The Refugee Crisis in Western European Cinema

Last Resort (BBC2, 2002)


The activities in this teaching resource address the complexity of the current refugee and migrant crisis and how it is portrayed on film. The intention for this resource is to consider how film can pose questions and encourage debate on urgent topics. Whilst the examples and case studies centre on two films produced in the United Kingdom and France between 2000 and 2010, the activities offer a ‘transnational encounter’ – to adopt Marcinak and Bennett’s (2018) terms – for students, and they can speak to wider concerns around the refugee experience and the responsibility of the media. This teaching resource unlocks the complexity of in-between-ness, uncertainty, and doubt for ‘people caught in the cracks’ (Ezra and Rowden, 2006, p.7) of a challenging contemporary society. It highlights the continued potential of cinematic transnationalism to question national geo-political (and socio-political) concerns. A theoretical provocation to ‘encounter’ a different perspective. The activities are designed to highlight how film can nuance mass media perceptions of questions of immigration, migration, and the refugee experience through close reading. The first activity encourages a critical consideration of the films in their entirety, exploring how Le Havre and Last Resort pose questions concerning the act of border crossing, issues of identity, and the act of journeying. The second set of questions employs close reading of key sequences from the two selected films, in order to critically analyse how the mise-en-scène of the port city (Le Harvre) and the airport further our understanding of in-betweenness and the experience of loss.

This teaching resource is a result of the great work of third year undergraduate student, Alice Orchard on the module ‘Decentred Approaches to Film & TV' at Bath Spa University.

Note: Sign-in to BoB once and then refresh the page; this will make all the clips on this page watchable.

  • Many of the elements examined in the study of transnational cinema (e.g. borders, the importance of the nation state and how that corresponds with cultural identity and specificity) articulate the harsh realities of the experience of migration and the refugee crisis.

    Borders between nations, as they are entirely artificial, have carved the space we occupy into sections. Borders are invisible lines that function as barriers between people of one nation and another. Geo-political borders – particularly in a European context - are a product of the Enlightenment period. By the nature of defining space into individual nations we not only create physical barriers in space but also barriers between people and culture, subsequently introducing national identity as the basis of belonging within one space or another. Anderson introduced the notion of an ‘imagined political community’ (Anderson, 1983) as a means of creating ‘bonds’ and connections between disparate communities within a nation-state (a country formed with clear geo-political borders). The media – literature, TV, radio – play an important role in communicating shared values, ideas, ideologies and heritage across and throughout the nation-state (Anderson, 1983). Borders affirm a national context, whereas the theoretical concept of the transnational offers us an opportunity to re-think that model – to transcend, to transgress, to transpire (Lim, 2007).

    Question 1.

    Watch Le Havre (2011) and Last Resort (2000), and consider the role borders play in the context of transnational cinema.

    Access playlist

    Question 2.

    For those who have had to abandon one place in one nation for sanctuary in another, a sense of national identity can become difficult to maintain or even specify. Those who are forced to flee their home nations are also forced to contend with conflicting ideals, often faced with the choice of retaining the national identity of their home, their family and their history, or renouncing aspects of heritage in order to ‘assimilate’ with the culture of the host nation. It is in this ‘between’ space of being but not belonging that the automatically labelled ‘foreigner’ encounters obscurity of identity and the notion of aporia.

    As Bennett outlines in his work, the ‘aporia’ refers to a ‘doubt’ and ‘uncertainty’ of the characters and their acts of border crossing (see Bennett, 2018). This is epitomised in the two films, Last Resort and Le Havre, which highlight the challenges that are posed for the characters encountering this experience.

    How do ideas around national identity interact and intersect with the notion of aporia in migrant cinema?

    La Havre (FilmFour, 2018)

    Question 3.

    Within the context of national cinema, there is the suggestion that – as Higson argues – borders are ‘effective’ and cultural diversity is ‘closed off’ (Higson, 2006, p. 18). However, the transnational offers a useful analytical framework in this regard, since contemporary society is ‘hybrid’ (Higson, 2006, p. 19). Last Resort and Le Havre highlight the limitations of focusing on national films as homogenous, and by analysing films that consider issues of migration and profound debates like the refugee crisis, heterogenous approaches are crucial. Questions of identity, ‘home’, and community can stretch across national borders and boundaries, and the experience of migration – whether voluntary or involuntary – are understood irrespective of their individual national contexts.

    In Le Havre and Last Resort, to what extent do the characters’ journeys challenge national homogeneity?

  • Le Havre and Last Resort utilise very different styles of filmmaking to portray the migrant experience on screen. Le Havre uses an artistic, unconventional and Brechtian style of filmmaking whilst Last Resort relies on a more ‘realist’ approach. Kaurismaki’s films are known for their minimalist and theatrical settings, which evoke the 1960s/1970s in their style and tone. Pawlikowski’s Last Resort has a more immediate and proximate filmmaking style, in line with the so-called French New Realist and Dogme95 traditions of the late 1990s and early 2000s. However, both films manipulate space to convey ideas around national identity and belonging, and to show their central characters’ sense of identity.

    Question 1.

