The tendency to apply the label “narrative film” to non-documentary cinema is a convenience, but also a misnomer: Documentaries can be as narratively driven as any fiction feature, as “Love Child” proves in entirely engrossing fashion. Spanning six years in the lives of two Iranian refugees — and their out-of-wedlock son — as they seek permanent sanctuary from a homeland where they face the death penalty for their love, Eva Mulvad’s film is remarkable for its intimate, extended access, its subtle political acuity and its personal window into a global crisis. But it’s first and foremost a feat of captivating storytelling, rich in character detail, vivid temporal awareness and high-stakes tension: a relationship drama in which more rides on its central couple staying the course than most.
Since its September premiere in Toronto’s documentary strand, this mostly Turkish-set Danish production has unsurprisingly been racking up high-profile festival berths, including dates at Chicago (where it won the top prize), Doc NYC and now in IDFA’s Masters program. That’ll continue into 2020, with distribution in multiple regions sure to follow for an audience-friendly film that doesn’t offer easy uplift at the expense of considerable emotional and procedural rigor. Its moments of elated catharses, meanwhile, still come bound to question marks over the future. Rarely is any immigrant’s journey wrapped up in a bow; “Love Child” gets that better than most.
Mulvad, the seasoned Danish docmaker best known for 2010’s acclaimed mother-daughter portrait “The Good Life,” begins “Love Child” in an immersive whirl of panic. Lovers Sahand and Leila are introduced, with their toddler-age son Mani, as they hurriedly pack and prepare to leave Iran, voicing fears that they could be dead within a day. As they cross the border into Turkey, anxiously seeking a hotel room for the night, a stressed, tearful Leila calls her mother: The catch in her voice suggests they may not be seeing each other again.
Mulvad initially leaves the audience to deduce the life-or-death nature of the crisis, though the full story emerges from Leila as we cut to an exhaustively confessional therapy session some years later. Trapped in an arranged, unconsummated marriage to an abusive addict in Tehran, Leila fell in love with gentle literature teacher Sahand, eventually falling pregnant with his child. Though she managed to convince her husband — despite their never having been intimate — that Mani was his son, the situation was psychologically untenable. To live honestly would lead to their execution by Iranian authorities. Escape is their only option, but persuading another country to grant them asylum on this basis, particularly in a system flooded with Syrian war victims, is no simple task.
Gradually, the three settle into some semblance of normal family life: they rent a modest apartment on the outskirts of Istanbul, Sahand finds a menial job to get them by, Mani is sent to kindergarten. Yet the entirely conditional nature of that stability nags constantly away at the couple, as they become consumed by the circuitous process of applying for asylum through the UN, checking the status of their case on the website as frequently and compulsively as others scroll through social media. “People who want a better life have to go through hard times, and this is our hard time,” Leila explains to Mani, though the question of how long that hard time will be is akin to the proverbial piece of string. Officially, there’s little acknowledged difference in such cases between six months and six years of living in stateless limbo, but the lives involved fray visibly with each passing day.
Though the structure is essentially linear, editor Adam Nielsen plays on this elastic sense of time passing to striking, irregular rhythmic effect, conveying the distorting effect this cruel waiting game has on everyday life. Though the consecutive years are marked on the screen, the film occasionally appears caught in a maddening, deliberate temporal loop; even the persistently changing length of Sahand’s hair points to a disrupted, glitchy chronology. Yet stray moments of fleeting, caught-in-amber joy and tenderness speckle this procession of days upon days: a child’s birthday party, a bicycle ride, a celebratory drink after one small stage of the application goes in their favor.
A camera is somehow present for all of these, as well as many lower points, including a number of exhausted, enraged arguments between Sahand and Leila as their jangled nerves get the better of them. (The film is credited to five DPs, including the director, while some footage appears caught on the fly with a phone.) As a work of vérité, “Love Child” is so fluidly and organically constructed that the presence of someone else in the room seems unimaginable at many points: It’s hard not to wonder how carrying a film project for so long further weighed on its vastly sympathetic subjects. Whatever the case, the document that has emerged from their struggle is riveting and essential, not just for finding seismic personal drama in the refugee experience — that goes without saying — but for situating that tumult in such sharp, strange, tangibly disorienting time and space.