Cannes (France) – A Sri Lankan novelist and former child soldier stars in “Dheepan”, a French thriller which won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival on Sunday.
In the picture by acclaimed director Jacques Audiard (who made 2009’s “A Prophet”), Anthonythasan Jesuthasan plays a former Tamil Tiger fighter fleeing the mayhem of his war-ravaged homeland.
He and two strangers — a young woman and a nine-year-old girl — pretend to be a family to make it to France on fake passports.
Once they arrive in a rough housing estate on the outskirts of Paris, Dheepan must use his battlefield experience to keep the three of them safe from drug gangs waging a turf war.
Anthonythasan himself fought for the Tamil Tigers from the age of 16.
After three terrifying years, he managed to escape to Thailand before travelling in 1993 on a fake passport to France, where he was eventually granted political asylum.
He told reporters after a warmly applauded Cannes screening of the film that the character of Dheepan was about “50 percent” autobiographical.
“I came to France because at the time I was able to only find a fake French passport and not a fake British or Canadian passport,” Anthonythasan said, noting how difficult it had been to learn the French language.
The Sri Lankan military declared an end to the civil war when it finally killed Tiger supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran in 2009, ending the decades-long campaign for a separate homeland for ethnic minority Tamils.
Anthonythasan, who joined Audiard on stage to accept the prize in Cannes, said during the festival it would still be dangerous for him to return home.
“Officially in 2009 the civil war came to an end. However even today there are still armed attacks against minorities in Sri Lanka,” he said.
“Even today, we don’t know how many prisoners of war were captured by the government, we have no real information.”
Anthonythasan worked odd jobs until he began writing in the late 1990s, churning out short stories, plays, political essays and, most recently, novels inspired by his traumatic experiences in Sri Lanka.
He took a break from writing to appear in Audiard’s movie, before which his acting had mainly been limited to propaganda street theatre for the Tamil Tigers and later, a bit role in an Indian movie.
“I was already familiar with Jacques’s films” before taking the part of Dheepan, he said.
“When it came to the acting, it was difficult but it was a joy.”
His next book, set in present-day Sri Lanka, is due out in July.