    While much of the discussion of cinema’s interactions with space and visual architecture concern the traversing of horizontal space – travelling across land and through borders, this scene in Le Havre constructs vertical space within the scene as symbolic of its characters’ sense of identity and status. Each of the characters, Idrissa, Marcel and Monet are situated at three different ‘levels’ in the scene. Monet stands at the top, his feet on solid ground, surrounded by the concrete infrastructure of the dock. Idrissa is placed at the lowest ‘level’ submerged in dark water, and Marcel is situated in the middle, using the stone steps between the higher and lower levels as he converses with each character, becoming a kind of mediator between the two. As such, each character within the cinematographic space of the scene, embodies both their functions in the narrative as well as being emblematic of their status of belonging within the nation.

    Another interesting use of space in the scene is how water is used to convey the transitory or in-betweenness of the character Idrissa. In the scene he emerges out from the shadows cast by the dock from behind a stone pillar, half submerged in the water. The use of water to articulate transitory identity is in itself poignant to examine. Water and liquid by its very nature embodies transience, and this fluidity, changeability and immateriality parallels with the aporetic notions of foreignness that often define the migrant identity and the refugee crisis. By half submerging Idrissa in the water of the dock, it is illustrative of how his sense of self or national identity is in a state of uncertainty and instability – caught between the home and the host nation.

    How is the space and architecture of the dock in Le Havre used to articulate a transitory sense of identity?

    Question 2.

    As is shown in this scene and also present in the film as a whole, Le Havre has an incredibly performative and theatrical style. Adopting such an approach allows for the space within the frame to be utilised in a similar fashion to how a set on stage is used to convey intricacies of characters or a piece’s overarching themes or message. While the same is true for all filmmaking, using a more theatrical style allows for a far more physical and dynamic use of space that would seem out of place in a film with a more realist approach. When the doors to the shipping container are opened and the people inside revealed, “they are lit by spotlights that make them appear as if they were on stage” (Rascaroli, 2013, p. 330). This introduction to the migrants in Le Havre is conducive of the performative nature of their arrival in the port – the candid nature of the interactions between the migrants and the authorities as well as how they are spoken to by the Red Cross workers is a stark contrast to the realities waiting for them in in refugee camps, as evidenced later in the film in the news footage of the Calais Jungle.

    It is also interesting to point out in relation to the shipping container, that Le Havre was not the intended final destination for the migrants, the fact that their journey was intercepted due to a clerical error is important in showcasing the unpredictability of the migrant experience. Fleeing the home nation in search of sanctuary can induce a removal or lack of a sense of belonging and national identity, but it also takes away control from those who have had to make such a decision. The migrants in Le Havre have their agency stripped from them the moment the doors to the shipping container are opened. And even as Idrissa makes his way to London at the end of the film, the outcome of such endeavour is left to the imagination.

      What is the significance of the shipping container in the above sequence? How does it correspond with notions surrounding national identity in the context of migration?

      Question 3.

      Olivieri argues that “liminal space […] is a space between visible and invisible, presence and absence, present and past/future, know and unknown” (Olivieri, 2016, p. 143). From the very opening shot of Last Resort, liminal space is accentuated and layered, eliciting a direct parallel between the cinematographic space of the scene and the situation of the central characters. First, the setting of the airport is significant in itself as a location that epitomises liminality. As a point of both entry and exit from a certain nation, the airport is situated in a transitory state, situated directly between the global and the local. The opening shot frames the main characters on an airport shuttle in transit.

      As the first introduction to the characters, the fact that they are depicted in motion is significant. The start point of their journey is not specified, nor when they have disembarked the shuttle and going through immigration, do they reach any kind of destination, until that is Tanya declares political asylum. As such, the entire opening sequence is one that encapsulates transience, impermanence and instability. The central characters are forced into a space that refuses to provide any kind of fixedness or security which in turn introduces doubt and conflicting ideals. In the case of the character Tanya and her son in Last Resort, they exist in a constant, volatile in-between space. Furthermore, in the airport rows of seats, corridors, framed windows and doors combined with handheld unstable close-ups are all used in the scene to further this sense of instability.

        How is liminal and in-between space articulated in the opening sequence of Last Resort?

        • Ezra, E. & Rowden, T., 2006. General Introduction: What is Transnational Cinema?. In: E. Ezra & T. Rowden, eds. Transnational Cinema: The Film Reader. Abingdon: Routledge, pp. 1-12.
          Fisher, A. & Smith, I. R., 2019. Second phase transnationalism: reflections on launching the SCMS transnational cinemas scholarly interest group. Transnational Cinemas, 10(2), pp. 114-126.
          Harvey, J., 2018. Introduction: On the Visual Cultures of the New Nationalisms. In: J. Harvey, ed. Nationalism in Contemporary Western European Cinema. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 1-15.
          Higson, A., 2006. The Limiting Imagination of National Cinema. In: E. Ezra & T. Rowden, eds. Transnational Cinema: The Film Reader. Abingdon: Routledge, pp. 15-25.
          Marciniak, K. & Bennett, B., 2018. Aporias of foreignness: transnational encounters in cinema. Transnational Cinemas, 9(1), pp. 1-13.
          Olivieri, D., 2016. Diasporic proximities: spaces of ‘home’ in European documentary. Transnational Cinemas, 7(2), pp. 135-151.
          Rascaroli, L., 2013. Becoming-minor in a sustainable Europe: the contemporary European art film and Aki Kaurismäki's Le Havre.. Screen, 54(3), pp. 323-340.