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'Dheepan' Is a Searing Thriller About a Guerrilla Fighter Turned Refugee

We caught up with Jacques Audiard, the French auteur behind the Palme d'Or–winning Dheepan, which follows a former Tamil Tiger and his family's struggles to get by.
Real-life former Tamil Tiger Antonythasan Jesuthasan as the title character in 'Dheepan.' Courtesy of IFC Films

France, once seen as the bastion of free will and equality, is an increasingly polarized society. In the upcoming presidential election Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front is, according to the latest polls, likely to come out on top in the first round of voting next April (to actually win the office, she'd have to win a second round, likely against former president Nicolas Sarkozy or former prime minister Alain Juppé). The situation has gotten so bad that news that the National Front has plateaued in support—hovering between 23 and 27 percent of French voters—feels like a victory. At a time when Europe is increasingly drawn toward parties openly advocating racist policies, who's to say whether another terrorist attack on France by swarthy idiots corrupting Islam for their own mad agenda could shatter this glass ceiling?


These questions and more make Dheepan, the Palme d'Or–winning film by Jacques Audiard about a family of Sri Lankan refugees trying to get by in a virulently xenophobic Paris, the most urgent and radical French film to be released in America since Audiard's harrowing crime drama A Prophet in 2010.

It's true that Dheepan neither mentions the far-right party nor does it seem particularly concerned with it. But the film follows two asylum-seekers—who are the type of immigrants who are the scourge of the National Front—as they use fake passports and lie about their relationships as they seek refuge in France. Though Audiard does stop short of making them Muslim, as he did with the main character in A Prophet, choosing instead to have them be Tamil Tigers on the run from Sri Lanka, Audiard still seems to be making a point about a brutal civil war that the world ignored for decades. It's this ability to be on point without ramming home the point that has made Audiard the favorite director of politically tuned-in actors such as Edward Norton.

Audiard has been lauded as the French Scorsese, yet his victory in Cannes was met with a significant amount of backlash. The main criticism seemed to be aimed at the lack of realism in a genre film that seemed more inspired by Taxi Driver than anything else. This mixed reaction caused Cameron Bailey, the black artistic director of the Toronto International Film Festival, to wonder whether there was a racial dimension to the criticism. Audiard films typically sell around 2 million tickets in French cinemas, yet his Palme d'Or effort has only garnered 800,000 entries.


Much has been made of Audiard's choice of casting. To play the title role, he tapped Antonythasan Jesuthasan, a former Tamil Tiger turned author and now actor, whose own history shares remarkable similarities with his character. Dheepan's wife, Yalini, is played by non-actor Kalieaswari Srinivasan. In the film, the two Sri Lankans join forces to get to France, pretending to be husband and wife. But once in Paris, they encounter racism and violence as they struggle to hold onto the pretense of their marriage, taking on menial jobs as a domestic helper (Yalini) and building custodian (Dheepan) to make ends meet. Dheepan is a genre-busting film—in making the refugees action heroes, the film challenges notions of what a refugee is and, more importantly, their depictions onscreen.

VICE: Your hero is an immigrant from Sri Lanka. Do you think that this was an especially necessary topic to the tale, given the current political situation in France and the rise of the right throughout Europe?
Jacques Audiard: It was an immigrant in the form of someone who is really a stranger to French culture. They do not speak the French language—they came from a very faraway country that the French do not know about. I was also inspired by the writings of Montesquieu in the Persian Letters.

You have said that you do not necessarily think this is a political film. Yet it seems impossible that this is not a film with political intentions?
I don't know why, but in French cinema, as soon as you have an immigrant as a character, it is a political film. When you show the banlieue, the outskirts of a city, it's a political film. But I think the political value is elsewhere, in my case, in having actors who speak their own language, Tamil in this case, and in choosing to cast actors without having any Caucasian in the main roles. That is a political statement. People don't realize that, and they don't label it as political, funnily enough. I don't mean to judge French cinema, but I feel a bit cornered into only casting French people. I don't feel at ease very much with that.


"I think the political value is elsewhere, in my case, in having actors who speak their own language, Tamil in this case, and in choosing to cast actors without having any Caucasian in the main roles. That is a political statement."

There is a lot of academic research that the white middle-class male audience, of a certain age, can mainly associate with white protagonist on screen, whereas minorities and women can identify with other races and genders. Are you trying to break this barrier by having a Tamil hero?
If you tell yourself once a day that cinema needs reality in order to exist, then it's enough for me to walk out where I live and look around, without searching for excessive naturalism. I just want to make a portrait of society.

But you do this by avoiding realism in the storytelling?
I chose Tamil actors to give some realism, people who could embellish the characters and find poetry in the situation. However, I realized that when we were shooting, that the film refused some specific effects in the making of it. For instance, a shot that was too much framed, a dolly shot that was too much cared for, it was something that we realized didn't work. That was indicating that the film didn't want to have a shape, a usual narrative. It refused realism.

How did this affect the film?
It's curious, because I think the film changes. The first sequence when we are in the refugee camp is almost like a war movie. Then when they land in Paris, it looks like a documentary, a social film. Then in the projects, it's like another film. The thin line that ties all these stories together is the fake family, but I don't think it was very clear when we were filming the project that there would be these differences.


There are many films being made about refugees. What are the trappings for you, where you said, "I shouldn't do this or that"?
I think it is about making a film that is not about immigrants but about people. That is the main thrust. I think that is something we were discussing when writing the film, why would the movie be any different in its treatment of the characters than a movie with Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. There is not a reason for that.

Some of the criticism of the film was that it went from a realistic setting to an optimistic, romanticized ideal. How do you feel about these comments?
It's not like that. The only family she has are those who are in the UK. That is why she goes. I think that if you look a little about the Tamil community, the diaspora is mainly in England and in Canada.

"I think it is about making a film that is not about immigrants but about people."

When he's watching TV news story about Tamils, he's watching a British news story despite being in France. Is that you condemning French media reporting of conflicts in the world?
I don't know about that. It's only the UK station where we could find a clip that told a bit of the history of the conflict.

Was there a language problem with the actors?
Whenever I'm asked what it means to direct actors, I often say that it's learning the language of those actors, and hopefully they will have to learn the language of Jacques. In this case, of course, it was even more difficult. I had to make a bigger effort to try and learn their acting language. Of course, I couldn't understand a single word, and I couldn't even understand all their ways of expressing emotions that were very different from mine, their sense of humor and their irony. I found all of that very interesting. In the case of Jesuthasan, I told him things, and he would say, "Yes, yes," and then he would run off and do different things. It did not create problems. I never got tired of filming them. I thought that they were of marvelous beauty.


Did you speak to Jesuthasan about his past? Did that influence your story?
Yes. I learned it during the casting. He introduced himself as a novelist, and when I talked to him about the subject of the film, he said, "It sounds like my life." Afterward, I read Gorilla, one of his books, that is literally his autobiography. It is amazing.

Is it too boring for you to make a straight action film?
Maybe. I think that genre is a bit like Russian dolls. It's very practical, very easy to not communicate with the audience. Inside it you have to show other things.

Is this your closest homage to Scorsese?
It's true. For the climax of the film, I was thinking a lot about Scorsese. I admire him, but I don't know if it's homage.

I heard you don't like the title.
The title Dheepan is a total failure. We needed a title in order to present the film at Cannes. We had to register one in order to show it to the selection committee at Cannes, and I was offered a full range of stupid titles, and this was the least stupid title.

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Dheepan opens at the IFC Center in New York on Friday, May 6.