The plight of refugees is dauntingly hard to comprehend for the majority of Japanese who have been brought up believing they live in a racially homogeneous nation. (Let’s reserve the falseness of this belief for another story.)
Eri Ishikawa, chair of the board of the Japan Association for Refugees, worries that this lack of awareness about the complexities of a multinational society is why French director Jacques Audiard’s new film, “Dheepan,” may not be the best vehicle for spreading open-mindedness and acceptance in Japan when it comes to immigrants.
“Dheepan,” which won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival last year, tells the tale of the eponymous Sri Lankan Tamil Tiger soldier (Antonythasan Jesuthasan) and the woman and 9-year-old girl he flees to Paris with at the end of the Sri Lankan civil war. Dheepan barely knows the woman, Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan), but they understand that masquerading as a family will raise their chances of gaining entry to France as political refugees. Realizing a child would make their situation seem more believable, Yalini plucks orphaned girl Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby) out of a Sri Lankan refugee camp before they leave. The three strangers, armed with false passports and a French dictionary, attempt to start life anew in a society completely foreign to them. Their only hope at this point is to stick together, find jobs and somehow move on with their lives.
“I think that without a comprehensive explanation of what is or isn’t realistic and believable, ‘Dheepan’ will simply give the impression that refugees are scary people,” Ishikawa tells The Japan Times. “The plot often gives way to extreme and/or exceedingly violent situations. What the general Japanese public need to know and appreciate about refugees isn’t so much the violence that they encounter but the enormous difficulty of uprooting their lives and starting from scratch in a foreign country.”
In 2015, Japan granted refugee status to just 27 people, though another 79 asylum seekers were granted special permission from the justice minister to stay in Japan. In comparison, Germany granted refugee status to 80,000 people and France has also pledged to welcome 24,000 refugees over the next two years. For most Japanese, firsthand knowledge of the refugee experience is impossible.
Directed and co-written by French auteur Jacques Audiard, “Dheepan” shows the perspectives of the three protagonists, though the main emphasis is on Dheepan. We learn that he had been a Tamil Tiger, had lost his wife and children in the war and has probably spent his entire adult life fighting and killing. During an interview with French authorities, he is coached by the interpreter (who, it turns out, was a fellow soldier) to say he had been tortured because he had fought for freedom. He willingly obliges, not really understanding why this would be a good thing to say. But the words “torture” and “freedom” work their magic, and the family is relocated to a derelict apartment in a housing project in a Paris suburb, complete with a shower, toilet and running faucet. Yalini shakily asks the landlord whether the water is safe to drink. “Sure it is!” he assures her, as if she had just made a joke.
Ishikawa says that though the two adults in “Dheepan” are deserving of support and sympathy, her heart went out to Illayaal, who reminded her of the refugee children living in Japan.
“The movie traces her thoughts and feelings very sincerely,” she says. “Everything about the way Illayaal was portrayed rang true for me. Being a refugee child is a different experience from being a refugee adult. Refugee children have no control over their fate, nor do they have the freedom to make their own choices. Often, they have seen terrible tragedies, but in a new society surrounded by foreign children, they’re likely to get little sympathy.”
The young girl is vulnerable but she has a child’s resilience. Of the three, she is the first to pick up the language and becomes a helpful translator. In one scene, she asks Yalini to give her a kiss at the school gates. “Just like everyone else’s mother,” she says.
Illayaal’s own mother was killed, and she feels she has the right to ask for at least a show of maternal affection. Inside the school, she faces isolation and bullying before she can assimilate and carve out a space of her own.
“A young Japanese student who had been studying in Germany told me that he had come into close contact with refugees for the first time in his life,” says Ishikawa. “Listening to him, it struck me that we live in this peaceful, stable society where no one has to worry about uprooting their lives and leaving the country. While this is undoubtedly a good thing, I feel there’s a lack of imagination and sympathy for others who aren’t so lucky. The refugee problem isn’t something remote and alien to our lives, it’s something that affects us all. And it seems the Japanese are somewhat lacking in this awareness.”
In the end, says Ishikawa, “it’s about accepting diversity and knowing that there are people whose lives and experiences are totally different from one’s own. It’s not just about refugees, but also those in trouble or living on the fringes of society.”
Dheepan and his fake family work hard for assimilation, but the story doesn’t allow for happiness anytime soon: Violence wraps its fingers around him just when he thought he was a new man. The last 15 minutes of the film are no longer about refugees but simply about survival. Sometimes the will to live overrides all other concerns and “Deephan” makes no apologies for that.