There is something intensely powerful about the delicacy of My Small Land — watching the film, it’s impossible not to be moved by 17-year-old Sarya’s (Arashi Lina) quiet resilience in face of impossibly heavy obstacles. One can’t help but wonder whether a child should have to be this strong; one can’t help but find themselves at Sarya’s side as she is wrapped in the vise-grip of an increasingly tightening fear and dread as the plot unfurls.
“Through[out screenings of] this film, there were many audience members who told me that they learned about the situation of refugee applications in Japan for the first time,” director Kawawada Emma tells The Asian Cut. “Some said that they felt a great sense of helplessness [watching the film], while others said that they felt that it was each and every one of us who is creating this situation because we are indifferent to the refugee issue in Japan.”
The sense of unease that My Small Land sparks in viewers through its commitment to a stark realism as it trails behind its protagonist, to the effect we feel we’re looking over her shoulder, is part and parcel of the point Kawawada wants to make through her debut feature. “I hope such discussions will arise,” she says.
The goal that My Small Land sets for itself is that of a necessary awareness for viewers. And the film, through its gentle and poetic flourishes and hesitant, adolescent movements, brilliantly accomplishes this. It allows us to, slowly at first and then suddenly starkly, countenance something mightily powerful: the humanity and everyday life of people on the fringes of a relatively ethnically homogenous Japanese society, of the struggle toward normalcy and stasis many people holding refugee status face within the country.
My Small Land follows Arashi’s Sarya, a schoolgirl in Japan looking forward to university with hopes of becoming a school teacher someday. She makes good grades, has loving friends, holds down a part-time job at a convenience store to save up for school, and at home she and her family are inextricably linked to and supported by a Kurdish community. Her world shatters when her family’s refugee status is unexpectedly turned down, limiting their movements and denying them the ability to work legally within the country. The film intimately watches Sarya as her father is taken into custody for working illegally and she figures out how to support her younger siblings.
“In the scene where the main character (Sarya) talks to an old woman at a convenience store, I heard an opinion from an audience [member] that they learned for the first time that people with overseas roots can be hurt in such a situation,” Kawawada says. “I thought it would be nice if my film can deepen people’s understanding for others with various roots and backgrounds in Japan.”
Sarya struggles immensely with ideas of belonging and identity — having spent much of her life in Japan, studying and making friends, she still finds herself being told she doesn’t belong and wondering which team she ought to cheer for during the World Cup. A core element for Kawawada in creating the strong perspective she and her team maintain through Sarya, a particular perspective through which to spark important and national conversations about identity and who has the right to belong, was simply listening.
Production for My Small Land began, in a sense, in 2015 for Kawawada, when news and images broke of the Kurdish army combating ISIS. “I was shocked by the photos of young women around my age wielding huge firearms and fighting in the frontlines to protect their land,” Kawawada says in the film’s production notes. Thus, Kawawada began researching and interviewing the Kurdish people seeking asylum in Japan.
According to the New York Times, while the Japanese government does grant temporary residence permits, it is difficult to receive an official refugee status that would allow refugees to settle permanently. In 2021, a Kurdish man in his 20s from Turkey became the first to be granted refugee status in Japan. Many seeking asylum are rejected or told by the government to wait. According to the New York Times, as of 2016, about 14,000 people from various countries are in some stage or another of the process of being granted asylum, and this process can last for more than three years.
My Small Land looks at what happens when a small family is denied refugee status by the government. Kawawada interviewed Kurdish refugees in Japan for two years, visiting families eking out a semblance of normalcy as they await the government’s decision — families just like Sarya’s. She also interviewed those being detained by the Immigration Bureau, from whom she learned the details of a life spent in custody. According to the production notes, one person told Kawawada that, “Applying for refugee status is like suffering an incurable disease,” which left an indelible impression on Kawawada.
According to the film’s production notes, because of COVID-19, many of the Kurds in Japan have lost their jobs as they await a decision on their status, and the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act became more restrictive.
