With the migrant crisis looming on television screens and in the pages of newspapers – and in all the other places where news is now disseminated – it is surely about time that cinema will show us the side of the story we haven’t seen or read about yet. While politicians ponder the numbers (for David Cameron 20,000 Syrian migrants is our fair share, for Angela Merkel 200,000 was more appropriate) and the press debate the suitability of such resolutions in a political climate already inflamed by anti-immigration sentiments, it has certainly proved difficult to see the crisis from the perspective of a person or family fleeing terror and violence in the Middle East.
The story of three-year-old Alan Kurdi showed us – he was the little boy found dead on a Syrian beach last September, doing much to switch allegiances within the mainstream press – however, that human stories are not just crucial in such conversations but necessary to comprehend the realities of these crises. With Dheepan (2015), Jacques Audiard places us in the company of a makeshift nuclear family seeking asylum in France.
Yet this is not Gianfranco Rosi’s upcoming Fuocoammare (2016), the Golden Bear winning documentary set on the Italian island of Lampedusa, the site of much mass migration from Africa and the Middle East to the European Union in the past few decades. Dheepan, which also won another of Europe’s most prestigious awards, the Palme D’or, instead centres on a group of Tamil refugees fleeing the Sri Lankan civil war in 2009.
While Dheepan may not directly relate to the current crisis, it nevertheless puts forward a few universal expressions of the refugee experience. The film opens in a Sri Lankan refugee camp inundated by the black smoke and fetid fumes of burning bodies. Passports of the deceased are recovered by authorities and handed to Dheepan, Yalini and Illayaal who must play the roles of father, mother and child if they have any chance of finding refuge in the prosperous and stable West.
Quickly acquainted, the three are without question willing to play these roles in the pursuit of safety and the possibility of a better life. And indeed, as the film progresses, this familial fiction becomes more real: while Dheepan and Yalini periodically remind themselves that Illayaal is in fact not their daughter, knowing in this instance that it is all a sham, when they themselves begin to play the roles of mother and father they are less self-aware. Their romantic relationship however arises not from the conventional allure of personality and appearance but from a sense of shared hardship and loneliness in the banlieues of Paris, a slice of the Western world which does not offer much security to the newly initiated.
For Dheepan, the banlieues of Paris are too reminiscent of the battleground he once occupied as a soldier for the Tamil Tigers, the secessionist nationalist insurgency whose long-fought fight for the creation of an independent state for Tamil people in North Eastern Sri Lanka was crushed by the Sri Lankan military in 2009. At one point, he moves to directly mark the field of battle, drawing a white line between the residencies of refugees on one side of the street and the gangsters who employ them on the other.
Although Dheepan himself has found employment as a caretaker for the criminals opposite, it appears that his years in the Tamil Tigers have not given him a conciliatory and passive air. His obstinacy causes problems for both himself and his family who have meanwhile been attempting to integrate into Paris life peacefully: Yalini has become a social worker for the father of one of the gangsters, Illayaal has tried her best to blend in at school and learn French, the alien language which has thus far greatly complicated the experience of this makeshift family.
But in the end, Dheepan cannot ignore the provocations of the gangsters opposite – the myriad death threats, the cinder blocks dropped on him from above, the street fights which encroach on his security – and decides to go on a rampage, murdering many in the building opposite, in a bloodthirsty blaze which recalls the end of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976). The film then quickly concludes with shots of suburban England where Dheepan and his family have apparently settled.
It is probably best with Dheepan to start at the end and move backwards as, at least for this critic, much of its finale works to undermine the power of what came before. The film’s last few moments offer a quasi-utopian portrait of life in England for immigrant communities, presenting images which lack the realism we have so far come to expect from Audiard. As this finale places England as a heaven to France’s hell, I immediately assumed that it was a dream sequence, the fantasy Dheepan conjures following his murderous rampage. And indeed, this dream sequence could function as a satisfactory end to the film – there is clearly a persistent vision of England as a sanctuary for the oppressed – yet it could just as easily work as the film’s ultimate outcome for Dheepan and his family. Audiard, whose films (including The Beat That My Heart Skipped (2005), Un Prophet (2009) and Rust and Bone (2012)) have formed one of the most interesting and intelligent oeuvres of contemporary French cinema, surely could not wilfully end the film on such a false note.
While the merits of the ending are still to be debated, the reality of the film’s closing action sequence is less ambiguous. Although we come to understand Dheepan’s reasons for going on such a rampage – we may also throw in PTSD as a decisive factor – I don’t think the film gained anything from including such scenes. It had hitherto been very successful at illustrating the realities of the refugee experience: the alienation one feels in an unfamiliar society, the difficulty of acquiring reliable and secure work and a place to stay, the struggle to learn a new language and navigate an unknown culture, the dream of Europe undone by the realities of the inner city and the lack of governmental assistance for those seeking asylum.
Until the film’s finale, we come to emphasise with the plight of the film’s characters and the frustration they must feel every day as second class citizens (Yalini whose religion is Hindu is told to wear a veil in order to fit in with the Muslim women of the block, Illayaal cannot make any friends at school and attacks a member of her class out of irritation). And yet, all of this shattered in the end. For its first three-quarters, Dheepan is one of the best representations of the plight of refugees I’ve seen at the cinema, but for its final quarter, and its descent into madness, it is at risk of invalidating the strength of its earlier scenes.