Bruce Goodison’s impressive feature Leave to Remain (2013) confronts the issue of teenage asylum seekers struggling to adapt to life in London and dealing with past trauma as they wait for their permanent leave to remain. In Britain, unaccompanied minors are granted temporary asylum and are placed in foster homes or shelters. But when they reach eighteen, their cases are reassessed and they live in limbo as they await the court’s decision which can take months, or even years.
In the opening scene, a caption informs us that only one in ten are finally granted permanent residency. Leave to Remain is set in a shelter and community centre for asylum seekers and homeless teens run by ‘Uncle Nigel’ (the always excellent Toby Jones) who is teacher, mentor and friend to the youngsters. The film opens with Omar (Noof Ousellam), one of the more confident residents, speaking in public about his experiences. He had arrived in the UK from Afghanistan, aged fourteen, and was granted a safe haven.
Now considered an adult, he is about to hear if he has leave to remain. When fifteen-year-old Abdul (Zarrien Masieh), a Hazara from the same region arrives, Omar is inexplicably angry. Gradually, it is revealed that Abdul knows something about Omar’s past that could affect his appeal. Meanwhile, Abdul has to prove his age, ethnicity and that his own tragic story is true. Guinean Zizidi (Yasmin Mwanza) is equally traumatised. Raped when she was just 12 years of age and forced into marriage, she was beaten and abused by her husband and his friends and fell pregnant three times before she was able to escape. Her case is considered domestic rather than political and she is initially refused asylum. Leave to Remain is the result of a film academy set up by Goodison and his colleagues which provides industry training for teenage asylum seekers. The script, co-written by Goodison and Charlotte Colbert, is based on real life stories and most of the talented young leads and the crew come from refugee backgrounds.
Goodison offers a poignant insight into the lives of young people trying to integrate and understand an alien culture. Wisely, he shows that their cases are not always clear cut; sometimes lies have to be told in order for them to be believed. Inter-cut with the refugee stories are the perspectives of social workers, solicitors, doctors as well as some less than sympathetic staff working for the Home Office. The line between documentary and drama is deliberately blurred allowing for a gritty realism and sense of authenticity. It is not all doom and gloom, however, and Goodison injects humour into various scenes. Particularly memorable are a mountain hike and the group’s attempts to stage a Nativity play – many of them are from Muslim backgrounds. An important and timely addition to the current debate surrounding immigrants and refugees, Leave to Remain educates and entertains on a number of levels.