Many years ago, I rode home from work in a car driven by a driver who had recently immigrated here from Russia. Somehow, we wound up discussing living conditions in what were, at the time, considered the tougher projects of New York City. He said to me in his thick, Russian accent, “These guys think they live in the ghetto? They don’t know what a ghetto is…” Then he went on to describe the horrors of the Russian ghetto where he was born and raised. Dheepan reminded me of this conversation.
Dheepan (played by Jesuthasan Anthonythasan) is a Sri Lankan who flees to France and ends up working as a housing development caretaker outside of Paris. This is not any run-of-the-mill refugee story. In order to flee war-torn Sri Lanka, this guy has to find a wife and daughter to assume the identity of an entire family that has already been killed. Dheepan’s own wife and children were killed in the fighting. Enter Yalani (played by Kalieaswari Srinivasan) as Dheepan’s wife and Illayaal (played by Claudine Vinasithamby) as their “daughter.” Illayaal is an orphan Yalani randomly picks up at a refugee camp and claims as her own to get a ride out of Sri Lanka by any means necessary. Dheepan and Yalani are strangers who haven’t really thought their plan through very well, but they know they have to leave Sri Lanka before they are killed.
I imagined them saying, “Yeah! We’re getting out of war-torn Sri Lanka and going to France!” Not so fast… Just when you think they are safe from the atrocities of war and things are looking up, Dheepan, Yalani and Illayaal are relocated into what pretty much amounts to a “ghetto” in France. No Eiffel Tower, no Louve, no Seine. The projects in France are rough. Not as rough as war-torn Sri Lanka, but rough, nonetheless. (This is what reminded me of the conversation I had with the Russian driver many years ago.)
Dheepan not only has to adjust to a new land, language and life, but he must sell the story that this family is his real family or run the risk of being deported. It is the secret they share that binds them closer together and makes them resent one another at times. These three people struggle with a human need to get to know one another, to connect to one another and to make this fabricated family real. Sometimes they are successful and sometimes not. This angle of the story is very touching.
Then, there are the frightening elements of the story, including the all too real 26 year war that took place in Sri Lanka that ended in 2009, and learning more about Dheepan. He is a man who struggles with his past. Like many people with unpleasant pasts, he would rather forget it all and move forward. He resists being drawn back into it, but ultimately is forced to revisit it.
Dheepan is a bit disjointed in its direction at times, but is a movie with really strong acting. The story is mostly well written and there is a surprise somewhere along the way that takes a while to unravel. It is the kind of movie you have to pay close attention to so you catch on sooner rather than later, and understand exactly what is taking place. Also, as the first movie I have ever seen about Sri Lanka and/or Sri Lankans, it was refreshing to see some people of color represented as main characters among a diverse cast.
I am giving Dheepan 7 and a half bloops (I know it is taking me forever, but I promise I am going to get my scoring system up and running one day very soon. Thank you for your patience.) It is a good movie, worth seeing, particularly if you enjoy, or like to support, diverse, independent films.