Civil war stories from Sri Lanka contribute to French film Dheepan
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French director Jacques Audiard’s film Dheepan, in competition at the 68th Cannes Film Festival, combines refugees from Sri Lanka’s former civil war with gang warfare in French housing estates.
Dheepan opens in a refugee camp in Sri Lanka. It swings swiftly to a remote housing estate where the three main characters, a man, a woman and a child, who pretended to be a family to make their escape, are trying to start a new life. They find themselves in drug-dealer territory, and embroiled in a different type of war.
Each character has challenges to face as new arrivals. The nine-year-old Illayaal, whose school in Sri Lanka she says was "burned down by the government", doesn’t want to go to a school where she can’t speak the language. The man is trying to put his own rebel days behind him. They all seem to have lost family - siblings, spouse, children, parents - in the war which lasted more than four decades and ended in 2008.
The story could be at least partly that of actor/writer Antonythasan Jesuthasan, who plays the lead role of a man who had been enrolled as a child soldier at 16 by the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka. He successfully develops his character from washed-up soldier to determined refugee, to surrogate-father, to hero, lover and to contented dad.
Anthonythasan says he feels about 50 per cent of the character is actually him.
The woman, who desperately wants to get to her family in London, is played by Kalieaswari Srinivasan from Chennai in Tamil Nadu, across the strait from Sri Lanka.
She said that it was no big challenge for her to play a Tamil refugee from Sri Lanka.
“We have a history with Sri Lanka, a connection," she said. "Tamil people in Chennai are concerned about what happens in Sri Lanka, so I had some knowledge. Also I am a theatre actress. You have to let the story, the character, the emotion, take over. “
Although you hear a lot of Tamil spoken in Dheepan, the Sri Lankan story is secondary. The film is French social realism about local, domestic issues, including the unhappy treatment of refugees thrown from one life-threatening situation to another.
Less punchy, literally, than some of Audiard’s previous films, and definitely less maudlin than Of Rust and Bone which was at the Cannes Film Festival in 2012, Dheepan is a deceivingly straightforward film. However, Audiard, along with co-writers Noé Debré and Thomas Bidegain who wrote Audiard’s Cannes and Bafta award-winning Un Prophète in 2009, throw in some effective twists to the story.
Audiard steers clear of explaining the civil war in Sri Lanka and went as far as saying that he’d willingly kept a distance. The characters attempt to tuck away their pasts from themselves and from each other, and in so doing, build a new, happier life. The result is effective in that nobody, except the reconstituted family, gets too close.