Not since World War II has history given Europe the old one-two. First the Fall of the Wall and then the EEC. And when things go weird on the Continent, inevitably, a lot of people hit the road because they know what happens to scapegoats.

Stowaways (Clandestins), the first feature from two young Canadian directors, Nicolas Wadimoff and Denis Chouinard, tells the story of six such people who pay a tout to steal them away in a container on a cargo ship headed for Montreal. They have all arrived at a seedy port in France from disparate points of despair, each one willing to risk their lives for the hope of a new future, a new identity. This is their last roll of the dice and they know it.

The voyage should take a week, but various contingencies pop up. First the ship docks in Liverpool. Then it has engine trouble in open sea. Meanwhile, inside the clandestine container, the food supply dwindles and tempers flare.

Wadimoff and Chouinard, perhaps because they are so interested in the issue of identity, have written characters that are purposefully archetypal. And the cast of unknowns works that line between character and caricature marvelously. There's the hotheaded Russian, who hordes food because he's tired from a lifetime of sharing; the Arab dreamer; the dodgy Gypsy teenager; the long-suffering Polish mother and child. Here are the Europeans Europe has never wanted. And yet, here are the future Canadians that Canada has always needed.

Our neophyte directors are neither romantics nor show-offs. The keynote of the production is its understated technical savvy that refuses to impose itself upon the drama. We are there in the container, but are never really conscious that they are also there with us. Indeed, both men have backgrounds in documentary film, that quintessential Canadian genre.

If the film drags in spots, it goes with the territory. Up close and personal, these passengers are desperate people, not particularly interesting or sympathetic, and it doesn't take much for them to descend a rung or two on the ladder of humanity, despite the nobility of their mission. Viewers accustomed to the heartwarming stories of Ellis Island will find themselves in deep trouble. This is immigration in the raw.

Eventually the stowaways are discovered, and they are unceremoniously set adrift in a dinghy by the captain who would face a $5,000 fine for each one if he carried them into dock.

Every day, ships arrive in Canadian ports carrying dreamers from around the world. Some are given refugee status; some are deported and some have already walked the plank. Do they die for a dream or for a truth?

Because sometimes the grass really is greener on the other side. All you have to do is get there.

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