Sahand and Leila flee from Iran to Turkey after their extra-marital affair leads to the birth of their son Mani. Towards the end of this often heartbreaking documentary, Sahand asks Leila: ‘Do you think we’re expecting too much from life?’ They’ve just learned that Donald Trump has closed the US to refugees from seven Muslim countries, ostensibly to protect the country from terrorists. Sahand and Leila are not terrorists but they are in danger. Adultery is still a capital crime in Iran. Leila fears she could be stoned to death; both fear their families could be arrested, even tortured. Leila has pretended that Mani is her husband’s child. Now they are stuck in Turkey in agonising bureaucratic limbo, a family of unrecognised parts.
The great achievement of Love Child is to always present the faceless and grotesque within a domestic context, never allowing the simple pleasures of life to escape the shadow of statelessness and fear. Buying a bicycle, attending a school play, having a family day out: everything is coloured by the spectre of rejection, that their case for refugee status will be refused. Sahand compulsively checks the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) portal to see if their case has progressed.
Every positive step is countered with a setback. Years pass, as we see the couple move from the breathless anxiety of escape to the daily grind of work, dinner, occasional bickering, occasional good times. They finally can get married. They fall out over how to decorate a room for Mani’s birthday: you feel that it’s almost a relief to direct their frustration at something else for a change. ‘Their system,’ says Leila, ‘it destroys people.’
Love Child sweeps you up in its story, though it’s barely sentimental. The three of them are not presented as some sort of saintly family. Leila smothers Mani; Mani initially angrily rejects Sahand as his real father; Sahand inexplicably contacts someone in the Iranian secret service. Part of the predicament of the refugee, it constantly shows us, is that you never know if you’re doing the right thing. But it also reminds us that that’s the same for any family. It’s that link that makes this stunning, low-key film so powerful. Sahand, Leila and Mani’s situation is everyone’s situation, just with the pressures, fears for the future and endless self-questioning amplified a thousand times. Are we expecting too much from life? Yes. No. I don’t know.
Available to stream in the UK now.