Jacques Audlard. France. 2015.

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The 26-year civil war in Sri Lanka (1983-2009), a conflict between the mainly Buddhist Sinhalese majority and the Hindu Tamil minority in which 200,000 people were killed, including tens of thousands of Tamil civilians forms the backdrop for French director Jacques Audiard’s searing refugee drama Dheepan. Winner of the Palme d’Or at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, it is the story of three Tamil immigrants from Sri Lanka newly settled in Paris, their adjustment to an often unwelcoming environment, and the bond they form based on mutual need and acceptance of the others pain.

Like Audiard’s previous film, Rust and Bone, it is raw and visceral, yet also a film of lyricism and sensitivity. Though the film seems to draw a parallel between the war in Sri Lanka and social unrest in France, it is a fictional film and, according to Audiard, is not intended to mirror the actual conditions of refugees in France which he believes has been mostly welcoming. Written by Thomas Bidegain and Noé Debré and photographed by Eponine Momenceau, the film opens in Sri Lanka as the Tamil fighter Dheepan (Antonythasan Jesuthasan, a novelist and a former Tamil Tiger himself), whose cause faces defeat, lays palm leaves across the corpses on a funeral pyre before burning his own military fatigues.

The scene shifts to Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan), a young woman attempting to ensure her passage out of the country by finding a young girl to pose as her daughter, She finds Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby), a girl who can pass for nine, and takes her to where Dheepan (an assumed name) is being given the passports of three dead people. Assuming new identities, the three pretend to be a family escaping persecution in Sri Lanka and are relocated to France where they are employed as caretakers of a housing project in the Paris suburbs. It is a locale reminiscent of the projects in Mathieu Kassovitz’, La Haine, where drug dealing and urban decay are pervasive.

Their guide Youssouf (Marc Zinga) gives them a tour but the instructions, in a language they do not understand, do not register. Youssouf skirts around the problem of the drug dealers who congregate in another block across the courtyard, only telling him to wait until they leave before beginning to clean. As Illayal goes to school to learn French and Yalini is assigned to cook and clean for an elderly man whose nephew Brahim (Vincent Rottiers) is one of the local gang leaders, the film traces the gradual assimilation of the family, their overriding desire for connection, not only to the language and customs, but to each other. Though the film is restrained with moments of tenderness and humor as well as anger and frustration, underneath there is a growing tension.

Violence erupts when Dheepan, who suffers from PTSD, draws a white line across the courtyard that they are not to cross and it has a jarring effect though, to me, not out of sync with the film’s setup and exploration of its characters. Though Audiard claims that Dheepan is not intended to be political, given the real-life nature of the circumstances, it cannot help but be just that. He said that he wanted “to give the faceless a name, a face, a shape,” a story of their own and he has succeeded. In making a human document, he reminds us of the connection we have with people around the world whose voices we cannot hear, whose faces we cannot see, and whose hands we may never touch.


Howard Schumann

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