A trio of Sri Lankan strangers pretends to be a family to flee their war-torn country for France in the drama "Dheepan," which is finally opening in U.S. theaters after winning the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival last year.
French director Jacques Audiard was inspired by the basic idea of Sam Peckinpah's classic "Straw Dogs" for the story, but decided to set "Dheepan" in France. The setting establishes both cultural and language barriers for his three outsiders who unwittingly find themselves in yet another violent situation – a suburban housing project with a gang presence – despite their efforts to create lives of relative normalcy and peace.
Speaking through a translator, Audiard explained he wanted to give a face and a voice to the immigrant experience without softening the psychological effects of their former circumstances.
"What happens to them when they arrive at a different place carrying the experience of being raped, of being tortured, of living with trauma and violence? How does the subconscious work out this violence?" he said. "To negate the violence that they carry in them is a form of racism. It's denying the experience of violence that they carry with them. In that frame of mind they'd just be poor travelers, and they're not."
He settled on Sri Lanka by deduction, mainly wanting a culture that was disconnected from the French colonial experience. The choice made casting a bit trickier.
"In the diaspora of immigrants in France in the Sri Lankan community, there are no actors, really, that are professional," he said.
So he had to think outside of the box and consider nonprofessional actors to keep the casting authentic. In France, he found both his lead actor, author Antonythasan Jesuthasan, a former teenage Tamil Tiger who found refuge in France, and the young girl who becomes his de facto daughter in the new arrangement, Claudine Vinasithamby. He found his lead actress, Kalieaswari Srinivasan, in India. Unlike her co-stars, Srinivasan had a theater background.
Anchoring a film with mostly unprofessional actors speaking in a non-native language proved to be quite an interesting challenge for Audiard, who would sometimes do 20 takes for a scene – quite different from his experience working with stars like Marion Cotillard and Matthias Schoenaerts for his last film, "Rust and Bone."
While "Dheepan" is in some ways a genre film, Audiard says that's also a bit of a Trojan horse. Yes, there are guns and violence, but there's also the comedy and heart in this extraordinary situation of strangers living together in a foreign land and deciding whether or not to care for one another.
"At the very heart of it, it's about love. It's about somebody finding that they're able to love and finding someone to love. It's about a family, it's about a fractured family that has a potential there. Underneath the violence, he's fighting for love," Audiard said. "It may sound corny, but in this context, that becomes his battle."