Posted: 03/24/2011



by Elaine Hegwood Bowen

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Film Movement has presented a beautiful story of resilience and determination in ILLEGAL.
Tania is a former teacher from Russia, living illegally in Belgium with her 14-year-old son, Ivan. One day, they are stopped on the street for a routine check by the police; Tania is arrested and placed in an immigration detention center for women, while Ivan manages to escape. Threatened with imminent deportation and fearful for Ivan’s fate, Tania embarks on a harrowing journey, determined to preserve her dignity and find her son.

It’s riveting to see the authorities tackle Tania to the ground, while she pleads with her son to keep running. She has shown a fake ID, but her son is fortunate enough to grab her purse when he runs away. So when she’s arrested, she carries no ID, and she insists on being referred to as a number, because she won’t give up her name or any family affiliation. She is protecting her son and herself at any cost. She can’t be identified, because she has burned her fingers, so there are no fingerprints to be copied. She can’t bear to go back to Russia.

Tania is so sure she wouldn’t be locked up long. But this isn’t the case, and she ends up in detention for nearly 50 days. She tries not to get close to anyone while in detention. She doesn’t trust anyone and she surely can’t afford for anyone to find out that she has a son. She watches as a detainee from Mali is beaten repeatedly when the authorities come and try to force her on a plane back to Africa.

Tania desperately fights in trying to safeguard her identity and preserve her humanity. The first attempt to take her on the plane and deport her back to Russia is unsuccessful, as she cries and pleads not to be put on the plane. The guards then take her back to detention. But the second time, they are successful in placing her on the plane. However, she screams to the other passengers that she’s being taken against her will; the guards let her go, but they beat up terribly. The public is in an uproar because the detainee from Mali committed suicide after the last time that she was beaten by guards.

Finally, while in the hospital, Tania has the strength to walk out of the doors and meets up with her son in a heartbreaking reunion.

ILLEGAL was an Official Selection at the Cannes Film Festival, Director’s Fortnight, as well as playing at the Venice, London and Pusan Film Festivals, among others. The film was also nominated for the LUX Prize of the European Parliament. Writer/Director Olivier Masset-Depasse chose to make Illegal in order to call attention to human rights violations that have been documented in Belgium, prompting the European Court of Human Rights to convict the country’s government of inhuman or degrading treatment on four occasions. While the film is an indictment of the system, Masset-Depasse’s story is a sympathetic and nuanced portrait of a range of victimized parties, including not just the detainees, but many guards and police who are trapped by failed policies that dictate that immigrants ‘should be made to never want to return to Belgium.’

Tania is played by Anne Coesens, who has starred in all of the director’s films. She won the Best Actress Award at the most recent Palm Springs International Film Festival for her harrowing performance in this film. ILLEGAL is yet another great film offering by Film Movement. It is in limited release and will be available for purchase; for more information visit

Elaine Hegwood Bowen is an editor, writer and film critic in Chicago.

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