Dheepan: 110 min., France, 2015
Languages: Tamil, French, English
Principal Cast: Antonythasan Jesuthasan, Kalieaswari Srinivasan, Claudine Vinasithamby, Vincent Rottiers and Marc Zinga
Director: Jacques Audiard
Script: Jacques Audiard, Noé Debré and Thomas Bidegain
An official selection at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival Dheepan had its North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival a few weeks ago. After winning the Palme d’Or award at Cannes expectations were high for the film and deservedly so.
In addition to being acclaimed director Jacques Audiard’s seventh feature film, Dheepan is the first feature film for its lead, Antonythasan Jesuthasan, a celebrated playwright, essayist and novelist. Jesuthasan is also a former Tamil Tiger who, like the character he plays, fled to France to build a new life. While the film hits close to home for any refugee, it is hard to imagine utilizing your own experience and struggle to depict a character in the raw and authentic way that Jesuthasan does.
Yet, when speaking to Jesuthasan about his role he treats his portrayal of Dheepan as matter of fact. He had been through enough of what the character had endured to be able to tell that story. And that was of utmost importance to him; to have the opportunity to tell the story of Tamil refugees, revealing all of the layers of trying to transition to life after trauma. In fact to Jesuthasan, who calls himself a writer above all else, the most significant aspect of the film winning the Palme d’Or were the opportunities that it afforded him to continue sharing narratives that are all too often reduced to one dimension.
In leaving behind these stories, or only alluding to them in fragments, much can be lost. Like the moments of tenderness, perseverance and humour seen in the film between Dheepan, Yalini and Illayaal, played by Jesuthasan, Srinivasan and Vinasithamby respectively. Though they individually struggle with what they have left behind and how to move forward as a makeshift family, the ways in which they come to fight for, and against one another, are moving.
Amidst the cast’s strong performances is that of Claudine Vinasithamby’s Ilayaal, the young girl who is plucked out of a refugee camp to play the part of Yalini and Dheepan’s daughter. In a particularly moving scene, we see a bit of a role reversal as the child tries to teach her pseudo-mother how to act as a parent would. Ilayaal’s explanation of how to exhibit kindness and compassion to a family member, like many moments in the film, reveals the characters trying to establish a sense of normalcy in stark contrast to their surroundings.
In this vein, we see them grappling with their new identities in France throughout Dheepan while violent undertones in the community they have been “settled” into build in intensity. The film continuously calls into question whether the threat of being overcome by the emotional and mental toll of all that they have experienced in Sri Lanka is more pressing than that of the crime ridden neighbourhood they live in.
For many in the audience Dheepan provided insight into a world they had never experienced but have heard much about. For others it was a portrayal of a parallel world; of narratives that simultaneously encompass, and mark a divergence from, their own lives.
For second generation Canadians like me it was a window into a world we’ve spent much of our lives trying to piece together; a portion of the history that landed our families, and countless others, in Canada and around the world, but can often prove to be too traumatic to ever be fully divulged.
Dheepan is being released in Canada by Mongrel Media. Feature image courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival.