as the UNHCR and the IOM suggest that the trend is upward. According to the European ‘Action Plan on Unaccompanied Minors,’ more than 11,000 asylum applications were submitted by children travelling on their own in 2008 as compared to just over 8,000 in 2007. Alone in Belgium, the first quarter of 2011 saw the submission of 483 applications by unaccompanied minors, a three-fold increase in comparison to the first quarter of 2010.
Some of these children are running away from home; some are sent off with friends or members of their extended family; many more lose their parents or custodians along the way. When families decide to let young children take to the move in search of a better future, they are usually very desperate. At the same time, this desperation is a manifestation and the result of the ever-tightening asylum and migration procedures.
Aki Kaurismäki’s film ‘Le Havre’ addresses this subject—and it does so in an incredibly humane manner which will bring you to tears and make you laugh all at once.
Idrissa, a young refugee boy from Gabon in Africa, no more than twelve years old, arrives on a container in Le Havre with his grandfather. They were heading for London, but as is often the case with illegal transportations, they get stranded elsewhere, on the other, wrong, side, as he is later told by his savior Marcel Marx. As the police open the container to arrest the illegal refugees, Kaurismäki’s camera closes up on their faces, one after another—beautiful faces marked by expectation and sadness, their journey is being cut short, so close and so far away, and they know they face imprisonment followed by deportation. As they (and we as spectators) sink in resignation and silence, we notice a flicker of alertness in one of the elderly faces—go, he seems to be saying to the boy opposite him, run away, that is your only chance—and good luck! The boy senses his grandfather is right, to be alone is not a nice prospect, but after travelling in a container for days, that too becomes relative, there is nothing like freedom—so he jumps up and runs. A policeman raises his gun to shoot at him, but the inspector in charge, a figure with a moustache, a black trench coat and a black hat—he looks menacing yet there are shadows in his eyes—holds him back. Are you crazy, he asks, he is just a child!
The boy flees and is literally fished by Marcel, an aging former writer who works as a shoe-shiner at the train station. Marcel is having trouble making ends meet—he earns no more than ten, twelve Euros per day, which he diligently brings to his wife, Arletty, every evening. You have worked well, she tells him, and sends him off with pocket money—don’t spend it all, she adds—to have a drink at the bar around the corner while she prepares dinner. It is an impoverished yet dignified life, we sense these are good people, you are lucky to have found a woman like Arletty the bar woman tells Marcel, I know, he answers. Marcel is laconic with words, but what he says comes out like poetry, he is like a big boy, Arletty will later say, an idealist who refuses to become a cynic.
The movie tells the story of how Marcel with the help of his neighbors—except one, the denunciator—help Idrissa raise the money to pay for a clandestine boat ride across the Channel in order to find his mother who is working illegally at a Chinese launderette in London. Marcel is in the end ‘rewarded’ with a miracle: Arletty, who has cancer and is rushed to the hospital at the beginning of the film, recovers and returns home. The movie ends there—with the cherry tree in the yard blossoming to announce the coming of Spring.
If you were to think the story is kitschy then only in the tradition of ‘Casablanca.’ Cinophiles will recognize more and varied other references—but I would tend to agree with Andre O’Hehir writing for salon.com that ‘Le Havre’ is a creative remake of ‘Casablanca’. This is most evident in the figure of inspector Menon, his poker-like yet sad face, his trench coat and hat—that is Rick!—but the more subtle cues are even more entertaining to discover. My advice: treat yourself to ‘Casablanca’ and then watch ‘Le Havre.’
But—not to forget: whatever else this movie is—and it is many wonderful things—it is also a celebration of those who show civil courage in helping people and children in need; an encouragement to those who want to be generous but don’t dare or can’t bother; and a reminder to everyone of our humanity.