It’s a rare though extremely precious occurrence when you emerge from a movie feeling as though you have lived an entire life. Emma Kawawada’s directorial debut My Small Land performs such a feat, commingling a raw realism with soft sympathy and understanding. It is a film that manages to flesh out a young immigrant girl’s life in modern-day Japan with an intense gaze that doesn’t waver in face of the turbulence of the immigrant’s lived reality, while also crafting a compelling coming of age narrative full of hope and growth, with a distinctly sympathetic artistic vision. My Small Land is a landmark achievement.
The film follows 17-year-old Sarya (Lina Arashi), a Kurdish high schooler living in a city bordering Tokyo with her father, a laborer, and two younger siblings. The film begins with Sarya preparing for university, optimistically sending out applications as she plans to become an elementary school teacher. She plans to move in with her friends the coming year. She works at a convenience store, where she meets and crushes on a boy who likes her back. At school and for a while with the boy she likes, Sarya conceals her Kurdish heritage, telling them she’s half German.
We learn that her family immigrated to Japan when she was very young, and her two younger siblings were born in Japan, which means Sarya is the only one in the family who not only has a deft grasp of Turkish and Kurdish, but also of Japanese, even more so than her father. Having embedded roots within the Kurdish diaspora in Japan, Sarya functions as a translator for her siblings when they don’t understand their father, and for others within her Kurdish community when they need help with Japanese. When the country denies the family its refugee status — if Sarya’s father, a political refugee from Turkey, returns to that country, he will be jailed or worse — Sarya watches as her world slowly falls apart. Her father is arrested for working illegally, and Sarya wonders how she will be able to support her young siblings on her own if she is also to make it to university.
Kawawada, who is also the film’s screenwriter here, has a keen understanding of how to compellingly tell a tale, how to depict complex and textured characters through the minutiae of life. It’s not just that we observe Sarya as she moves through her increasingly expanding world, Kawawada depicts through Sarya a reckoning, which integrally gels audiences to her, is the bedrock for sympathy and identification. Kawawada spent two years researching the experiences of Kurdish people in Japan for this film, and Arashi herself shadowed a Kurdish high schooler in preparation for her role. The result of these women’s conscientious efforts is that we have a protagonist moving amongst various pressures — societal, familial, communal, and personal — and responding viscerally to their strain.
The film spends much time tracking Sarya’s face — as it blooms into a smile in small moments of joy with her little brother and father or as it strains to keep a facade of strength even as tears glisten in her big, round eyes — with a gentle and warm gaze that feels more like looking over her shoulder than a mere gazing at, and Arashi excels at conveying Sarya’s internal workings through the quivering of her lips, the fluttering of her hands or a downcast gaze. Every aspect of this film, from the framing, to the score, to the performances, is wrought with so much sympathy and compassion, empathy and understanding for every single character, including those governmental officials who deliver orders to Sarya’s family, that it is a tour de force on how to bake humanity into realism.
The film doesn’t seem to paint the issue of Japan’s attitude toward asylum seekers from various parts of the world with the broad strokes of a black and white morality, rather works by depicting the slow and bureaucratic manner in which the government functions (the pregnant words, the pursed lips, and restrained gazes of governmental officials) to show that the issue is complex, and that though it is rooted in a textured history, a swift but hefty governmental gesture can nonetheless upturn various lives.
There is a scene soon after Sarya’s family learns they have been denied their refugee status. To keep his children from thinking about losing the only way of life they know, Sarya’s father takes them to a ramen restaurant. For a while they sit eating quietly, until the father tells his youngest, Robin, to stop slurping — while in Japanese culture slurping noodles is polite, in other cultures it’s seen as rude. Young Robin tells his father that the noodles taste better if you slurp, and so the father tries slurping, too. Robin says something inconsequential, and the family bursts out in laughter, much more jubilant than was warranted by Robin’s comment. This scene, itself inconsequential and small, stunningly captures how we look for any small excuse to laugh to forget, even if for a moment, the terrible thing that has just happened. It’s a precious moment that feels like a hole being punctured into the bell jar to release an oppressive fog for the family, and they know it will pass even as they relish it. The smiles on Sarya and her family’s face in this scene will bring tears to your eyes; it’s a scene that perfectly encapsulates what I mean when I say Kawawada understands that the key to capturing humanity in narratives is through small and quiet moments that let personalities break through the screen and grab hold of audiences’ heart. Even as everything unravels in this film, these small moments hold so much of the plot’s tragedy, not grand moments of earth-rattling catastrophe.
Arashi is spellbinding as young Sarya, stunningly depicting a girl torn by the desire to be a normal teenager and the pressure to be a caretaker within her family. As things become more dire halfway through the film, we can see in Sarya’s eyes how heavily her circumstances weigh on her. Her eyes become half closed, like she’s too tired to keep them open anymore, and she looks up through her bangs at the crumbling world about her, hardly able to hold her head up — she’s almost on autopilot, the way she sits at the table when she finds out she hasn’t been accepted to university because she won’t have access to a visa without a refugee status. This is Arashi’s debut performance and she is so good, so compelling in her depiction of the defeated Sarya who has to keep herself moving or else she and her siblings will drown.
My Small Land is a tour de force, depicting the glimmering beauty of adolescence alongside its attendant growing pains, all while showing audiences a slice of what it is like to be a part of the Kurdish diaspora in Japan. I love it so much for how it depicts that oft underrepresented feeling of existing within an unseen, liminal space as an immigrant: of being simultaneously of two places, of having various native languages, and still not being allowed to belong. You need to watch this movie.