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Dirty Pretty Things

Is it dirty being illegal? As the EU referendum approaches, DMovies remembers Stephen Frears' dirty classic and reflects upon immigration, illegal beings and stigmatisation

“We are the people that you do not see. We drive your cars, clean your rooms and suck your cocks” – this is how illegal immigrant Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor) describes his presence in the UK. Stephen Frears’ classic Dirty Pretty Things is a tale of disdain for asylum-seekers and illegal immigrants, and how their lives are destroyed by the mistaken belief that they are bloody parasites.

Okwe is often questioned about the reason why he came to the UK: “You never told me why you are here in this beautiful country, where u come from”. In the film, as in real life, many people believe that the UK, particularly its capital is the most coveted place in the world and the ultimate goal for these illegal being. In reality, Okwe escaped prosecution in his country, where his wife was murdered. The film suggests that such immigrants come to the UK because they have no other choice, and not because they want to experience the high life.

The UK painted in the film is not a rosy one. It’s a ugly and oppressive country where immigrants keep hiding from the police and submit to the most repulsive jobs without complaining. London is far from ydillic; it’s more like hell or purgatory for those already fleeing a horrific predicament in their homeland. This is not place for redemption and conciliation; it’s purely for working and surviving.

Frears’ Dirty Pretty Things is very mainstream thriller in its format and content – complete with hectic police chasing, constants twists and romance with a charming female. It is also a tearjerker. On the other hand, the film a colourful and shocking allegory of the plight of illegal immigrants – this is a very powerful social statement, and not very common for commercially successful directors.

Okwe is an undocumented alien from Nigeria who works as a cab driver also as a hotel attendant. He shares living quarters with Turkish émigré Senay (Audrey Tautou). Working late one evening, he finds a prostitute standing by a toilet that’s clogged with a human heart. This leads him to the hotel manager Juan (Sergi López), and he soon uncovers an organ trafficking scheme. Because of his illegal status, he is then forced to become part of the dirty system.

Dirty Pretty Things superlatively exposes the vulnerability of illegal beings, who have no rights. The concept of an “illegal person” is very troublesome per se. Objects and actions can be illegal, but how can a person in their mere existence be so? Xenophobes conveniently vilify human beings regardless of their background and their situation, stripping them of their humanity. This toxic thinking stigmatises and endangers the lives of those purely seeking to survive.

Part of OUT campaign for the EU referendum has now escalated their xenophobic vitriol, sometimes disguised as a purely economic argument. Brexit would inevitably stigmatise EU citizens living in the UK, supported by the flawed view that immigrants – legal or illegal – are the root of all of our problems. The banalisation of the alien is a very facile and dangerous argument in favour of very devious and morally repugnant actions, the history of Europe has shown.

Frears’ movie is very remarkable because it allows audience to identify with the illegal immigrant, to see the world from the point-of-view of the most vulnerable and marginalised people. Viewers want Okwe and Senay to succeed. Okwe is a very noble human fighting against a very corrupted system. Even the most ardent xenophobe and rightwing militant would have – many for the first time – humanise these dirty illegal beings.

Of course this is not say that all Brexiters are racists, and that EU citizens will end up like Okwe if the UK leaves the EU. Spaniards tomorrow will not have to demonstrate their oral sex skills in order to stay in the country; the French will not have to sell a kidney for a job; Germans will not have to climb to the rooftop when the home office knocks at their door; and Poles will not be forced to chew on illegal herbs in order to stay awake and work all night. Fortunately, the UK still has some respect for some EU countries – if still selective and discriminatory.

What will happen if the UK leaves the EU is that people from EU countries will eventually climb down a work and moral ladder, and they will be placed in a different category from British citizens. Stigma will inevitably follow, as much as OUT campaigners refuse to recognise.

British people are not morally flawed people, many people instead and naive and blissfully ignorant and what it is like to be an immigrant. In Dirty Pretty Things, the British are not unscrupulous. In fact, they hardly appear in the movie. Brits don’t even witness and get their hands dirty with illegal immigrants. It is no wonder the bad boss Juan is a foreigner himself.

Yet, just like the Brits who do not appear in the film, the OUT voters tacitly legitimise the exploitation of immigrants. Their silence is essential to the functioning of the corrupt system.

You can watch Dirty Pretty Things on demand by clicking here, and you can also watch the film trailer below:


By Victor Fraga - 13-06-2016

Victor Fraga is a Brazilian born and London-based journalist and filmmaker with more than 20 years of involvement in the cinema industry and beyond. He is an LGBT writer, and describes himself as a di...

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