In this world of rapid and ever-increasing change, I am someone who requires stability. My personality and temperament are such that I crave it intensely and I need to have that sense of home and sanctuary—a place where I am surrounded by people with whom I know I belong.
I sometimes wonder if this tendency is due in part, to the constant shifting I experienced while growing up. Every three to four years my parent’s work required us to move to a new location. By the time I was fourteen I had lived in several towns and cities and two different countries. The most dramatic of these moves was to occur at the age of ten, when we were to move to Winnipeg, Manitoba in Canada.
So I wonder what it must be like for someone to permanently leave everything they know behind, and furthermore, to do so as a result of conflict…
Dheepan is a film that blends the raw relational drama, gritty violence and criminal activity that in one form or another is present in many of director Jacques Audiard’s previous films.
The story begins in the final stages of the Sri Lankan Civil war, a conflict set in motion in 1976 with the formation of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. The Tamil Tigers were a military organisation made up of Sri Lankan Tamils who wished to create an independent state for the Tamil people in the North and East of Sri Lanka. The civil war broke out in 1983 and would rage on for 26 years, resulting in the deaths of approximately 80,000 – 100,000 people and caused considerable damage to the country’s environment and economy.
With his Platoon all but wiped out after a skirmish and the final defeat of the Tamil Tigers imminent, Dheepan, a Tamil soldier, chooses to flee Sri Lanka.
With the prospect of a dangerous journey, Dheepan’s history of fighting with the Tamil Tigers (considered internationally as a terrorist organisation) sees his chances of finding asylum in another country further complicated. With few options available to him Dheepan enlists the aid of a people smuggler and assumes the identify of a dead man whose passport the smuggler has obtained.
To further his chances, Dheepan finds two women—Yalini and a young girl to accompany him to pass as the dead man’s wife and child. As complete strangers, the three manage to survive the journey by boat to eventually arrive at a rundown apartment complex in the outskirts of France. There, Dheepan is able to take on the job of caretaker and begin to provide for his so-called family.
“You finally ended up believing the whole fairy tale. You think I’m her mother? You think that she thinks I’m her mother? You’re not my husband, Dheepan. I’m not your wife. And she’s not our daughter.”
Dheepan raises the question: what does it mean to belong and what is family? The most interesting aspect of Dheepan is how this dynamic plays out between the three main characters. Thrown together out of necessity they weave in and out of working together for their common good and, especially in the case of Yalini, raging against each other to follow what they feel is best for their own survival.
There are moments of friendship and tenderness as they are brought together by an innate human desire to connect, and the routines of household life. Yet, with the struggles of adjusting to life in a new country the presence of a small-scale but significant organised crime family in the neighbouring blocks of the apartment complex create further difficulties for them.
From the moment Illayaal is taken from her Aunty who willingly gives her up amid the struggles of living in a refugee camp, one can’t help but feel for her. She is a gentle, but stubborn creature and it is stirring to see her struggle in her desire to see Dheepan and Yalini as her parents. Equally as captivating, is her own journey towards independence and being able to make sense of her circumstances.
Though Dheepan focuses on the intriguing story of the man himself, I was also taken by Yalini, a strong and independent woman who hasn’t often had the luxury of considering the well-being of those around her. The experiences of her past have bred in her a sense of survival, and she often chooses to forgo empathy in the hopes of making things better for herself.
Despite a climax that takes the film into what I feel was a more dramatised and slightly less than realistic depiction of ‘the common refugee experience’, Dheepan remains an engrossing film that gives an inside view into the lives of those who are forced out of their country as refugees, as a result of conflict and violence. The most engaging aspect of the film for me, existed in the relational dynamics that occur between the characters and witnessing not only the dramatic events that occur throughout the film, but also the small day-to-day struggles that the characters face in creating a life in a new country.