Global Inequity and Intimacy in Urban Spaces

Stephen Frears’ Dirty Pretty Things features multiple urban spaces that have been altered by globalizing forces to engender a more invasive/invaded form of intimacy in the immigrant communities of London. This is best exemplified in the film when two immediately recognizable urban structures – a taxi depot and an apartment, linked visually by a focus on their verticality – are transformed by surreal acts of privacy invasion, revealing in the process the non-normative uses that immigrants have for these spaces. Michel Foucault’s “Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias” gives us the vocabulary to describe these transformed and imagined spaces. He defines “heterotopias” as “places [that] are absolutely different from all the sites that they reflect and speak about” (4). They are physically and culturally defined environments that reflect and influence the uses different groups of people have for them. In the environments of Dirty Pretty Things’ London, heterotopias appear wherever marginalized people repurpose urban spaces away from the functions of normative society that such sites metonymize, and into the sort of habitat necessary for their survival.

Like most films in the crime/thriller genre, Dirty Pretty Things takes place in a series of urban locations that have recognizable uses for law-abiding citizens, but are recast as heterotopias by their employment in illicit transactions. One prominent genre marker that appears in Frears’ film is the use of an underground parking garage as a site for black market trade. In the history of crime fiction and film noir, the carpark appears often as a locale for criminal rendezvous, presumably because it presents a vision of anonymity, obscurity, and ‘in-betweenness’ (no incriminating evidence gets left in a place reserved for people and vehicles to move through without stopping) necessary for illegal action. In other words, the crime film’s imaginary vision of a carpark has the hallmarks of a heterotopia of deviation. The black marketeers use the hidden, impermanent space of a carpark as a place that allows in “individuals whose behavior is deviant in relation to the required mean or norm” to execute their criminal action (Foucault 5). Similarly, the privacy and liminality of a hotel room makes it the perfect site for an extra-legal sexual transaction, so brothel-hotels in Dirty Pretty Things and other crime films constitute another section of ‘profane space’ in the landscape of the urban criminal element. This filmic construction of a heterotopic ‘underworld’ in physical proximity to, but socially inaccessible by law-abiding citizens sets the tone for Dirty Pretty Things as a film that focuses on non-citizens moving through heterotopias created by their non- or quasi-legal status. Furthermore, since the generic elements of the film explicitly feature the abnormal movement and possession of human bodies (kidneys for transplant in the carpark and women’s bodies for sex in the hotel), the atmosphere of the film supports readings of altered intimacy in other heterotopic movements.

Even in the least original heterotopic environments of Dirty Pretty Things, the audience is shown invasive redefinitions of bodily integrity forced by the circumstances of poverty and illegality. So, the audience is primed to notice how other forces of global inequity could change the ways an immigrant body is allowed to exist in urban space, and what heterotopias might exist to allow or enforce those changes. The opening scene of the film features the first of these novel heterotopias in the form of the taxi depot’s back room. After a day of driving, Okwe arrives to exchange his cab with the next scheduled driver. The camera pans down to the depot from the overpass, highlighting the seedy, ‘underworld’-like nature of the dark, ensconced architecture. His boss beckons him to a back room and, without asking for his consent, drops his trousers to have Okwe inspect his gonnorrheic penis. Okwe appears visibly confused and uncomfortable at this sudden reveal. It is only in this moment of invaded personal space and forced intimacy that the audience learns that Okwe is a doctor and that Okwe learns he is expected to use this back room as his practice. The use of this space as such is confirmed two more times in the course of the film, when more drivers come in for treatment of the same infection, and when Okwe treats a kidney harvesting victim in a similarly-lit apartment back room. The second of these heterotopias is Senay’s apartment. It is a naturally-lit, elevated structure which Senay and Okwe alternately use as a refuge from their days and nights spent drudging in the underworld of their illegal employment. Their meals and conversations there establish their respective backstories and mutual friendship.

Much is made of how Okwe’s residency there must be kept secret, because Senay doesn’t want to be seen as living with a man and because her refugee status doesn’t allow her to rent out the place. It is thus defined as an intimate space for a single immigrant body. This intimacy is violated when, in one scene near the beginning of the film, Immigration Enforcement officials raid the apartment while both Okwe and Senay are there, and the domestic elements of the space are rapidly converted into camouflage for Okwe’s illegal person. His clothes are quickly hidden in the oven, his belongings above the doorway, and his body in the bathroom. The sudden shift from naturalistic dialogue to melodramatic action is as incongruous as Okwe’s bizarre conscription into medical service. The appearance of and harassment by pushy, sarcastic agents, men who fit a ‘henchman’ archetype, resembles an invasion of the immigrants’ personal lives by the generic elements of their criminal station. These spaces can be said to each gain a second urban function in the context of a community of people not recognized as proper citizens of London. The taxi depot becomes a back-alley clinic, and the apartment doubles as a safehouse. Both of these heterotopic functions of urban space are made necessary by the economic constraints of living illegally or quasi-legally in the UK.

Without access to state healthcare, the other immigrant drivers invade Okwe’s place of business with their troubles. Their willingness to disrobe in front of him disrupts the normative definition of a non-medical workplace, replacing the usual space of a taxi depot with the heterotopic model of one where bodies rejected by the medical establishment can be observed and healed. But this is done at the expense of Okwe’s own desire to not be confronted with these bodies, and his reluctance to illegally obtain medicine, given his own legal troubles. The underworld’s medical heterotopia is one in which global inequity forces a community to survive at the expense of the usual intimate boundaries of doctor and patient, medicine and business. Senay’s home invasion occurs in response to her need to work and Okwe’s need to live someplace for free, because as a person “without any kind of papers at all,” according to one of the Immigration Enforcers, he’s driven to “prey” on someone who can host him.

The legal imperative to hide evidence of living and working changes the apartment into another heterotopia of deviance, less shady than the back room clinic, but no less necessary for these people whose affliction of global inequity keep them from maintaining a ‘normal’ living arrangement. It is interesting to note that there exists a gendered difference in the way these characters experience the heterotopias of illegal immigration. Okwe’s workplace is invaded by the intimate needs of his community, whereas Senay’s intimate living space is invaded by the ramifications of her work and by her helping a member of her community.