This quietly moving drama from Swedish/Turkish director Süheyla Shwenk follows Hayat (Halima Ilter), a pregnant woman who moves to Berlin from Syria with her husband Harun (Baran Sükrü Babacan). The film finds the two struggling with their new life as Hayat’s horrific past rears its head.
Jiyan is at its best when it deals with Hayat’s background. Schwenk wisely employs a show-don’t-tell approach to the horror she witnessed by opening with a found footage explosion and then continuing to reveal brief flashbacks throughout the narrative. We experience Hayat’s nightmares as she does – sparsely and suddenly. It is clear that these events haunt her but they do not require expository explanation. Her past is always conspicuous despite the present setting.
The film effectively exposes how political tensions can spread outside of the battlefield. Hayat and Harun are staying with Harun’s family. Because of Hayat’s Kurdish heritage Harun’s Turkish step-aunt, Gülsüm, (Füsun Demirel) treats her with contempt. Similarly, Harun’s connection to Hayat is briefly mentioned as a reason for his exclusion from his own family. Nationalistic conflicts disturb the household even in the seemingly peaceful setting.
We spend most of the runtime in Hayat’s bedroom, which creates a necessary sense of claustrophobia and ensures we remain connected to the refugee experience. Even though both she and Harun are away from Syria, the problems typically experienced by immigrants plague them both. They risk deportation because of their illegal status. Any event that brings attention to them could be the final straw – a new job becomes a new way to get caught, as does Hayat’s pregnancy. They cannot truly experience their environment, and after a while, their new home seems like a newer, more comfortable prison.
The use of food further emphasises the characters’ outsider status. Though the family are in Germany, much attention is placed on Turkish dining – the one time Harun brings Currywurst home he must hide it from his family. Food connects the characters to their home whilst re-itarating their disconnection from German culture. These details are well-observed by Shwenk.
Given that so much of the drama is quiet, it is often up to the actors to elevate the emotions of the characters. Halima Ilter does a fantastic job of this – Hayat’s journey is particularly treacherous and she depicts her pain with power and nuance. The rest of the cast all offer subtle, believable performances.
At times Jiyan could have been more ambitious. Though the film benefits from its stage-like, one-location setting, it would have been interesting to see more interaction between Hayat, Harun and the city of Berlin. The few instances of this are powerful. Phillipe Faucon’s Fatima (2015), a similar tale of refugee culture, is more successful in this regard. Equally, more could have been made of Hayat’s experience in Syria. Even though Shwenk’s confidently cinematic use of flashbacks ensures realism, her restrained approach limits the film’s potential power.
At a brief 76 minutes there is also little time to waste, however certain scenes feel inessential. Much of the film lingers on moments of silence between characters. Though this helps to ground the film in reality, it becomes an overused technique that does little to advance the plot or characters.
Jiyan’s has a poignant conclusion to make. It’s a moving end that solidifies Schwenk’s political point as well as her compassion for her characters. She has tackled an important aspect of the human experience with a detailed outlook that should be commended in spite of its flaws.
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