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November 13, 2022

Denver Film Festival - My Small Land

my small land.jpg

Mai sumoru rando
Emma Kawawada - 2022

I might have overlooked My Small Land had it not been for the recommendation of Japan Times film critic Mark Schilling. Even while making the circuit of several film festivals, Emma Kawawada's feature debut is running below the radar and at this time does not have U.S. distribution. Kawawada worked for a time as an assistant to Hirokazu Kore-eda. As other critics have pointed out, there is some similarity with the low-key tone and the story about a family in some kind of peril.

The family here is Kurdish refugees in Saitama, just outside of Tokyo. While not precisely stated, it is indicated that the family has lived in Japan for at least a decade as the main character, Sarya, meets with a favorite elementary school teacher during her senior year in high school. Sarya uneasily carries a duel sense of self, of being a Kurd at home while more thoroughly Japanese at school and at her part-time job at a convenience store. Kawada introduces this duality by opening the film with a Kurdish wedding celebration. There is no indication where this celebration is taking place until Kawada cuts to a shot of Emma on the commuter train to Saitama. Sarya's plans to go to college collapse when her family is denied political asylum. Even greater than the possibility of Sarya forced to return to a country that she barely remembers is the threat to her father's life as a political dissident.

Sarya also complicates her life by telling her friends that she is German rather than try to explain what it means to be a Kurd. Because of her fluency in Japanese, she is also called upon to act as a translator, bridging the language gap for the Kurdish community in her Saitama neighborhood. The is a universality in the portrait of immigrants in another culture, between keeping traditional practices and language that collide with assimilation. For Sarya, this means expectations of an arranged marriage with a young Kurdish man versus her aspirations to go to college. There is a humorous scene where the father, attempting to cheer the family after they have had their visas rescinded, takes them to a restaurant where they debate whether it is proper to audibly slurp ramen.

While Kawawada's sympathies are on the side of Sarya, she lets the characters speak for themselves. The film serves as a critical look at some of the more insular aspects of Japanese culture, especially when certain restrictions have unintended consequences. Kawawada spent two years interviewing Kurds living in Japan. Not mentioned in the film is that Japan only allowed citizenship for less than one-hundred refugees. Due to the immigration laws, Kawawada had to be careful in her casting. Sarya is played by teen model Lina Arashi, birth name Lina Kahafizadeh, with members of her own family as her father and siblings. Rather than rely on the script, several of the family scenes were improvised. While mostly in Japanese, there is dialogue in Turkish and a Kurdish dialect. There is also a bit of autobiography with Kawawada having a British father and Japanese mother, with that being treated as an outsider within one's own country while wanting to establish a sense of belonging.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at November 13, 2022 11:20 AM