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NPR Arts & Life

'I Don't Think We Really See Migrants,' Says Creator Of New Film 'Dheepan'

Just like his character Dheepan, Antonythasan Jesuthasan was a separatist fighter in Sri Lanka's civil war. He fled the country and eventually came to France illegally. He's pictured above with Claudine Vinasithamby (Illayaal).
Just like his character Dheepan, Antonythasan Jesuthasan was a separatist fighter in Sri Lanka's civil war. He fled the country and eventually came to France illegally. He's pictured above with Claudine Vinasithamby (Illayaal).

Filmmaker Jacques Audiard bristles when you ask him about news coverage of Europe's "refugee crisis."

"I don't think we really see migrants ... " Audiard says. "It takes a baby washed up on the beach for us to ask: What was his name? It's terrible. I wanted to give them a name; to give them a face."

The plotline of Audiard's award-winning film could be yet another story from the frontlines of the refugee crisis in Europe: A family from a war-torn country boards a boat bound for what they hope will be a better life. But when they arrive in a new land, they're confronted with violence, racism and a profoundly uncertain future. The movie, called Dheepan, opens in the U.S. May 6.

The beginning of Audiard's film puts the audience in the middle of a refugee camp in Sri Lanka. A desperate woman picks up an abandoned child so she can make a claim for family asylum. She's paired with a man looking to do the same and within minutes this fake family is on its way out of the country. He takes the name Dheepan.

This story won the top prize at last year's Cannes Film Festival — the prestigious Palme d'Or. Film critic B. Ruby Rich, who was not at Cannes, says the sheer number of refugees flooding Europe at the time was definitely on the jury's mind.

"I think that being there in Cannes, while you're there in the lap of luxury, you're also there on the Mediterranean and the Mediterranean is where these thousands and hundreds of thousands of people are crossing," Rich says.

Rich says Dheepanis not a sentimental immigrant saga, but rather, Audiard has made a thriller.

"He's telling a movie story," says Rich. "He's pulling us into a movie plot, but he's peopling it with people and locations and lives that normally aren't in those genres."

The screen goes black after the migrants board the boat. We don't know where they are until the void is punctured by ambiguous flickering lights. Within minutes we see that those lights are actually the character Dheepan and several other dark-skinned men emerging from the night. They're wearing cheap, battery-lit toy headbands that they peddle at sidewalk cafés before being chased away by authorities.

"People who sell roses in the café — we don't look at them, we chase them away," says Audiard. "But here I say: they're the heroes."

Dheepan is played by an actor with a very similar story. Antonythasan Jesuthasan was once a Tamil Tiger — a separatist fighter in Sri Lanka's brutal, decades-long civil war. He fled the country in the late 1980s and eventually came to France illegally. He's not a professional actor, but he helped translate and guide the film. Jesuthasan says Audiard has captured his journey.

"As someone who has been through exactly that situation of leaving Sri Lanka at a time of war, I completely have all rights to say, that it is a very accurate and authentic film," Jesuthasan says. "Especially because for the last 15 years, I've been living in an area exactly like that in France."

The film takes place in the high-rise housing blocks on the outskirts of Paris. Working class families live on one side of a courtyard, while the other side is a no-go zone ruled by a violent gang of drug dealers. Dheepan can't escape getting pulled back into the violence, which is something Jesuthasan can relate to — he says he's sure he wasn't alone among Tamil refugees.

These are not the characters you write in a script if your aim is to create legislation or have people open their hearts to the poor refugee victims.

"You're looking at some soldiers who, at the age of 15, are ready to wear a cyanide capsule around their neck," Jesuthasan says. "When you lose that fear of death at 15, you have every chance of exploding in real life as Dheepan does in this film."

Audiard says he didn't want to make a film about helpless victims — and Rich says he hasn't.

"These are not the characters you write in a script if your aim is to create legislation or have people open their hearts to the poor refugee victims," says Rich.

Instead, Audiard says the characters are grappling with questions we all do: Can we ever really begin again? Can we leave our past behind to forge a future?

"That's what interests me fundamentally," says Audiard. "That to make a family is not so simple. The film asks how many lives does one have a right to have? Does one have a right to a second life and what does that cost? Is it possible to hope for a second love after the first? After all of this drama, there's still a life. At the end, it's a real family."

For real-life Tamil refugee Antonythasan Jesuthasan, the film Dheepan has given him the chance to travel the world — and to share his story of starting again.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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