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A Film Review of 'My Small Land' at the Leeds International Film Festival

Ending our film review series, courtesy of the Leeds International Film Festival (LIFF), we have a review of 'My Small Land' from Misia Kozanecka to allow those who didn't get the chance to attend, the chance to experience the cinematic encounter.

Written By Misia Kozanecka

Growing up is hard, however, it is even harder if you are a refugee adolescent living in Japan. My Small Land is a moving story showing the life of a teenage Sarya (Lina Arashi), who’s life seems at the peak of a success. Her grades could earn her a recommendation to university, she has a good circle of friends, a job and even romance is just around the corner. But happiness must come to an end and Sarya is challenged by the complicated family situation. From now on, the 17-year-old must grow up earlier than her peers, when the Japanese government rejects her father's refugee application and her all family’s visas expire.

My Small Land is Emma Kawada's directorial debut, which received critical acclaim at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2022. The immigrant struggle in Japan is not unknown, but Kawada sheds new light on the situation. This story seems more personal, probably because she based it on her own experiences as a Japanese person who looks different from the norm, due to being half British.

It's quite a big issue, the fact that Japan accepts refugee applications in about only 1% of cases. Many young people just like Sarya don’t know other life than the one in Japan, which makes it even more complicated. From the beginning, it outlines how Sarya lives in the two worlds. For a long time, it seems she tries balance well between her traditionalist Kurdish father’s expectations and what she’s developed on her own as Japanese-converted. Nevertheless, despite being part of the Kurdish community, she fears that marriage will be forced upon her, when what she truly wants is independence and the chance to live like the native Japanese girls with whom she identifies. Sarya hides her heritage, she even says that she’s German. It’s easier that way because most even don’t know about existence of this Iranian ethnic group. However, as the film develops those problems don’t seem significant comparing to what happens later.

During the plot development, we see how her life’s been changing in the living hell. Sarya’s family problems start increasing from the moment when her father (after losing their refugee status) is taken to jail because of working without permission. It’s heart-breaking watching such a young girl who has to try any possible way to maintain her family. Not only does our main character have to take care of herself, but also for her younger siblings, which is even more problematic because Sarya is underage meaning she has no right to be their legal guardian.

The film narrative is built from Sarya’s perspective, which, in combination of relatively long takes and a still camera, makes the story more naturalistic. It’s a haunting story about finding your place in the world. Kawada’s brought the fresh view in exploring issues around the immigrant experience. Therefore, even in the face of tragedy, My Small Land never descends into pity. The half of the success of the film is thanks to the lead role, played by Lina Arashi. It’s hard to believe it was Arashi’s debut. Her acting makes us feel as we’re Sarya’s friend, who can’t help her. Apart from Arashi, the entire cast makes no room for falsity. All in all, even though that films oscillate around dramatic events, I didn’t feel it was overdone or bombastically tragic. I can safely say it’s a small-big film, that, especially for the European viewer, helps to come out from a bubble and better understand those problematic issues.


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