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Waking up from the European Dream

Shruti Sonal ( is a freelance journalist and poet based in Bengaluru, with a keen interest in the intersection of politics and arts.

Dirty Pretty Things chronicles the lives and fears of immigrants, and presents a scathing dose of reality to counter the narrative of the “European Dream.”

The ex-President of France, Jacques Chirac, famously said that “the construction of Europe is an art. The art of the possible.” Indeed, for a long time, the idea and images of Europe, which have been constructed through stories, tradition, propaganda, art, and cinema, have depicted it as a world of possibilities. Post World War II, the economic reconstruction of Europe went hand-in-hand with its projection as a “haven of human rights; a realm of freedom such as history has never seen before.” From the ravages of the two world wars was born a community that focused on union, cooperation, prosperity, democracy, and social justice. Images were carefully constructed to support this. Paris was always represented as the “city of love”, London, with its palaces and bridges, as a melting pot of various cultures, and Switzerland was the dream destination for every couple on their honeymoon. History peeped from every corner in Europe, yet modernity remained its charm.

This led scholars like Jeremy Rifkin to argue that, like the “American Dream,” there also existed a “European Dream.” The dream, he argued, was one in which “individuals find security not through individual accumulation of wealth, but through connectivity and respect for human rights.” Rifkin also argued that a key component in fuelling this dream was the “soft power” of the European Union in the sphere of international relations, unlike the “hard power” of the United States. This European dream appealed to the generations of migrants who poured into Europe, both via legal and illegal means, looking to earn not only a living, but also experience the freedom and community living that Europe promised.

The film Dirty Pretty Things (2002), nominated for Best Original Screenplay at the Oscars, reflects upon this European dream by focusing on its bleak realities. Directed by Stephen Frears, the movie follows the lives of two immigrants in London, whose lives are intertwined. Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a doctor in Nigeria, is in London as a political exile, running from a past that continues to haunt him. In the city, he works as a cab driver during the day, and a hotel receptionist by night. He merely defines his misfortune as a being an African story. He shares a tiny flat with a maid working in the hotel named Senay (Audrey Tautou), a Muslim woman from Turkey, who has fled an arranged marriage. Both see Europe as a refuge: while Okwe is fleeing a corrupt Nigerian government, Senay is escaping her country as she does not wish to live a constrained life the way her mother was forced to. These characters, along with the hotel manager Senõr Juan are the major protagonists, while white Londoners exist only as customers or immigration officials.

The decision to make all the protagonists non-European is as carefully thought-out as the one to not include a single shot of the famous tourist destinations of London in the film. The movie does not open with an aerial view of the London Bridge or the London Eye, but a shot of a human heart found by Okwe in the toilet of the hotel. A righteous Okwe sets out to find the truth about the heart, a journey that puts his righteousness, love, and much more to test.

The movie throws light on the fragmentation in European society. It talks about a significant population of immigrants in the continent who are at the margins in the society. In telling their story, the film paints a picture of the European society that is starkly different from the one presented by the European dream. The social inclusivity and fraternity of the society are questioned. Immigrants and poor Europeans are shown in the margins, living in separate colonies like Chinatown, in conditions that are dismal. Their interaction with the affluent classes is limited to economic exchanges or provision of services. When a white European asks Okwe, “How come I have never seen you?” Okwe replies bitterly: “Because we are the people you do not see. We drive your cabs and clean your rooms.”

The movie also talks about how intersectionality defines an individual’s experience in Europe, emphasising Europeans’ superiority complex. A British gatekeeper at a hotel, for example, reprimands Okwe for “trying to dress like an Englishman.” Even though he is at a lower position economically, he maintains a condescending tone while talking to Okwe by virtue of being a European. He is also surprised when he gets to know that Okwe is a very educated man and has been to New York. Assumptions of moral superiority of the Europeans are questioned as well. An organ-selling racket comes to light, which feeds on the insecurity of immigrants and promises them passports in return for organs. At one point, one of the characters says, “You think kidneys don’t get sold in London because the Queen wouldn’t approve?” The continuing use of sexual violence against Senay at various junctures in the movie also depicts how women’s bodies continue to be objectified and are a site of struggle for power in European societies as well. At one point, the manager of the hotel tells Senay: “You wanted to be like Western girls? This is what happens to Western girls.” The movie touches upon issues of class, racism, gender relations, and immigrant stereotypes in the European society.

At the heart of the movie is the lives of these people: their fears, their perceptions and how the state perceives them. European politics, especially after the creation of the European Union, has focused on the benevolence of the state, multiculturalism, and freedom of thought and expression. Frears presents the other side of this narrative and uses representations of race and class to reflect the fundamental fears and struggles of illegal immigrants in 21st-century Britain. Immigrants are shown to be in constant fear of immigration officials who want to deport them. It also showcases how they’re pushed into organised crime and illicit activities by those with more agency.

This film also points out how the neo-liberal model of economy practised in Europe has led to extreme exploitation of informal workers in workplaces like hotels, hospitals, sweatshops, and minicab firms. Senay, for example, is repeatedly asked to engage in sexual activities with the owner of a sweatshop in order to continue working there. The film questions the practice of multiculturalism and also critiques the political systems in Europe that have failed immigrants. Their much-celebrated aspects of freedom of thought and expression are also shown to be privileges available to very few. A Chinese certified refugee remarks in the movie that he stopped asking questions 11 years ago (ever since he arrived in London). Senay, on the other hand, remarks in a scene that her god did not speak to her anymore, highlighting the alienation she feels.

The movie deals with contemporary issues that dominate European politics even today, and presents the grim realities of life in the continent as an outsider. Even the righteous Okwe, at one point, asks Senay to come out of the European dream, and face the truth. The movie does justice to its title “Dirty Pretty Things.” It highlights the dark and hidden aspects of life in Europe, and underlines the political, cultural, and economic cleavages in the region. Frears presents debates and discourses without ever falling into the abyss of preaching to the audience. It is a look at Europe—its promises and realities—from the voices at the margins.



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