Wednesday 11 November 2020

For Mani: "Love Child"

Brought to our screens by the same distributor, this week's Love Child picks up broadly where last year's For Sama left off: with a couple gathering up their offspring, belongings and remnant scraps of courage, and endeavouring to get out of their homeland so as to try and make a better life somewhere else. The couple are Sahand and Leila, born in Iran, seeking asylum in either Europe or America, yet obliged to stop over in Turkey while they wait for their case to be processed. As with their fellow (Syrian) travellers in For Sama, Sahand and Leila taped some of their progress themselves, footage that would give any documentarist a starting point; in this case, the Danish filmmaker Eva Mulvad met her subjects halfway, turning up in Turkey with a camera she then turned on the couple's therapy sessions, and a microphone that allowed her to eavesdrop on daily conversations, arguments, and the bedtime stories Leila read for her son Mani. Her goal was clear: to enable audiences to spend time with her migrant subjects, the better for anyone to understand that they aren't the mortal threat to Western civilisation certain shabby populists and fulminating headlines have made out. There was more time, it transpired, than anybody expected. This pair arrived in Turkey in 2012, then faced a long and agonising wait for official clearance, the passing years measured out not in afternoons and coffeespoons, but mobile phones that got battered, cracked and replaced. While they waited for a new model and the green light, Mulvad watched Sahand and Leila tying up some unfinished business, the loose ends set straggling the minute they cut ties with their motherland.

These will make Love Child a slightly more complicated watch than its immediate predecessor. For Sama centred on soulmates who met and married young, kept their noses clean amid dire circumstances, and skipped town with a child who was almost certainly too young to realise what was going on. Mulvad's subjects, by contrast, fair trail baggage. Leila left behind an abusive first husband to elope with Sahand, and it's clear from an early crying jag that the kid the latter fathered while Leila was technically still married has felt this rupture, and remains wary of male authority. Sahand, the streaks of silver in his hair becoming more prominent as the film proceeds, is himself conflicted, having spied for the Iranian regime and seen the atrocities that regime was prepared to carry out. The insecurity he feels extends far beyond endlessly refreshing the UNHCR page to check whether the couple's applications to stay have been successful. He fears he'll lose his job at the electronics plant at which he's been hired, and at one point can be heard wondering whether his erstwhile countrymen have had his devices tapped. There are ethical questions floating around Mulvad's decision to sit in on the couple's therapy, but it's a choice the film wields as a potent dramatic tool, almost a weapon. It splits the couple up; it obliges them to go deep into themselves and confess to doubts and worries they possibly wouldn't share with their other half. Whatever contrivance these scenes represent - and it's conceivable Mulvad merely set up Sahand and Leila with a shrink as a structuring device - these frames yield as much truth as the passing observational business. They help us better understand not just who this couple are, but exactly where they're coming from in the intramarital arguments that sporadically break out. As time goes on, and nerves fray, there are plenty of those to pick through.

Nevertheless, Mulvad's achievement is to permit us a surer feel for the rhythms of daily migrant life. After the initial upheaval of departing Iran, the family settle into a new routine; they take delivery of housekeys, transport, new jobs, some measure of domestic happiness. Yet even in the midst of that, we'll observe how some sharp pang of sadness sends everybody back to square one. Mani's birthday party inspires Leila to cue up laptop footage of previous parties back in Iran - and we notice all the friends her son had there that he no longer seems to have in the present. A major complication arises around the halfway mark, as Leila is cleared to move on, but Sahand is left hanging. We just don't know what's next, as the film's subjects didn't know, and as the director couldn't have known. All we can do at such junctures is watch, wait and hope for the best, at least with the knowledge that - however awkward our peeping-in might feel from time to time - this is a lot easier for us than it is for them. You will have questions, not the least among them how Mulvad wound up filming Sahand and Leila as they lay in bed, and how comfortable Sahand and Leila felt arguing, aware as they must have been that they had a filmmaker on their balcony, picking up every wounding insult. The simple fact is we do get close to them - close enough that after just two hours in their company, you may not want to leave them behind. Sahand, genial, but prone to sudden, angry outbursts whenever another setback presents; Leila, wearing a brave face, but more vulnerable than anyone on screen to those melancholy pangs; and bright, sweet Mani, destined to have an easier life than either of his parents, but left with no idea which of them he'll be able to see with any degree of regularity. This is a quieter, calmer film than For Sama, which put us in the very thick of it, but the emotional turbulence visible beneath its surface is compelling, and its bombardments - which are those of fate - are every bit as keenly felt.

Love Child is now streaming via Prime Video and Curzon Home Cinema. 

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