For decades, most people thought of Calais as images of ferries, a drab grey port and, on a clear day, the White Cliffs of Dover in the distance. For many Brits, the town was a first step onto French soil and the gateway to mainland Europe. Since the turn of this century, Calais has become synonymous with the European migrant crisis. Harrowing footage of refugees from the Horn of Africa, Iraq and elsewhere desperately scrambling over steel fences and hiding in trucks to get to Britain is common. More recently, the Calais Jungle – the enormous refugee camp once home to over 7000 migrants which was torn down in October 2016 – came to symbolise what many have called the "biggest humanitarian crisis of a generation".
Film has been slow to focus on the Jungle and the migrant situation. There have been examinations of the global issue, including the documentary, Fire at Sea, shot in Lampedusa, Sicily, and Welcome to the Hartmanns, a German feel-good comedy about a Nigerian refugee taken in by a wealthy family. However, fictional feature films examining the current European crisis have been few and far between. Welcome charted the fortunes of a teenage Kurdish refugee attempting to reach the UK from Calais. Now Happy End, the latest from Austrian auteur Michael Haneke, attempts to draw attention to the crisis in Calais, albeit from the director's typically allegorical viewpoint.
Happy End presents the Laurents, a self-obsessed, bourgeois and dysfunctional Calais family, whose once lucrative construction empire is, like the family itself, beginning to crumble. Each unlikeable family member is crippled with anxiety, preoccupied with their own problems and uninterested in the unfolding human tragedy on their doorstep. Family patriarch Georges is descending into dementia, eager to die and asking anyone he sees to assist his self-euthanasia. His daughter Anne, played by Isabel Huppert, is selfish, arrogant and unable to manage the family company. Isabel's son Pierre struggles with depression and alcoholism, flitting between drunken karaoke renditions and street brawls. Anne's brother Thomas is having an affair with a violinist, revealed in a series of sexually graphic Facebook messages. His daughter Eve is a seemingly sociopathic 12-year-old. Her cold eyes and attachment to social media displaying her unresponsive view towards pain and suffering.
"It's hard to talk about contemporary society without referring to how blind some people are to real life."
When asked at the film's press conference what Happy End's message was in relation to Calais, Haneke was cagey but did acknowledge the Laurent family indicate society's selfishness and indifference to the unfolding tragedy. "What I say in Happy End is indifference to the other, to the family, to society and to foreigners. Migrants is a point in the film but it is not the theme. Choosing Calais, the name in France for immigration, allowed me to integrate migrants without having to show it in the staging."
While not the central focus of the film, the Jungle will never be far from the thoughts of anyone aware of the migrant crisis. Like the inconsequential extras in the drama of the Laurent family. Refugees are seen milling around silently in the background. Indeed, in one scene containing inaudible dialogue, Georges approaches a group of bemused African refugees in town and asks them to help him die. The final, excruciating scene of the film shows drunk son Pierre unexpectedly bring a group of migrants to George's large, aristocratic and very white birthday lunch. The guests look on uncomfortably while the confused migrants tell their distressing stories on the microphone and are eventually offered food and seats in a "keep calm and carry on" manner.
In Happy End, Haneke is in part angry at the European, middle-class response to Calais but also the media's handling of the crisis and its attempts to shape public opinion through negative and xenophobic reporting. Though often regarded as a director with a bleak view of human nature, the reaction of the guests at George's birthday to the migrants shows people are compassionate but are easily distracted by such a divisive news agenda: "The media are responsible. They have helped convey the image of terror that is very different from reality. Thanks to the media, populism works in Austria and right-wing extremists are elected. I am ashamed as an Austrian. In my films, I can fight a bit against this false image but hey, it will not change much."
Early in the feature, a typically "Hanekian" super-long, static-shot sees a building site belonging to the Laurent's construction company descend into chaos, as a section of land collapses, sucking some portaloos into the ground and killing the workers inside. As is often the case with Haneke's more harrowing and violent scenes, tragedy is shown quietly and matter of factly. The audience is invited to experience this disaster with the same detached attitude as we view troubling world events. Awful, but miles away and nothing to do with us.
I asked Clare Mosely, head of charity Care4Calais if she felt people were taking this same distant view towards the jungle and migrant crisis, saying, "It's what the UK is doing right now. Just because we're not three feet away from it, we do nothing. We have the ability to do something and we are choosing not to. This isn't a tsunami. We can affect this and we're not doing it."
Haneke points the burden of culpability at the audience, for being as complicit as the white bourgeois characters he creates – arguably, mirror images of his target audiences. We might feel disdain at the selfish Laurent family, but are as guilty as them, exonerating ourselves because Calais is not on our doorstep.
With its focus on the negative aspects of technology and the media, Happy End acts as a metaphor for modern society's collective reaction to human tragedy. As 24-hour rolling news, shows the world lurching from one calamity to the next, whether natural or man-made, we are becoming desensitised to human suffering. Michael Haneke believes this obsession with technology and our increasing self-involvement means modern society turns a blind eye. "It's hard to talk about contemporary society without referring to how blind some people are to real life", says the filmmaker, "there's a certain bitterness in the film, about the way we live, how we are so involved in ourselves".
Eve, the youngest protagonist, though only 12-years-old, symbolises the desensitising and pacifying effects of technology on the modern world. She stares blankly at her iPhone screen, consuming endless videos of violence, kids bullying kids and shallow Snapchats. She films her mother on Facebook Live, using the bathroom and getting ready for bed – an intimate and private ritual. Here Haneke scolds both Eve, the audience and even himself for our voyeurism. Why have we become so fascinated by watching people and why are we not more affected at the sight of people in trouble?
1 in 5 people in the UK did something (in Calais) linked to the UK grassroots social activist movement - whether it was donating money, clothes or taking part in a raffle.
Mosely of Care4Calais believes there are grounds for positivity. Our response to the migrant crisis has been encouraging, she says, but help from the media is required: "One in five people in the UK did something (in Calais) linked to the UK grassroots social activist movement – whether it was donating money, clothes or taking part in a raffle. Twenty percent of people actually did something and that was without TV coverage, government support or the disasters emergency committee. People do want to know, there's just not enough out there."
Even if mainstream news media often ignores it, the medium of film is in a position to look at the migrant crisis and the situation in Calais, so it can inform the public about this ongoing tragedy. Clare Mosely said her and other campaign groups, would welcome a greater focus on the crisis from the entertainment world. "I absolutely would welcome more films that look at the crisis as I think films bring issues into people's lives. It's possible to find out about history through fiction. I want people to tackle this issue, as it's the biggest humanitarian crisis of our generation and it's so important that people think about it. We can't ignore it."
With more curious and probing directors such as Michael Haneke, whose interest lies in informing and provoking debate outside of the constraints of commercialism, the hope is that the next few years will see an influx of cinema that shines a light on this ongoing catastrophe.