By Ali Moosavi.
Love Child is not so much a story about refugees and asylum seekers…. This is a film about love triumphing above all adversaries.”
The subject of asylum seekers has come to the fore in recent years with refugees from war torn countries fleeing to the west and in many cases being confronted with rejection and racist prejudices, which have given rise to the growth of right wing and populist politicians in many countries. There have been many tragic stories of refugees perishing in the sea or suffocating in trucks smuggling them. For these people, life in their home countries has become worthless and they will risk everything so that maybe their children will have a better future, as the Nobel laureate Bob Dylan has written, “When you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose.”
In the documentary Love Child (2019), which premiered at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, Danish documentarian Eva Mulvad follows an Iranian couple, Sahand and Leila, and their three year old son, Mani, as they flee Iran to Turkey. Their aim is to seek asylum in the west while in Turkey. Their case is quite unique. They were both married to other people in Iran. Leila’s husband was a drug addict and after three years of marriage, she was still a virgin. Both Leila and Sahand were teachers and met at their workplace. They found that they shared many interests and fell in love. Leila became pregnant by Sahand but pretended that the child belonged to her husband, as having an affair and specially a child out of wedlock is considered a major sin and can have dire consequences in Iran, and indeed in many Muslim countries. When Leila asked for a divorce, the judge asked her if her husband kept a fridge full of food for her. When she replied that marriage is not just potatoes and oranges, judge advised her to seek solace in prayers and watching TV! Further complicating their situation is the fact that Sahand was asked by the security people in Iran to spy on his colleagues.
Sahand and Leila left Iran in 2012. They hoped that after a few months in Istanbul, they would be officially accepted as refugees by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and be given asylum in a western country such as USA or Canada. However, luck is not on their side and the outflow of refugees from Syria into Turkey means that their application is placed at the back of the queue. The start of their new life in Turkey is difficult. Mani, who thinks that Sahand is his “uncle”, has difficulty in adjusting to him. Leila desperately misses her parents and fears for their safety and has regular session with a therapist. Sahand manages to get a menial job working in a foundry to make ends meet. Since they are not legally married, they cannot be officially considered as husband and wife.
There are however fleeting moments of joy, beautifully captured by director Eva Mulvad. These include Sahand buying a bicycle for the family to ride on and a birthday celebration for Mani. Things gradually begin to lookup; both Sahand and Leila manage to get teaching jobs and build a circle of friends. They take DNA tests to prove that Sahand is the father of Mani and apply through UNHCR for asylum in USA. In another twist in their tale, their sojourn in Turkey extends to 2016 and election of Trump as US President and the “Muslim ban”. Will there be a happy ending? And would staying on in Turkey be such a bad thing as they both have good jobs, speak the Turkish language and the Turkish culture is far closer to the Iranian culture than what they may find in USA. Would they find jobs in USA? Would they be accepted and welcomed there as they have been in Turkey?
It is quite remarkable how long Eva Mulvad and her team spent with this couple. They have managed to capture key moments in their life, as well as smaller but affecting moments of joy and sadness, of togetherness and marital conflict in the course of many years. One wonders how many hours of filming they had to edit from. Were any of the events depicted in the film, specially reenacted for the camera? Were some of the horrors that Sahand claims he witnessed in Iran, such as a stoning of an unfaithful wife, either exaggerated or totally fabricated to help his application? What happened to Sahand’s wife and how did she and her family react to her husband leaving her and fleeing the country? One thing that seems fairly certain though is that they could not have stayed on in Iran under their circumstances. When Leila tells Sahand of their “sacrifices”, Sahand rejects the use of this word and questions Leila as to whether they had any other choices.
Love Child is not so much a story about refugees and asylum seekers; there are far more tragic and important stories on that topic; some of which have been made into documentaries or fiction films. This is a film about love triumphing above all adversaries. The deep love between this couple is most affectively shown in a scene where for Leila’s birthday, Sahand composes a poem for her and Leila says that it is the best birthday present that she has ever received.
Ali Moosavi has worked in documentary television and has written for Film Magazine (Iran), Cine-Eye (London), and Film International (Sweden). He contributed to the second volume of The Directory of World Cinema: Iran (Intellect, 2015).