“We had to postpone the filming a number of times [during the pandemic] and also feared it might have to be cancelled altogether,” Kawawada says in the production notes. “But I wanted to do what I could, which was to make this film and convey the story. I didn’t give up, and I was able to complete it. I hope that it provides an opportunity for people to learn about the absurdity of the situation.”
My Small Land is a masterclass in how a deeply trenchant and universal message can be conveyed through an endlessly complex, nuanced, and idiosyncratic tale. Certainly, Sarya and her family’s story reveals the increasingly tightening binds and strictures bureaucratic governmental decisions leave families in, slowly constricting around their hopes and dreams. But through Sarya’s individuality and perspective, Kawawada also tells us the tale of a young girl struggling to tease out an identity for herself.
Because of Shinomiya Hidetoshi’s (Drive My Car) deft cinematography, there is a balmy veneer over the film. We don’t so much see events happening to Sarya as we feel them through her excitement, fear, and sadness at these events, as the camera lingers over her hands, fluttering above translations she has to get done for others, or playing with shadows, brushing away tears.
“This movie is strictly from the perspective of the girl’s life, and I valued carefully each and everything that happened to her,” Kawawada tells us. “I wanted the audience to experience the process of working a part-time job with the aim of going to college, and the process of the boy [a coworker at the convenience store] becoming the first person she wants to talk about herself [with].”
An endlessly precious element of the film is Sarya’s relationship with her father Mazlum, played by Arashi’s real-life dad. It is compellingly apparent the amount of love, trust, and hope Mazlum has for Sarya and his other children (also played by Arashi’s real-life siblings). The film catches glimpses of moments of teaching and happiness between father and his children, but also moments fraught with ire as when Mazlum slaps Sarya as she stands up for her desires.
“I was thinking about the Kurdish parent and child I met during my research and interviews, when I was writing this fictional story,” Kawawada tells us when asked about how she crafted the relationship between the strong but still fallible Mazlum and the quietly defiant Sarya. “Even if they are superficially [strong], sometimes they disagree and at times they become a presence that binds each other because they can’t say their true feelings. In this film, by focusing on the daughter’s point of view, the father’s conflict can only be imagined by the audience as well as the main character.”
“There were about five candidates for the father role, but when I watched their [Arashi and her father’s] acting, it was the actual father who could bring out Lina’s performance the best,” Kawawada says of the decision to cast Arashi’s real-life father.
A sense of fluidity in being amenable to the whims and teachings of the moment greatly informs much of the production of My Small Land. “In this film, I wanted to value what I received from others, and I tried to proceed without being too caught up in my own plans as much as possible,” Kawawada tells us.
In fact, one of the guiding reasons why My Small Land comes in the form of a fictional tale as opposed to a documentary is because of something Kawawada was told during her initial interviews with Kurdish people in Japan. “See us not only as a social issue but also as human beings with our own lifestyle, culture, and individual stories,” an interviewee told Kawawada.
“I wanted to make a film that’s not just about a distant problem but a story that the viewers can connect with and embrace as if it were their own,” Kawawada goes on to state in the notes. “We’ve all experienced being a student, so I wanted people to identify themselves with the characters and tap into their own emotions. Thus, a story about a girl who struggles with her identity.”
Indeed, My Small Land tells a fulsome tale that, from the standpoint of the viewer, feels like a life lived. Kawawada and her team show us the immense and wrenchingly painful trials and tribulations Sarya faces, but also allow her vibrant bursts of joy. We see Sarya’s small Kurdish community feasting, dancing, and singing. We see Sarya falling in love in that all-encompassing way we do when we’re teenagers. There is a soft warmth at the centre of My Small Land, and this speaks to Kawawada’s unignorable talent and compassion as a director.
“Now I want to shoot another story about nationality,” Kawawada tells us, looking toward the future. “However, regardless of the theme, I would like to continue creating films about things which make me feel uncomfortable in my own life.”
My Small Land will be at TIFF Bell Lightbox on November 16, 2022.