FILM REVIEW: DHEEPAN (2015) DIR. JACQUES AUDIARD
There has arguably not been a time when the issue of refugees and immigration has been more prominent in the cultural consciousness. And yet the vastness of the issue, the divergent responses and acrimonious debates surrounding it has produced a sort
of numbness to the fact that it is about individual human beings and not just a hot button topic. The fact that there are so many different causes in so many places, makes it practically impossible for politicians, policy makers and pundits to fit it into a sound bite for a public that has the attention span of a plant. Therefore, it often gets distilled into
an “issue” and lacks the human component.
However, for a filmmaker this is catnip. There is undeniable drama in any story which involves such dire personal consequences. This is why it is such fertile ground and so imperative for the rest of us. There are millions of stories out there and voices which need to be heard. The collateral benefit of putting a specific face on it and telling that story is that we, the audience, can be engaged as individuals and be reminded that there is a human side which deserves our attention. It is such a perfect microcosm for exploring the best and the worst of ourselves and being aware of situations that most of us can probably not imagine.
In Jacques Audiard’s film the circumstances unspool gradually as to why these people are in a refugee camp. They are desperately fleeing northern Sri Lanka in the wake of the fall of the Tamil Tigers after years of civil war. The film zeroes in on three refugees with falsified papers who must impersonate a family consisting of a husband, Dheepan, wife, and 9-year old daughter to conform to the documents of a deceased family. We see Yalini, the “wife” frantically searching the camp for an orphan girl the right age to come with them and pose as their “daughter”. When she finally finds Illayal, the fake family unit is complete. They are also complete strangers to each other. This is a risky gambit and they must be convincing.
When they get to France they find themselves living in one of the notorious bainlieus outside of Paris. These housing projects are festering hotbeds of crime, poverty and discontent as they are populated by struggling immigrants from all over the world. Dheepan is given a job as caretaker in return for a reduced rent and he is determined and committed to making this new life work out. To that end he is deferential and polite as well as resourceful - using his skills in creative ways to improve conditions. He soon gets trust and appreciation from the boss and a grudging acceptance from the gang members who control a sector of this community.
Illayaal is the most resilient - learning French quickly, excelling in school, writing poetry and adapting comfortably into her role as daughter. Yalini has a more difficult time of it - partially because she wants to be in England where she has relatives. She does not like France or their circumstances and refuses to make much of an effort at being a part of the family or helping out, leaving the burden on Dheepan to manage the household as well as provide. Although there are touching moments when she seems to warm to her assumed role and her faux family. In spite of all of the obstacles they begin to thrive.
Watching the characters emerge from the murky images in the refugee camp, where everyone looks equally down-trodden and miserable, into vibrant individuals with their own histories, hopes and fears reminded me of being in the darkroom and watching a photograph develop into an image with it’s own story. But it is when the routine violence between the gangs in the projects erupts out of control and becomes deadly and threatens his “family” that Dheepan loses it and morphs into a vengeful vigilante. It is a shocking transformation from the humble caretaker into a steely, fearless and deadly warrior who has identified evil and has every fibre of his body focused on destruction. That is when we learn that he was formerly a soldier with the Tamil Tigers and his family was killed by the government forces. The incident has triggered his former self into violent action.
The film won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2015 for Jacuqes Audiard, who directs the actors so subtly and naturalistically that it almost feels like a documentary. None of them have serious acting credits which might explain the lack of artifice. Particularly relevant is the fact that Jesuthasan, who plays Dheepan, is in real life a former child soldier with the Tamil Tigers, a journalist and activist. As each of them evolves toward one another and the entity they have created in separate and moving ways we see the genuine bonding and their mutual support which will be their salvation. It is a well-told story and impressively life affirming. It should make most of us grateful for our good fortune.