Love Child (2019): Intimate Portrayal Of Hope
By: Siavash Rokni
Love Child begins in 2012. Its opening shot of Tehran’s landscape in the dusk with a halo of the iconic Milad tower in the backdrop pulls you immediately to the nostalgic aura of the polluted yet gorgeous city. The camera shifts to the house of a distressed man packing in a hurry. We don’t know who is filming, but the camera goes around and shows the apartment. It is not just a house, it is a life that is being left behind on a whim. Another root being uprooted. A crying Sahand sits beside the camera, gazes into the lens with eyes full of sadness and fear and shares his state of being with us: “this is the last day at home [...] I’m not sure if tomorrow I will be dead or alive”.
How do you film ambiguity? What do you do to portray the feeling of living in a state of limbo? How do you interact with a camera when you are being gazed at while your life and future depends on a gargantuesque bureaucratic structure that does not categorize your situation? These are some of the questions posed by Eva Mulvad’s 2019 film Love Child.
The film follows Sahand and Leila, a couple who fell in love while they were both married; and their child Mani, the result of their extra marital affair. Mani was conceived when Leila was with her ex-husband. Since he was thought to be his child, he carries his last name. The couple leave Iran with Mani, out of the fear of prosecution, since extramarital affairs in the country are punished heavily, sometimes by death. The complexity of their case before the United Nations is that even though Mani is their biological child, he does not share either of their last names, and therefore can not recognized as their child within the categories of the UNHRC. Adding to this story, the family is applying for refugee status just as the Syrian war is about to begin. With the flood of Syrian refugees to Turkey and other countries, the case faces several backlogs. This means that the family has no choice but to make a temporary life in Turkey.
From a macro level, this is a film that deals with love, ambiguity and the human capacity to adapt. The obvious elephant in the room is indeed the notion of illegitimate love. This love is not only problematic before the state, but also troublesome in the eyes of family and friends. It thus becomes one of the central poles of the film, dealing with the psychological impacts that such secrecy and feeling of guilt have on both Sahand and Leila. Their discourse throughout the film and their ways of dealing with guilt is their way of coming out to the world. In doing so, their goal becomes the ideal of reaching “the normal” in some shape or form in a country that would accept them as refugees together.
Meanwhile, their illegitimate love in their country becomes complicated love outside. Wherever they look, their “situation” can not be ticked in a box on a form. It needs explanation and bureaucracy never has time or a place for that. Thence dealing with ambiguity becomes the second pole of the narrative of the documentary. We see this ambiguity throughout the film. The camera constantly captures Sahand looking at his phone or computer and refreshing his United Nations’ refugee claim account page on the Internet, a bleak orange page that seems like a poorly designed doodle page. The ambiguity and obsession is articulated beautifully when Sahand, hoping for a quick response from UNHRC, says that “waiting will never leave us alone, at least we would know what to expect”. This not knowing haunts both Sahand and Mani until the end of the documentary.
The final pole of the film’s narrative is the way the family makes a home, albeit temporarily. The role of Mani in this pole is extremely important since he is being uprooted without really knowing why things are changing so dramatically. He has known his father as an uncle and he is being conditioned to adapt and move on by the fact of being in a new physical space. The fact that both Sahand and Leila already speak the Turkic language Azeri, which is close to Turkish, gives them a big advantage in settling in Turkey. Meanwhile, the couple finds a home, figures out sources of income, creates a family and settles in the new environment. What drives this is not only the human capacity to adapt, but also the care that the couple show to each other and the support that they give each other in traveling this journey together.
The film’s camera work tells us a lot about the intentions of the director. For one, we see a great number of close up shots. The camera seems to attempt connecting to the subjects by proximity.
It captures facial expressions to tell their story and portray a great range of emotions including happiness, sadness, anger, anxiousness, anticipation and vulnerability. Meanwhile, it acts as a hunter of moments, and specifically those of intimacy. It gazes into the private life of the couple and their child and, while it tries to hide itself by playing a role of passive observer, its presence is always felt. This is not surprising considering the history of cinema vérité and its preoccupation with detaching itself from its subjects while personally gazing at their personal lives.
Finally, the film’s music is very interestingly positioned to the story. On the one hand, it is completely disconnected from the land and culture where the film is set. On the other hand, it is very fitting to the narrative of the documentary. The music comes in very sporadically and its job is mainly to move the narrative from one bloc to the next. The lack of music could someetimes be felt in the documentary. The first piece, for example, is heard at the 15 minute mark. It consists of fairly ambiguous melodic lines and harmonies that portrays the feeling of not knowing what will happen in the future. As the film continues, the music goes towards more structured melodic structures and harmonies. Moreover, the use of woodwind instruments, specially clarinet, really reinforces the idea that the family is never settled. One could, however, complain that the music is too Western for the film’s of narrative and geography.
If one thing vindicates Love Child it is perhaps how it gives voice to Leila. It is also intensely personal, a feat only achieved by the best of documentaries. Mulvad shows real talent in digging deep into the emotions of the subjects and connecting to them on a personal level. Through the voice it gives to Leila and the intimate portrayal of one family’s struggle, the film captures the dynamics of living in fear and facing ambiguous futures.