Interview of Olivier Masset-Depasse, director of “Illégal”

Interview of Olivier Masset-Depasse, director of “Illégal”

How did you come up with this story?
At the outset, while I was watching the news on television, I found out that 15 kilometres away from my home, there was a detention centre for illegal immigrants. And you hear words like prison for innocent people, you see children behind bars. I felt uneasy and I started to do some research. The more research I did, the more appalled I was by what I discovered and soon the idea for a film emerged.
 
I started a year-long investigation with a journalist from the Belgian daily newspaper Le Soir and a lawyer from the Belgian Human Rights League. This enabled me to go and see for myself, which is what I really wanted to do. The accounts from people who had spent time in these centres and, above all, the opportunity to visit a specific centre (127 bis Detention Centre, near Brussels) several times enabled me to get a clear idea of what happens there, to get some accurate information.
 
From that point onwards, I decided to make a real narrative film, to start out with this story of a struggle by a mother who is the emotional vehicle for moving the audience, and be able to speak out and denounce the treatment that illegal immigrants are subjected to in these centres.
 
This investigation resembles the kind of research undertaken for a documentary. Why did you choose to make a narrative film?
First of all, I’m useless at making documentaries, even though I adore them. They’re two different jobs. I have more of a connection with narrative films, which have the advantage over documentaries of being able to go more deeply into a character’s subjectivity, therefore be a bit more emotional and have a more universal side. The most important thing for me was that the film raised people’s awareness, but that the awareness arose from the heart, not the head. All that inevitably led me back to fiction.
 
What shocked you the most during your research?
Lots of things. But the real trigger was my first visit to the detention centre, in the wing for women and families, because there was a sort of despair, a rather cloying atmosphere which was very hard for me as I’m a dad. Seeing children in their pyjamas at four o’clock in the afternoon, knowing that they can only go out for one hour a day and seeing their mothers lobotomised by sedatives, I found that immensely hard. It was the first visit which shocked me most because I was at my most naive; afterwards of course you get used to the harshness of things.
 
Then, in secret, I got the chance to see an expulsion filmed on a mobile phone: there wasn’t necessarily the violence we see in the film, the direct violence occurred afterwards, when the mobile phone got broken. I was watching someone who was being deported, whom they were trying to deport, knowing that two days later, that person hung himself in the detention centre.
 
Did you intend to make these scenes the most shocking in the film?
I don’t know about the most shocking. We needed drama. In a film, you necessarily have to build up to a climax and I knew from the start that this climax would happen in the airport. I won’t say any more so as not to reveal the film’s ending.
 
What does the LUX prize mean for you?
It’s a wonderful initiative encouraging the circulation of films on a European scale. What is a film that cannot be seen? The prize is a real opportunity. What I show in this film applies in many European countries. I want to create as wide a debate as possible across Europe. The LUX prize would be an excellent starting point to disseminate this film as widely as possible.
 
Interviewed by Cineuropa