Two-time Cannes winners Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne's new film "Tori and Lokita" is a call for the EU to do a better job in protecting the most vulnerable: child migrants.
"Tori and Lokita," one of 21 films competing for the festival's Palme d'Or top prize, tells the story of two children from West Africa who pretend to be siblings to help win their asylum case in Belgium.
It trains a harsh spotlight on the European asylum system for minors, which sometimes leaves them particularly vulnerable to exploitation, violence and at risk of being separated from those they trust. Activists lament that they often lack adequate care and protection, as well as access to healthcare and education.
"These young exiles must be given the chance to study or pursue an apprenticeship at the same time, and also learn the languages of the countries which have taken them in," filmmaker Luc Dardenne, 68, told AFP.
"They must be able to do this without having the sword of Damocles hanging over them -- meaning at 18 years old, you can be sent back to your country of origin."
Depicting challenges faced by unaccompanied minors
In the movie, Lokita is a teenager who on the road to Europe meets Tori, a young boy who has been granted asylum in Belgium because he had been accused of "sorcery" at home.
The film shows many challenges faced by young migrants, including extortion by people smugglers and a boss who demands sexual favours. The Dardenne brothers, who wrote the film, are known for examining society through the lens of childhood and adolescence.
Jean-Pierre Dardenne, 71, told AFP that he believed having a cast of non-professional actors would help audiences to see the lives of two young migrants who have little defences against the "cruelty of domination."
"Their response to this cruelty and violence in the film is their friendship -- they invent their own country together." Despite the ordeals they face, "they want to live and have ambitions and hopes and are resourceful and clever".
Rights of child migrants in Europe often overlooked
Children like the protagonists in the film are often overlooked in terms of child protection in Europe, and while child rights and services exist, they are often not adequately enforced, especially in the context of migration.
A 2021 report from the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) suggests steps that the EU and its member states should take to offer better protection to unaccompanied minors in order to ensure their rights are respected.
The report points out that most EU member states only cover the protection of unaccompanied migrant children in their asylum policies rather than in their general child protection systems for children without parental care. This means that children who are not in the asylum system face greater risks, including children who have had difficulties seeking asylum or those who have had their application rejected.
Even within the asylum system in cases where the age of a child has not yet been determined there can be considerable issues in some EU nations: some underage minors risk being treated as an adult until they can prove that they are in fact under the age of 18, e.g. through dental age assessment. Housing child refugees with adults during this process can put them at further risk.
The film depicts many of the dangers faced by unaccompanied minors in Europe, especially those who have to survive and exist outside the national care and asylum systems. Instead, they have to live in a parallel society without the protection and rights that are expected to be afforded to children in Europe under national, international and European law.
Positive reception at the Cannes Film Festival
The Dardennes' hyperrealist, morally focused films have a strong track record at Cannes, scooping top honours in 1999 for "Rosetta" and in 2005 for "The Child." They also took home the runner-up Grand Prix in 2011 for "The Kid with a Bike" and best screenplay for 2008's "Lorna's Silence."
"Tori and Lokita" was warmly reviewed after its red-carpet premiere, with Britain's Screen Daily saying the Dardennes' "empathy is undiminished and their taut, spare suspense sequences remain under-appreciated."
The Hollywood Reporter said it was the Dardennes' "most emotionally engaging film in a while -- a tragedy told with utter clarity, centered on protagonists entirely deserving of our sympathy."
The Cannes awards will be presented on Saturday.