Rick’s café: a microcosm of asylum today

The contrast between European wartime refugees and the ‘new’ refugees has been subjected to convincing critique. Two films looking at similarities between the paradigmatic 'good' refugees of cinematic Casablanca and the beleaguered refugees in Calais's camps today provides a chance to question the 'myth of difference'.

James Souter
9 July 2012

Of the hundreds of events across the country which recently took place as part of Refugee Week, I attended two film screenings: the first was a showing of Welcome, and the second was a screening of Casablanca. Both of the screenings afforded an opportunity to reflect on the ways in which those campaigning for refugees’ rights celebrate and represent refugees in their efforts to raise public awareness of refugees’ situations.

Casablanca, a cinematic classic produced in 1942, centres around refugees who fled from war-torn Europe to Morocco as part of their desperate bid to find safety in America. Finding himself with two highly sought-after exit visas which would secure safe passage to America, Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) enters a dilemma upon the arrival of his ex-lover, Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) and her husband, the Czech freedom fighter, Victor Laszlo.

Welcome, a film produced in 2009 by Philippe Lioret, is a superbly powerful and extremely upsetting piece which highlights the plight of refugees in Calais who attempt to reach Britain, and the risks taken by ordinary French people to help them. Bilal, a seventeen year-old Kurdish refugee, seeks to be united with his girlfriend in London by swimming across the Channel. Assisted by Simon, a French divorcee, Bilal eventually embarks on his dangerous crossing.

The two films have underlying commonalities despite their obvious differences. Both are unabashed love stories, chronicling the painful separation of lovers by both conflict and political borders. In Casablanca, the events of world war entail multiple partings and reunions: Ilsa is separated from her husband as he is sent to a concentration camp, Rick from Ilsa as the Germans occupy Paris, not to mention the final romantic separation in the film’s famous closing scene. Depicted in a somewhat grittier way which is devoid of Casablanca’s glamour, both Bilal and Simon are separated from their loved ones; Bilal by political boundaries, Simon by emotional estrangement.

The two films also contain unsettling parallels. While Casablanca, then under French control, is portrayed as a mix of resistance and collaboration, Welcome’s depiction of the criminalisation of aiding ‘illegal’ migrants in France might invite controversial comparisons with France’s collaborationist past. In one scene of Welcome, after Simon’s wife has objected to a security guard evicting two Kurdish men from a supermarket, she comments darkly on Simon’s apparent indifference by asking, ‘want me to buy you a history book?’ While Casablanca’s release in the midst of world war in 1942 had a propagandist dimension, Welcome contains a less overt but nevertheless strong political message which played a role in subsequent French parliamentary debates.

Yet is the screening of these two films an effective means of achieving the twin aims of celebration and awareness-raising which guide Refugee Week? To begin with Welcome, it might at first be thought that the sheer bleakness of the film is out of kilter with the celebratory intentions of Refugee Week. Indeed, rather than highlighting the contribution of those refugees who reach Europe and the UK, it brings to light the appalling human cost of the measures used to deter them. Viewers are confronted with the harassment of refugees by police, and the criminalisation of those who associate with them in any meaningful way. The audience in Oxford, which began by tittering at any lighter moment in the film, were eventually silenced by the film’s tragic denouement.

However, there are at least two ways in which the film screening was, in its own bleak manner, a celebration. Firstly, Welcome underscores the tenacity, determination and agency of refugees in evading draconian immigration controls in their attempts to reach safety and, in Bilal’s case, to forge a life with his girlfriend. Secondly, Welcome highlights the power of film, in contrast to refugees’ dehumanising treatment at the hands of European bureaucracies, to re-humanise refugees, given that Bilal’s longing for his girlfriend is not so different from Simon’s yearning for his estranged wife. Describing his motivation for making the film, Philippe Lioret simply stated that ‘I just wanted to show that a foreigner is like you or me’.

In contrast to Welcome, the screening of Casablanca at the Victoria and Albert Museum was a more upbeat and overtly celebratory affair. The film is an apt choice for highlighting the contribution of refugees to art which is often understood in mono-cultural terms. Indeed, as journalist Samira Ahmed pointed out in her introduction to the screening, the film’s technicians included refugees, and Casablanca’s classic Hollywood-style music was penned by the exiled composer, Max Steiner. In addition to the screening, the film was cleverly used as a theme for musical events in other parts of the museum, showcasing the talents of artists such as the Latin Jazz pianist, Alex Wilson, and a collaboration of refugee artists Maurice El Medioni and Khyam Allami. One room of the museum was recreated as Rick’s famous Café Américain from Casablanca, where the Reem Kelani Quartet played Palestinian songs.

