Directed by Kawawada Emma, My Small Land is an intimate look into the life of a young Kurdish girl living as a refugee just outside Tokyo. Encompassing themes of identity, parent-child relationships, immigration, coming-of-age, and first romance, the film patiently and thoughtfully presents a story that is at once particular to one community (refugees in Japan) yet universally understood.
Sarya (Arashi Lina) is a shy, studious, and dutiful teenager who dreams of attending college to become an elementary school teacher. In order to save up for tuition, she secretly holds a cashier’s job at a convenience store in Tokyo where she develops a budding relationship with Sota (Okudaira Daiken), another employee who also harbours dreams of going to college, specifically an art school in Osaka. At home, she obediently helps her father and fellow Kurdish refugees with small tasks, including acting as a translator, and minds her younger brother and sister (Arashi’s own family members play her father and siblings in the film).
Their humble lifestyle is the result of Sarya’s father having fled persecution after speaking up for the freedoms of the Kurdish people in Western Asia. The family settled in Japan years ago, with Sarya’s mother passing away sometime after their arrival, but during the events of the film, they are left in a tenuous position when their application for refugee status is inexplicably turned down. Suddenly, Sarya and her father no longer have the legal right to work and the family cannot travel outside the city limits of Saitama. Shortly afterwards, Sarya’s father is detained by immigration services for continuing to work illegally and the children are left to fend for themselves at home.
Sarya does not reveal this devastating news to her friends or boss; only the other fellow Kurds know what has happened. But Sarya does not reach out to them for help, perhaps out of a combination of embarrassment and a desire not to burden others. She uses her meagre cashier earnings to cover rent and briefly considers becoming a karaoke escort, a lucrative job for teenage girls who don’t mind selling hugs, kisses, and other “extras” to men, but is quickly scared off by her first client.
However, Sarya eventually opens up about her dire situation to Sota, her only confidant. Their relationship is significant. Equally gentle and new to love, Sarya and Sota slowly draw towards each other and open up about their youthful hopes and dreams while finding kinship in the shared experience of living in a single-parent household. Sota is one of the first people to whom Sarya feels comfortable revealing her cultural background as it is shown that not even Sarya’s school friends know that she is Kurdish. By some assumption established years ago, everyone thinks she is German, and she has gone along with it ever since.
Sarya’s apparent self-loathing over her background in a predominantly ethnically homogenous Japan is understandable, but also at odds with her father. A proud Kurdish man, he has worked hard to keep his cultural identity, commingling with fellow Kurdish expats to maintain a strong community through sharing traditional food and stories about their homeland. On the surface, he appears to be a typically stern and conservative immigrant father; for instance, he insists that the family have meals together and demands that Sarya stop seeing Sota. (It is heavily implied that she should marry another Kurdish man from the community.)
However, by the film’s end, it is revealed that his ultimate goal was to send Sarya to college and that he has managed to acquire visas for his children to continue to live in Japan — at the cost of his own freedom. While her siblings may not yet comprehend their father’s sacrifice, Sarya finds liberation and self-acceptance through finally understanding her father’s gift and her place in Japan. As she moves forward with her life, an enormous burden lifted off her thin shoulders, she comes to accept the heritage that her father has passed on to her as a Kurd.
Arashi is unpretentiously authentic as the reserved protagonist on the brink of maturity. The young actress, in her first feature and lead role, comes from a diverse background of Japanese, German, Iranian, Iraqi and Russian origins. Her father too gives a convincing performance as a forbearing patriarch and fiercely proud Kurd who nevertheless deeply loves his family.
Kawawada, having come up through internationally respected director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s production company Bun-buku, directs the naturalistic performances from her less experienced actors with a measured hand. She also has a truly empathetic view of the plight of her subjects, having done extensive research into the Kurdish diaspora in Japan and the struggles of refugees there. The film is a quiet indictment of the ways that the systems have failed vulnerable refugees and their families.
My Small Land opens in Canadian theatres starting October 21, 2022.