8 April, 2016
Winner of the 2015 Palme d’Or in Cannes, Dheepan tells the story of Sivadhasan, a former soldier fighting for the Tamil Tigers, who assumes the name of Dheepan along with a fake family, 26-year old wife Yalini and 9-year old daughter Illayaal, in order to escape the conflict zone in northern Sri Lanka and start a new life in France. All three have lost family, are alone and need each other in order to apply for asylum in France. Yalini dreams of crossing over to England where her relatives live in peace but Dheepan is eager to settle down and needs his constructed family in order to secure a living. That they are relocated to a housing project in Le Pré-Saint-Gervais, a northeastern suburb of Paris, swapping one conflict zone for another doesn’t faze him as he goes about his job as a caretaker for the block of flats. But both Yalini and Illayaal struggle in their new job and school. As well as pretending to show they are a family, they also struggle to communicate in French, a language in which only Illayaal is becoming fluent, depending on her translation to get by. As they slowly adjust to their new life, a grim reality far removed from their expectations, the gang violence which has been simmering under the surface of the housing project explodes, threatening to break their hard-won, fragile peace.
I was expecting a dark and depressing film about the horrors of the Sinhala-Tamil conflict transposed to the violent and terrifying banlieues of suburban Paris. But what I got was a beautiful, still film exploring the core values of family and belonging, strengthened by the extreme horrors faced and overcome by people. The Sinhala-Tamil conflict provides the backdrop from which Dheepan and his makeshift family spring into the contemporary and relevant refugee crisis facing Europe today; they are but one of many fleeing conflict to come to Europe believing it would provide a safe haven in which to start new lives. The desperation which drives them to undergo such a dangerous journey, the difficulties that arise once they reach their new country, the language barrier, the hostility and disinterest, make you re-assess your views on asylum seekers. That they dream of going back knowing there is nothing left of their old lives, the pain of having lost loved ones, their determination to carry on, all of this is shown beautifully in Jacques Audiard’s stark, spartan film. Nothing is over-emphasised or over-sentimentalised, nothing heavily pushed onto the viewer.
Surprisingly, and probably what makes the film work, is that it chooses to steer clear of the complex politics of the Sinhala-Tamil conflict instead focussing on the personal and Dheepan’s relentless need to escape, to find normality in a world that has gone crazy.
I loved how the makeshift family slowly coalesces and becomes a real one. Yalini’s cry that she isn’t Illayaal’s mother and her reluctance to look after her. Illayaal’s need for comfort in a cold, unfamiliar world of strangers. And Dheepan’s awakening interest in Yalini. You wouldn’t expect such a family to work, not with the anxiety accompanying the situation. But it slowly does and you feel for all of them. But while their ties grow stronger, the world outside grows ever more violent, once again putting their lives at risk.
What was particularly striking was the grim urban reality in which Dheepan and his family land in suburban Paris. It is nothing like what they were expecting, where the poor, mainly immigrant communities, noticeably absent from the centre of Paris, are trying to eke out a living. Although the Sri Lankan parts of the film didn’t seem as stereotyped perhaps because the scenes were shorter, those set in Le Pré-Saint-Gervais did feel a little reminiscent of films like Banlieue 13 and Le Haine with perhaps a slight romanticisation of gang life. But Dheepan, once a child soldier, is unafraid and eventually manages to wrestle a bit of autonomy in the housing project but this too seems a little unrealistic. With exceptional performances by Sri Lankan novelist turned actor Antonythasan Jesuthasan in the titular role, whose past mirrors that of Dheepan, South Indian stage actor Kalieswari Srinivasan as Yalini, French-born Claudine Vinasithamby as Illayaal and Vincent Rottiers as gang leader Brahim, these are but minor points in what is almost a perfect film.
I was kindly invited to a screening of Dheepan which is out in cinemas today. I strongly urge you to watch it.