However, it might be thought that a screening of Casablanca is of limited value in attempts to raise awareness of the predicaments of contemporary refugees for, some might say, there is a world of difference between the somewhat glamourised refugees which populate cinematic Casablanca, and the beleagured refugees of today, such as Welcome’s Bilal. What, it might be asked, do the romantic travails of Rick and Ilsa have to do with the flight and reception of today’s refugees from the developing world? Casablanca’s refugees can be seen as the paradigmatic and unproblematic ‘good’ refugees of the Second World War, in contrast to the so-called ‘bogus’ asylum seekers supposedly overwhelming European societies today. Laszlo, who arrived in Casablanca with his wife after escaping from a concentration camp, might appear as the archetypal refugee and, being a white male persecuted for unambiguously political reasons, as possessing the features which would go on to define the refugee throughout the Cold War in line with the geopolitical priorities of the United States.

However, this contrast between European wartime refugees and the ‘new’ refugees has been subjected to convincing critique, somewhat scathingly dubbed the ‘myth of difference’ by scholar B.S. Chimni. Indeed, beneath the veneer of glamour, Casablanca has, as Samira Ahmed also suggested, a strong strain of desperation and, on closer inspection, it reveals important commonalities between Casablanca’s refugees and those of today. Although refugees’ countries of origin, their forms of transport and the way they are received in developed states have of course all changed since 1942, in some key respects their predicaments are strikingly similar.

Firstly, the film begins by showing a map of Europe depicting refugee movements across the continent, with the narrator describing how a ‘tortuous, roundabout refugee trail sprang up’. As Samira Ahmed also pointed out, many of these routes are similar to those used today, although they now run in the opposite direction, from Africa to Europe.

Secondly, Casablanca underscores the liminality and limbo of being a refugee; a feature of refugeehood which holds equally true for the refugees seeking exit visas (or ‘letters of transit’) in Rick’s café as it does for any present-day refugee awaiting a decision on his or her claim, or for those living in contemporary refugee transit cities such as Cairo where, as Caroline Moorehead and others have documented, many long for resettlement to a safe third country in the developed world. Early on in the film, one refugee in Rick’s café laments, ‘Waiting, waiting, waiting. I’ll never get out of here. I’ll die in Casablanca’. When Ilsa asks Rick if she can finally tell him her story, she highlights the uncertainty of exile by admitting ‘I don’t know the finish yet’.

Thirdly, Casablanca’s refugees are equally at the mercy of official bureaucracy and documentation as today’s refugees. The former crave the letters of transit which would whisk them to Lisbon and then to America, while today’s asylum seekers are often desperate to achieve refugee status or another form of protection. Lastly, Casablanca suggests that the wealthier one is, the greater one’s chances of successfully seeking sanctuary, thereby highlighting the strong class dimension of asylum both then and now. The petty crook in Casablanca who originally obtained the two ‘letters of transit’ planned to sell them off at Rick’s café for the best price, leaving sanctuary open only to the highest bidders. While a wealthy German couple, having successfully obtained exit visas, raise a toast ‘To America’, two poor Bulgarians rely on Rick’s intervention in a game of roulette to secure the funds they need in order to leave. Likewise, asylum today is restricted largely to those who have the wherewithal to make it to the borders of another state and, incidentally, the metaphor of the roulette has been used by both scholars and NGOs to capture the arbitrariness of current asylum decision-making.

In light of this, it would not be stretching matters entirely too far to view Rick’s café as something of a microcosm of asylum today: then, as now, the demand for documentation far outstrips the supply, and those who attain it are not necessarily the most in need. Indeed, part of the drama of Casablanca derives from the uncertainty until the very end of who it is who will be able to use the two scarce exit visas. Today, the political conditions prevailing across Europe make for a similar outstripping of supply by demand, as refugee status becomes, as Roger Zetter has noted, increasingly ‘prized’ as the label of refugee becomes ever more fractioned.

However, the success of using Casablanca as an awareness-raising tool depends on the audience’s response to its glamour. On the one hand, its fame can be used to draw in those who would not choose to watch a film like Welcome or to attend a Refugee Week event, and can lead to a questioning of the ‘myth of difference’ which results in an ultimately deeper engagement with contemporary refugee issues. On the other hand, this glamour could result in a relatively superficial engagement that focuses on the romance and melodrama of Rick and Ilsa’s love affair which at first sight may seem so alien to the predicaments of today’s refugees. In response to this risk, introductory talks – such as that given by Samira Ahmed – can provide necessary context and frame the film in light of the issues facing contemporary refugees, thereby seeking to guide the audience’s responses to a certain extent.

Both Welcome and Casablanca have the potential to help fulfil the aims of Refugee Week, through the power of their respective grit and glamour. In different ways, drawing attention to the Bilals, Ricks and Ilsas of the film world has the capacity to contribute to improved debate over real-world refugees in the here and now.




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