A film telling the story of a former Tamil Tiger fighter fleeing the mayhem of his native Sri Lanka and doing battle on the mean streets of a French housing estate was shown on Thursday (21) at Cannes, spotlighting Europe’s refugee crisis.
Dheepan, by one of France’s most acclaimed film directors, Jacques Audiard, tells the story of the war-scarred title character meeting a young woman and a nine-year-old girl in a refugee camp.
In order to win passage to France, they assume the identities of a dead family to use their travel papers.
They arrive, still strangers to each other and speaking no French, in social housing in a rough Paris suburbs, where drug gangs are waging their own war in the dilapidated tower blocks.
Haunted by their country’s brutal civil war, Dheepan finds work as a caretaker at the estate while his purported wife Yalini accepts a job as a cook and a maid for the disabled uncle of one of the drug lords.
But as the trio grows closer, they come under attack by the gangsters and Dheepan must revive the soldier inside him to protect his “family”.
The lead actor, novelist Anthonythasan Jesuthasan making his screen debut, was himself forced to fight as a child solider in Sri Lanka from the age of 16.
After three terrifying years, he managed to escape to Thailand before making it to France on a fake passport in 1993, where he was granted political asylum.
He told reporters after a warmly applauded press preview of the film that the character was about “50 per cent” autobiographical.
“Officially in 2009 the civil war had come to an end. However, even today, there are still armed attacks against minorities in Sri Lanka,” he said.
“Even today, we don’t know how many prisoners of war were captured by the government, we have no real information.”
Audiard, a Cannes favourite, specialises in films on broken people looking for a fresh start, as in critical triumphs such as A Prophet, Rust and Bone and The Beat That My Heart Skipped.
He said he “couldn’t have placed Sri Lanka on a map” when he started working on the screenplay, and had rather sought “to approach a love story from a completely different angle”.
“The intention was not to produce a documentary on the civil war in Sri Lanka or housing estates. That violence is the backdrop. We wanted the characters to embody this whole story,” he said.
Audiard, who spoke to his actors through an interpreter on set, said his approach was not “overtly political” as Europe debates how to grapple with an influx of asylum seekers from the world’s crisis zones.
Rather, Audiard aimed to take a fresh look at a changing France “through the eyes of different people and their own perspective on the world”.
Early reviews were largely positive despite a jarring ending, with critic Peter Howell of the Toronto Star tweeting that “Audiard’s eye and empathy for immigrant and outsider underclass (are) intact”.
London’s Evening Standard newspaper called it an “intense thriller that goes to the heart of the immigrant crisis”.
And cinema trade magazine Screen International said the picture offers “the pleasures of captivating storytelling with an irresistible human pulse”.
Dheepan is one of 19 films in competition for the Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’Or top prize, to be awarded on Sunday.