The Hollywood assembly line incessantly turns out movies indicting bad mommies for all the troubles on the planet, from The Fighter to Animal Kingdom last year alone. So it’s more than refreshing to experience the Belgian feature, Olivier Masset-Depasse’s Illegal.
A grim reality-based drama about undocumented female immigrants in Belgium, Illegal is a haunting excursion into the more often than not invisible world of single motherhood on the edge. And where women with no support systems or resources but tremendous determination, would crawl through hell and back while dodging even legal roadblocks, to protect and defend their children.
Anne Coesens, married in real life to the director, is Tania, a Russian immigrant and office building maintenance worker. Tania entered Belgium with her twelve year old son, and forged papers provided by a Russian mobsters to whom she is financially indebted. And to conceal her identity and also avoid the wrath of her protector should she be caught, Tania goes so far as to get drunk one night and burn off her fingertips with an iron, to prevent tracing of her prints by the authorities.
But despite her determined caution in eluding detection by police on the prowl for illegals, she’s questioned on the street one day and dragged off to a detention center for eventual deportation. Reeling between high and low intensity panic for weeks and connected with her abandoned son solely by the occasional permitted pay phone call, Tania constantly strategizes schemes to escape her terrible fate. Along with advice from Aissa (Esse Lawson), her defiant African roommate who is severely beaten by the immigration authorities during repeated, thwarted attempts to drag her on board planes for deportation back to Mali.
As time passes, Tania begins to refocus her fiercely maternal nurturing instincts on the females suffering around her. Including an increasingly despondent Aissa, and the traumatized little daughter of a woman who fled Chile where her father was tortured by the Pinochet regime. There is also a sympathetic guard, herself a single working mother in the dreary and oppressive detention center, whose mounting anguish that the audience in no small measure shares with her, leads the woman into an emotional tailspin in confrontation with her own personal life choices. And when Tania begins to be brutalized herself in attempts to deport her, she somehow magically rallies Belgians to her cause.
Illegal is stinging and chilling drama at every turn. But it would have further benefited from background information as to why Tania was so desperate to not be returned to Russia. Especially given the subsequent post-Soviet ravages of the economy that trapped so many women and girls there in the international sex slave trade, rampant alcoholism and suicide, overflowing orphanages, and the Russian mob that operates at will in the midst of pervasive social chaos.
Winner of the SACD Prize at the 2010 Cannes Director’s Fortnight, Illegal has been received with protests from the Belgian authorities, who claim the expulsions depicted in the film are untrue. Even though the character of Aissa is based on Semira Adamu, an African immigrant who didn’t survive the violence inflicted upon her during forced attempts at deportation. And whose death subsequently led to revisions in expulsion procedures.