Review: Dayan (2018)

Can a film be made to bear the weight of history? 

That seems to be the question that director Behrouz Nooranipour is investigating, following his one-two punch of A157, his 2015 documentary feature and Dayan, his debut fiction feature. Both are centred on the atrocities that ISIS has wrought in the Kurdish region and the sobering human cost levied upon the displaced. 

Behrouz Nooranipour, director of Dayan (2018)
Hailing from the Kurdistan province of Sanandij in Iran, Nooranipour is a poet of his people, singing of people and wars. An antitype of Homer, where the latter once regaled with hymns of heroes and faceless soldiers, Nooranipour instead renounces the battlefield and brings us back to the individual. 

The political is now personal. Their lives, so often scrawled out in blood with the permanence of sand and told with a gasp, is rendered immemorial by Nooranipour with the emphatic finality of a bullet point.

Dayan follows the toils of Seiban, an aging Syrian father whose life of quiet desperation is upended after the eruption of the Syrian war. He is put in an essential non-position: part with his disabled children in order to grasp at the illusion of survival, or rage against the dying of the light with them in tow. The dilemma in play is not so much whether to take the road less travelled, but what to do when you have run out of road. 

Although the film has a brisk 80 minute runtime, the pitch black portrait of existence that it paintslit only by the conflicted humanity of Seiban flickering with dying embers at its edgesgives it the compunction and heft of a film thrice its running time. 

Perhaps the medium truly is the message here. If sitting in an air-conditioned room on upholstered seats for less time than it takes to get out of a bad traffic jam can be an emotionally draining experience, then a day in the life of Seiban must prove unimaginable. 

But yet he endures, and yet they endure. 

Hope is the unspoken manna that lurks just beyond the corner of the frame. Surely it must be the impetus that keeps the protagonists of the film from chasing down every blind alley, to scale every sparse, perilous mountain blanketed with snow, for that one tiny morsel of light that begets more light. 

Perhaps it is glibness on my part and a certain amount of wilful ignorance that I, sat comfortably in my creature comforts away from the tongues of war, would have the audacity to use cinema to speak of hope on such mercilessly intractable matters. What do I know of men and the lives they would pawn away for their ideologies, and what more could I know of being a pawn that these men would unthinkingly fritter away in their games of war, not because of hate or anything intentional as that, but from a sideway glance, a lack of thought. An inconvenience

What can cinema do, even the best of it, have to say on these matters? 

Yet still we have hope, that one inalienable quiver that exists if only we dare fix our gazes upon it. It is hope and will forged from the wreckages of shibboleth that keeps Seiban going and hundreds of millions going. I am not for a moment suggesting that the film is giving or meant to give hope or solace to anybody. 

Maybe it is enough that it remembers and bears witness to the spirit of these people, that they might not be lost to the wind just yet.

Accusations are often levelled at films that deal with current events and are sympathetic towards the displaced and disenfranchised. They are frequently viewed askance, treated with leery eyes and decried as exploitative or manipulative, baits engineered for sympathy and awards. These denunciations often uncharitably strip these films of their value and more importantly, confuses what a film is about with how it expresses what it is about. It is perhaps easy to view Dayan with these jaundiced eyes. 

One need only look towards the film’s breathless conclusion to realize that it is not just a tragic sob story with a downbeat ending that we are meant to consume and feel bad over for a day or two before giving ourselves a pat on the back for having done so. The film ends on a precipice, a cusp as Seiban stares into the snowy unknown, cast adrift. In this manner, the film has not truly ended, with its afterlife continuing on surely as Seiban presses on. The struggles and atrocities, to put bluntly, continue on.

Written by Koh Zhi Hao
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