The grinding down of individuals by impersonal, bureaucratic systems makes for powerful storytelling. Few scenarios can get steam shooting out of my ears like witnessing a decent person struggling in vain against Kafkaesque authority. Serena Dykman applies this setup to the often nightmarish US Immigration system in a portrait of a woman with a perfect life awaiting her—if only she can get out of the airport.
After a stint in Uganda providing medical aide, attractive Czech doctor Anna (Jandra Dee) is detained after her flight back to the US. What she imagines to be a routine stop however morphs into an hours-long ordeal, as officers shuffle in and out, and her interrogators vacillate between disinterest and aggressive accusations. Tiny discrepancies regarding violations of the terms of her h-1b visa, and the length of her stay in the US between school semesters, are presented as glaring proof of her malign intent.
While there is an interesting contrast between Anna and the dehumanizing posture of the immigration officers who amiably discuss their after-work plans while Anna is kept from one of the most consequential moments of her own life, Dykman’s depiction of the enforcement officials is more an indictment of the unyielding nature of a system that ignores empathy or nuance. Anna is a model immigrant: highly skilled, completely assimilated, with a secure job, and a longterm boyfriend. After 6 years in the country building a life, Anna finds the idea that she doesn’t belong to be absurd. But, as the film progresses and the precariousness of her position becomes more apparent, she must reckon with questions that she had not needed to confront for a long time—where is Home?
The film is crosscut between Anna’s interrogations and her boyfriend as he waits outside the airport. Meaning to propose, he has rented out a limo and a string quartet for the occasion. While vital to the film’s plot, and effective at providing an extra dimension to the tragedy, because these scenes cannot have independent development outside of the core plot, they do feel a bit superfluous, and could have been trimmed to tighten the films runtime. But, for a closed off film such as this, largely taking place in a single location, its fortunes rise or fall with its writing and performances, and fortunately in Welcome both of these elements are strong. Dee, despite a short filmography to her name, is quite good in the role of Anna, maintaining a basic stoicism, but exhibiting gradations within it of vulnerability and strength, indignation alongside fear, and Dykman’s script builds dread effectively through an all-to-believable escalation.
Immigration is in the news in the USA right now, but while certainly relevant, Welcome isn’t meant to be a statement against incipient Nationalism. The film dates from 2015, and is in fact largely drawn from Dykman’s own real experiences with the US immigration system, as the filmmaker was born in Paris, and raised between London, Brussels, and New York, before attending NYU Tisch for film school. Despite the parallels between Dykman’s and Anna’s stories, it feels too cherry-picked to serve as an effective illustration of current events. Anna is only in trouble because she left the country to literally save children’s lives! That’s not to say that it does not have a contribution to the moment however. Welcome is hopefully effective in spurring reflection regarding the concept of home, and of belonging. The law has final stay on status, but status has nothing in common with the web of relationships that make a person of a place: one’s work, one’s friends, one’s lovers.
Anna’s exceptional nature feels like stacking the deck to prove a point, but in doing so puts lie to the notion that anything about immigration in America is haphazard. Many apologists for recent refugee ban note that it is temporary, a chance to review “vetting”. Yet in making this case they fail to note a single critique of the extant system, one in which refugees go through a multi-year interview process overseen in collaboration with over a dozen agencies, and, are handpicked from the start by government officials from millions of applicants registered with the U.N. If Anna, a young, educated white woman from Europe, can be subject to such nitpicking, what hope is there for anyone?
Dykman had a good deal of success with Welcome at festivals, even winning a student film prize at Cannes. Currently the head of her own production company, Dyamant Pictures, she is currently finishing her first feature film, NANA, a transgenerational documentary about her grandmother who was an Auschwitz survivor, and advocate for tolerance.