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

May 6, 2016
Originally published on May 6, 2016 6:11 pm

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 Dheepan is 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.

"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.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

A family of refugees from a war-torn country board a boat bound for what they hope will be a better life. When they arrive in a new land, they're confronted with violence, racism and a profoundly uncertain future. It could be yet another report from the frontlines of the refugee crisis in Europe, but this, in fact, is the plot of an award-winning new film from France. The movie is called "Dheepan," and it's opening today in the U.S. Bilal Qureshi has more.

BILAL QURESHI, BYLINE: Filmmaker Jacques Audiard bristles when you ask him about news coverage of Europe's refugee crisis.

JACQUES AUDIARD: (Through interpreter) I don't think we really see migrants today. They don't have names. They don't have faces. They don't have identities. 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, to give them Cinemascope.

QURESHI: So the opening of his film puts the audience in the middle of a refugee camp in Sri Lanka.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DHEEPAN")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, foreign language spoken).

QURESHI: 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DHEEPAN")

ANTONYTHASAN JESUTHASAN: (As Dheepan, foreign language spoken).

QURESHI: 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.

B. RUBY RICH: I think that being there in Cannes, 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. And I imagine it would have been unlikely that people would forget that completely.

QURESHI: But Rich says "Dheepan" is not a sentimental immigrant saga. Jacques Audiard has made a thriller.

RICH: He's telling a movie story. 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DHEEPAN")

QURESHI: The screen goes black after the migrants board the boat. We don't know where they are until that void is punctured by ambiguous flickering lights. Within minutes, we see that those lights are actually the character Dheepan and several other dark-skin men emerging from the night.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DHEEPAN")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, foreign language spoken).

QURESHI: They're wearing cheap, battery lit toy headbands. They're peddling at sidewalk cafes before being chased away by authorities. Filmmaker Jacques Audiard.

AUDIARD: (Through interpreter) These people who sell roses in the cafe that we don't look at, who we chase away, here, I say, they're the heroes.

QURESHI: Dheepan is played by an actor with a very similar story.

JESUTHASAN: My name is Antonythasan Jesuthasan.

QURESHI: 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. And he says Audiard has captured his journey.

JESUTHASAN: (Through interpreter) As someone who is an immigrant, who has been through that exact situation of leaving Sri Lanka at time of war, I completely have all rights to say that it is a very accurate and authentic film, and especially because, for the last 15 or so years, I have been living in an area just like that in France.

QURESHI: In the film, that's high-rise housing blocks on the outskirts of Paris. On one side of a courtyard, working-class families. And on the other, a no-go zone ruled by a violent gang of drug dealers.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DHEEPAN")

QURESHI: Dheepan, much like the actor who plays him, can't escape getting pulled back into violence. And Antonythasan Jesuthasan says he's sure he wasn't alone among refugees.

JESUTHASAN: (Through interpreter) You're looking at some soldiers who, at the age of 15, are ready to wear a cyanide capsule around their neck and end their life at any point. When you lose that fear of death at age 15, you have every chance of being that person who explodes in the manner in which Dheepan does in this film.

QURESHI: Filmmaker Jacques Audiard says he didn't want to make a film about helpless victims, and critic B. Ruby Rich says he definitely hasn't.

RICH: 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.

QURESHI: Instead, Jacques Audiard says, those refugees are grappling with the same questions we all do. Can we ever really being again? Can we leave our past behind to forge a future?

AUDIARD: (Through interpreter) That's what interests me fundamentally - 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 chance, and what does that cost? Is it possible to hope for a second love after the first? After all this drama, there is still a life. At the end, it's a real family.

QURESHI: And for real-life Tamil refugee Antonythasan Jesuthasan, the film "Dheepan" has given him the chance to travel the world and share his story of starting again. For NPR News, I'm Bilal Qureshi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.