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Posted Friday, August 22, 2003

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A pretty film for a dirty world...New movie focuses on immigrants


Chiwetel Ejiofor
t last there's a major movie that highlights the immigrant experience in a positive light. Stephen Frears' movie, Dirty Pretty Things, is a gripping thriller that tells the story of an illegal Nigerian immigrant, Okwe, (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who stumbles unto a detached human heart in the toilet of the hotel room where he works. His investigation would lead him to the shocking discovery of the booming trade in human organs and the desperate illegal immigrants exploited by a system - and a cabal - that offers them a choice between being a living dead and a cadaver.

It's a fine story about a dirty world. There is the prostitute with a conscience; the exploited Turkish chambermaid with dreams of a better life - preferably in New York; the immigrant Chinese mortician with good wishes for the corpses he sews up; the exploitative immigrant employers who abuse their employees mentally and sexually; and, of course, the honest, educated, underemployed, visionary Okwe who turns out to be a doctor on the run from his native Nigeria where he's wrongly wanted for murder.

Dirty Pretty Things is also a love story, one common among immigrant lovebirds who're often tormented, and separated, by the vicissitudes of normalizing their documents and their stay in a foreign land. As played by Chiwetel Ejiofor and Audrey Tatou, as Okwe and Senay respectively, it's an eerily familiar story for many immigrants both in Britain where the movie is based and in the US.

Chiwetel Ejiofor the rising star of the movie is a well-praised professional Nigerian actor who's lived in London and the US. Cast beside the affectionate and talented star, Audrey Tatou, of Amelie fame, theirs is an enduring performance; at once intense and subdued, seemingly effortless but at the same time engaging. Interviewed on CNN, Ejiofor admits that growing up with immigrant parents helped him in the role of Okwe. His whole immigrant experience and the role he plays in Dirty Pretty Things is one shared by millions of African, particularly Nigerian, immigrants.

The average Nigerian immigrant arrives abroad with at least a bachelor's degree. According to several studies, Nigerian immigrants are among the most highly educated people in the US surpassing the Japanese and equal to whites in education and training. The same studies point out, however, that Nigerian immigrants are less paid than these other groups.

Thus, which Nigerian immigrant will not recognize the character, Okwe, who, despite being a medical doctor, drives cabs and works in a hotel in London? Who among the millions of economic, religious, political and war refugees that throng the gates of the western world each year will not recognize Senay, the Turkish immigrant in the movie who's given shelter by the British government but forbidden to work? Who wouldn't recognize the black British prostitute whose race is yet to attain the civil and economic rights that blacks have achieved in the US? And which immigrant does not know at least one exploitative immigrant employer whose business is largely based on paying below minimum wages to fellow immigrants?

Though some critics' claim that the character Okwe is too much of a superhero to be true many immigrants know better. Okwe represents the millions of studious, honest immigrants who're often faced with impossible options none of which is easy or good. Yet, like Okwe, they retain their integrity, their conscience, and their basic humanity even as their host nations fall into the deep mire of racial insensitivity and bigotry. These are the downtrodden mass of immigrants, who, as Okwe poignantly notes, clean the toilets, drive the cabs and staff the basements of western civilization.

Their story is the immigrant story; one in which the past is bittersweet and the future is but a promise.

Dirty Pretty Things is currently showing at a theatre near you.

2003 nigeriaworld.com

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