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"Dirty Pretty Things"

October 30, 2007

Others have posted about news items and the possibility of avoiding another war, but I would like to report on a somewhat lighter topic (or what I thought would be), a film I saw this weekend.

I see a lot of movies and thanks to a few classes in college am a bit picky. I prefer my films foreign, with an inclination towards soviet-era eastern European fare. If you haven’t seen the wonder that is Loves of a Blonde you should. Daisies is also a very good choice. Both are Czech and made during the political opening surrounding Prague Spring.

This weekend netflix brought me a 2002 Stephen Frears film called Dirty Pretty Things. I put it in the DVD player after exhausting myself at a rummage sale and expected to dose through it. Instead I encountered a gritty depiction of illegal immigrants in London. I do not have a background in immigration, and this film revealed to me (albeit through Frear’s eyes) what it is to be an illegal resident of a first world country. The illegal immigrants live as victims in a ruthless and unsafe hell while surrounded by wealth and opportunity they cannot exploit.

The opening scenes of the film take place in the opulent Baltic Hotel, which boasts plush carpets and tapestries. The first sign that all is not pristine is a prostitute who stumbles down the stairs and alerts the concierge Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor), an illegal immigrant from Nigeria, that he should check room 510. What he finds there is at odds with his surroundings, and shatters the illusion of the hotel, London, and England itself as a place of Western safety and refinement.

Bubbling out of the clogged toilet pops a human heart. Okwe discovers that the manager of the hotel has been trading the body parts of the illegal immigrants for passports and a chance at legitimacy. The film inhabits an alternate world that operates beneath and behind the one known by legal residents. It takes place in the darkest corners of mundane locations; the morgue of a hospital, the backroom of a taxi service, and the hotel room where illegal operations are executed.

At the end of the film, after Okwe and his roommate Senay (Audrey Tautou) have obtained passports by tricking and sedating the hotel manager, he comments, “we are the people you don’t see.” Yes the line is cheesy but it is also a truism that most of us forget. Illegal immigrants are the people who aren’t seen by the system, who are stripped of their rights and can therefore be preyed upon by anyone who wants to exploit their vulnerability.

After Senay attains her passport she decides to go to the United States. Throughout the film she recalls New York in its traditional role as a city of opportunity and freedom. No doubt it will be for a young able-bodied woman who has proper documentation. But would it be if she lived there illegally as she did in London? I think not, because though England is the setting of the movie, it reveals something broader about how developed democratic countries treat illegal strangers who come to their lands. Though the labor these people provide is necessary (how would Germany, for example continue on without Turkish workers, and yet even young people of Turkish descent who are born in Germany cannot become citizens), they are no longer people, instead merely economic objects, whose value is seen in how long they can work or what body parts they can supply. Countries who based their existence on documents such as the Magna Carta and the Declaration of Independence should remember what these documents said about human beings, not simply Americans or Britons, having inalienable rights.

I’m not expert on immigration policy, for that you should go to Claire. In my humble opinion, however, if you want an entertaining (if disturbing and slightly graphic) picture of the sorry state of immigration today I suggest Dirty Pretty Things for to the top of your queue.

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