“Kayan” offers a glancing impression of Middle Eastern diaspora life through a vivid rendering of a busy Lebanese restaurant in Vancouver. Iran-born helmer Maryam Najafi films an actual eatery, enlisting its staff and clientele to play themselves; their seamless perfs contribute to the pic’s docu-like veracity, led by thesp Oula Hamadeh’s magnetic presence in a complex leading role. Produced by Iran director Amir Naderi (“Cut”) and co-winner of the New Currents award at Busan, the film naturally caters to festivals, but may be too small in scope to rate a spot on the menu of theatrical distribs.
Signaling the start of another work day at Kayan, the restaurant she runs in the Vancouver suburbs, Lebanese divorcee Hanin (Hamadeh) steps out of her flat pumps into high heels. As she hobbles to and fro in obvious pain, dealing with one crisis after another, recurring shots of her stilt-like shoes make them a symbol of the precariousness of her job and life.
The bistro, whose name means “existence” in Lebanese Arabic, is perennially enveloped in smoke from the shisha, or hookahs; one can hardly tell the film is set in North America. The clientele is almost exclusively Middle Eastern, and outside, Vancouver is glimpsed only in indistinct night scenes of Hanin driving along the highway, underscoring the tight-knit, closed-off community she lives in.
The restaurant totally consumes Hanin, and as if to emphasize her lack of a settled family life, not a single scene is set in her home. Her teenage daughters, Hiam (Kayan Bennett) and Layal (Kiara Bennett), make do with the backroom office as their private quarters. Najafi structures mini-dramas of varying intensity around the confined spaces in which Hanin moves, revealing different sides to her character in each. Her day reps a long series of negotiations with everyone from her overworked kitchen staff and difficult customers to a Spanish flamenco band she wants to hire.
Her fiance, whom she hopes will become a shoulder to lean on and a surrogate father for her daughters, appears only as a disembodied voice (played by Mohsen Pejgaleh) on her mobile. On the other hand, Pejman (Alireza Taale), a customer and recent emigre from Iran, makes his presence felt by paying her more attention than she wants.
More dire complications surface with the frequent visits of Sahar (Seira Emami), a regular customer who drowns her troubles in booze and shows no gratitude to Hanin for taking care of her young son. As the cause of Sahar’s rancorous attitude comes to light, the emotional crisis that’s been brewing all along blows up in Hanin’s face. It’s a tense moment that Najafi handles with restraint, without diluting the impact of Hanin’s disappointment or the pride and resolve she demonstrates under duress.
Despite the character’s absolute reticence about her past — why or how she left her homeland, what her previous and present relationships are like — the fatigue written all over her face speaks volumes. As Hanin, Hamadeh does more than play herself, ably handling abrupt mood changes and giving voice to the difficulties of single, middle-aged women who have to fend for themselves. The other actors are so convincing, one forgets they’re non-professionals.
Tech credits are adequate. Farhad Saba’s camera is always positioned to catch characters off guard, and Najafi’s editing picks up speed toward the end, making a strong emotional impact with some bold crosscutting. The unusual move to alternate more standard Middle Eastern music with plangent flamenco tunes raises the otherwise subdued dramatic pitch.