'I've done a lot of cruelty to animals'
Lost in transit
Steven Spielberg's new film, The Terminal, is based on the story of a refugee who has lived in Charles de Gaulle airport for 16 years. Is this the ultimate living hell? Rachel Cooke tried it for herself
Sunday August 1, 2004
The new Steven Spielberg picture, The Terminal, stars Tom Hanks as the saintly Viktor Navorski, a befuddled bear of man who arrives in New York on a plane from a fictitious Eastern bloc place called Krakozhia. Unfortunately, while Viktor was in the sky, eating mini-pretzels and dreaming of yellow taxis, some kind of coup has taken place in Krakozhia and, as a consequence, the country is no longer recognised by the US government. Viktor pitches up at the immigration desk and is told that he cannot enter America - his papers are not valid. But neither, for reasons that are not entirely clear, is he allowed to go home. 'There's only one thing you can do,' says Frank Dixon (Stanley Tucci), who runs immigration. ' Shop .'
Viktor's passport and ticket are confiscated, and Dixon tells him that he must stay in the 'international transit lounge'. Viktor cannot object to any of this: his English is too scanty ('OK,' he says brightly, in his soupy eastern European accent. 'Please. Keep the change. Queensboro'. Brooklyn Bridge.') So off he goes, into the vast marble and glass hall that is to be, it turns out, his home for the next few months. Snared in this consumer paradise (Baskin-Robbins ice cream, Burger King, Starbucks, Krispy Kreme doughnuts, Borders Books, Dean & Deluca, La Perla, Boss, Swatch - Spielberg's set is the American mall in microcosm), Viktor, with his clumsy waddle of a walk, cuts a pathetic figure, the purposeful haste of everyone else in stark contrast to his lonely plod.
Does Viktor survive? Of course he does, although it's tough to begin with. He must sleep on a bench and exist first on a diet of Saltine crackers and ketchup sandwiches and, later, on fast food, which he buys with quarters he gets through returning trolleys to their stand. But then, this being Hollywood, it all starts to go right. He pals up with a guy who works in catering, who feeds him in return for information about a girl he fancies at the immigration desk, and he gets a job, building a new departure gate. He even falls in love - with a flight attendant called Amelia (Catherine Zeta-Jones). The great mystery, though, is why he does not simply make a dash for freedom. 'He's in a crack,' Dixon barks, observing his ward on CCTV. 'Who the hell waits in a crack?'
At a preview screening of The Terminal last week, this line and others like it induced roars of laughter in the audience. Perhaps this was understandable. Under the tutelage of a director who has so cuddly a view of America that he is unable - or unwilling - to depict Viktor's plight as anything other than a bizarre anomaly, the cast, it is true, play the whole thing for laughs. Still, I was mystified. I just couldn't quite find the movie's benign soul. Sure, the little guy wins in the end. But to me, this was the anomaly and, as such, it only served to emphasise the reality - which, if you think about it for more than a minute, is really not very cuddly at all.
But perhaps I was taking the whole thing too personally. Last month, my editor told me all about The Terminal, and that it was based, albeit loosely, on the life of an Iranian refugee, Merhan Karimi Nasseri, who has been living in Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris for the past 16 years. Nasseri, who has declared himself stateless, sleeps on a bench and gets up at 5am every day so he can use the public washrooms before everyone else. We wondered about this - what an unimaginably horrible existence - and then, in that sly way that editors have, she suggested to me that I might like to live at Charles de Gaulle for a while myself, with a view to writing about the experience. Because I'm a fool - sorry, I mean game for anything - I said yes.
Before I flew to Paris, I looked up Nasseri's story on the internet. It is truly heartbreaking - and, needless to say, about a million miles away from that of Viktor Navorski, for all that Steven Spielberg's DreamWorks production company paid him $300,000 for it (the money resides in his account in the airport post office). Nasseri's nightmare began in 1977 when he was expelled from Iran for protesting against the Shah, an expulsion that left him without a passport. Thus, he came to Europe and, for four years, bounced from capital to capital, applying for refugee status. It was not until 1981 that the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in Belgium agreed to his request for political asylum.
