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Cannes, France (AFP)- A former Tamil Tiger fighter fleeing the mayhem of his native Sri Lanka must do battle on the mean streets of a French housing estate in a movie shown Thursday at Cannes spotlighting Europe’s refugee crisis.

“Dheepan” by one of France’s most acclaimed film directors, Jacques Audiard, tells the story of the war-scarred title character meeting a young woman and a nine-year-old girl in a refugee camp.

In order to win passage to France, they assume the identities of a dead family to use their travel papers.

They arrive, still strangers to each other and speaking no French, in social housing in a rough Paris suburb.

Still haunted by their country’s brutal civil war, Dheepan finds work as a caretaker at the estate while his purported wife Yalini accepts a job as a cook and a maid for the disabled uncle of one of the drug lords.

But as the trio grows closer, they come under attack by the gangsters and Dheepan must revive the soldier inside him to protect his “family”.

The lead actor, novelist Anthonythasan Jesuthasan making his screen debut, was himself forced to fight as a child solider in Sri Lanka from the age of 16.

After three terrifying years, he managed to escape to Thailand before making it to France, where he was granted political asylum.

He told reporters after a warmly applauded press preview of the film that the character was about “50 percent” autobiographical.

Audiard, a Cannes favourite, specialises in films on broken people looking for a fresh start.
He said he “couldn’t have placed Sri Lanka on a map” when he started working on the screenplay”.

“The intention was not to produce a documentary on the civil war in Sri Lanka or housing estates. That violence is the backdrop. We wanted the characters to embody this whole story,” he said.

Early reviews were largely positive despite a jarring ending.

London’s Evening Standard newspaper called it an “intense thriller that goes to the heart of the immigrant crisis”.

“Dheepan” is one of 19 films in competition for the Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’Or top prize, to be awarded on Sunday.