Granted refugee status, he was able to seek citizenship in a European country. Nasseri's mother was Scottish so, in 1986, he decided on Britain. He got as far as Paris before disaster struck. At a station, his briefcase was stolen. Inside the briefcase were his refugee documents. He boarded a plane for London, but when officials found he had no passport, they sent him back to Paris, where he was arrested for illegal entry. However, since he had no documents, there was no country of origin to which he could be deported. In 1988, he took up residence in Terminal One and, from its circular confines, his lawyer, Christian Bourguet, fought to define his status and get him to London. In 1992, a French court ruled that he had entered the airport legally, as a refugee, and could not be expelled from it.
Stranded, his grip on reality has grown shaky over the years. In 1999, the French authorities granted him a temporary residency permit and a refugee's passport. But he would not sign the papers, contesting his surname (he now insists on being called Sir Alfred Merhan). 'This was when I realised he had lost his grip on reality,' says Bourguet, the lawyer who has championed his case. 'He can't do anything until he signs the papers, and he won't.' He believes Nasseri may never leave the airport. As Frank Dixon might put it, Nasseri is 'waiting in a crack'.
Since childhood, I've hated airports. After my parents divorced, and my mother went to live abroad, my brother and I used to travel as 'unaccompanied minors'. One Easter, my father unwittingly dispatched us on the wrong plane, with the result that my mother was not there to meet us at the other end. It was hours before the police found her, during which time my brother and I convinced ourselves that she had died in an accident en route to the airport.
Charles de Gaulle is a splashy kind of a place - all that zippy architecture, all those olive-skinned men sucking on their Gauloises - but you would not want to be trapped there for long. Airports are dispiriting at the best of times but, if you don't have a destination, they can crush you like an ant. I'm afraid I lasted only 24 hours. It was the loneliness that did it, even as the crowds thundered by. No one helped me, or spoke to me, or even really looked at me. No wonder cheery Viktor Navorski got my goat.
The details of my stay in Terminal 4 will be familiar to anyone who has ever suffered a long flight delay only - how can I put this? - because I was not really in transit, because I lacked the tingle of the traveller, everything was somehow worse. At one point, cleaning my teeth beneath a strip light so unflattering I looked up and saw Eileen Wuornos, hot tears of self-pity sprang into my eyes. I tried to rest, but the only way I could lie down was by threading myself through the rigid armrests on every metal bench (appropriately enough, the effect was one of straitjacket and patient), and then I had somehow to hold on to my bag. I tried to eat but even French fast food is horrible if you have to eat more than once a day. I tried to wash, but the water was timed to come out in short bursts, and no sooner had I reached for the soap than it would cut out. And then there was the strange feeling of shame when, as it grew late, I realised the building would be locked with me inside it.
After a while, though, I started to notice things. Like one of those 'magic eye' pictures, the story behind the story came slowly into focus. Sitting quietly, it soon became clear that Merhan Nasseri is not the only man who lives in Charles de Gaulle. I saw several people who, like him, appeared to have their worldly possessions stacked neatly on a metal trolley. I followed one of them. He was Asian in appearance, and wearing a suit, frayed at the edges, and leaky-looking brogues. Carefully, he wheeled his trolley, laden with plastic bags, into a lift. The lift took him to a hamburger joint where, quietly, and with some dignity, he gathered up leftovers. The people who had bought this food were already on their way to Barcelona and Barbados, to Mumbai and Mauritius. The silent figure who'd inherited it, however, was grounded.
'The Terminal is really an immigrant's tale,' Steven Spielberg has said. 'It goes back to what makes this country so great and so strong... this story celebrates the great American melting pot.'
But while his film is full of good intentions - it has a genuinely international cast and finally allows Viktor some kind of idealised hopefulness - it stubbornly ignores the realities of the immigration hall, especially in this, the post-9/11 era. What is it like to be told you are 'unacceptable'? How must it feel to arrive at the door of a country only to find it slammed in your face? And how can a man, or woman, survive if they have neither passport nor social security number? Such things cannot be rendered palatable simply because the guy who works in The Discovery Store happens to be nice to you. 'All frequent fliers feel the way you do,' Amelia says consolingly to the worn-out Viktor, under the misapprehension that he is only passing through. At the screening I attended, this line got a big laugh. But, if this doesn't sound too pious, it sounded awfully hollow to my ears.
· The Terminal is released 4 September
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