Film teaches us more about the world we inhabit, with the simplicity of just watching. On a molecular level, the collective we, as an audience, are merely beholding a mechanised direction of light. A series of moving images, millions of pixels cast on a concrete plane, brushing shoulders against strangers in an eclipsed hall, our feet on the floor, with narrowed distraction and amplified senses. What we bear witness to becomes our entire world for those holy two hours. Edward Lovelace’s Name Me Lawand (2023) is no different.
Name Me Lawand is a lyrical documentary following the early life of a profoundly deaf, Iraqi-Kurdish boy, Lawand Hamad Amin. Whilst learning British Sign Language, Lawand faces challenges in adjusting to unfamiliar surroundings in Derbyshire, following traumatic immigration and upheaval whilst seeking asylum across Europe. Indeed, in the boundless tapestry of the post-covid documentary, (polluted by gaudy, neon-coated, Netflix-commissioned exposés and VICE-riddled immersionist blunders), Lovelace’s feature stands slow and tall. We watch a lyrical insight into boyhood, where the most valuable currency is understanding.
Lovelace envelopes us in a journey that grapples with the complexities of identity and boyhood. From the delicate threads of fraternal bonds to the vastness of migration, we witness the formation of Lawand’s identity. His experiences in education are seen beside arduous migration from war-torn Iraq to the desolate confines of the Calais “jungle”. We reach his eventual settlement in Derby, where solace is found at the Royal School for the Deaf. Through his mastery of British Sign Language, Lawand gains a profound understanding of the world. Namely, the importance of being able to express one’s identity.
Name Me Lawand is striking in its visual stylisation. Sweeping handheld landscapes and experimental aspect ratio changes capture the expanse and possibility that the edge of boyhood crosses its fingers at. The feature is shot in a very non-documentary style: cinematic drone footage and Bressonian glimpses of limbs provide a visual sublime. For those viewers familiar with BFI’s particular visually indulgent sensibility (by that, I mean a tote bag wearing, overground hopping, natural wine drinking, MUBI subscriber—I am in the room with you!), the film’s visuality echoes previous independently produced releases. Henry Blake’s County Lines (2019) has a similar tangibility of movement and cinematographic expansiveness. A shot of Lawand and his brother running through a yellow field echoes Lukas Dhont’s Close (2022), distributed internationally by MUBI. Indeed, to be in a position where a viewer can submerge their mind in arthouse cinema provides a certain privilege of time and resources. A harsh contrast is created between Lawand’s life and the typical BFI viewer. Does this distance between privileged audience and subject aid a far-removed, class-related sentimentality? Or is this just a diverse representation within the cinematic space?
The hindrance to this flair, however, is the extent to which the viewer is distracted by asking a question: how much directorial intervention was there? Who filmed this seemingly naturalistic but invasive footage? Documentary ethics are then raised. Has an indulgence in visuality overshadowed the hardships of a minority? Indeed, through the film’s interaction with hand-held archive footage (similar to the likes of Hirokazu Kore-eda, or Charlotte Wells’ 2022 film Aftersun), we see that Lawand has been filming along the way. In this respect, he is a collaborator. He has documented his own story.
Yet, Name Me Lawand has a tendency to over-indulge its anxious aesthetic. The score is often heavily monumental; unprecedented threat seems imminent all the time. This detracts from sentimentality and instead feeds into anxious artistic indulgence: we are being spoon-fed a dessert-like pastiche of heavy-handed melancholy. We don’t need to be shown sadness through obvious cinematic markers; it has been prescribed simply through the bargaining to belong and be understood. This is why Lawand’s journey is so significant. Despite being on a completely individualised, idiosyncratic path, the universal function of finding identity in the liminal pre-teen years can be applicable (or at least, empathetic) to every viewer.
Importantly, this documentary reaches a climactic moment of political significance. Lawand and his family’s support in legislating the BSL Act is fruitful: on Tuesday 28th of June 2022, the act was successfully passed into law. Of course, migration and the threat of unjust Home Office deportation are rife. Name Me Lawand successfully follows a personal progression (as a result of bleak isolation and political harshness) whilst absorbing the sweetness of the titular boy-hero. This approach allows the audience to forge a connection with his boyish lack of experience. By doing so, Lovelace can effectively highlight the inherent cruelty and injustice of deportation. The film therefore demonstrates political injustice through the singular subject of Lawand, since he permeates our world for those certainly holy two hours.
The lyrical account of a bargaining childhood in the midst of political instability is powerful. A deeper understanding is generated, where the audience is called to question their passivity and the potential for unjust deportation. When watching, I am pulled out of a detached lull. I am not just viewing a BFI-commissioned, auteur-driven feature. I am viewing a systematic implosion of the fundamental right to belong and be understood. I have been taught a little bit more about the world I inhabit by just watching Lawand’s journey. This clenching of my stomach is visceral, and it is important.
Name Me Lawand is available now on BFI Player Subscription.
Edited by Oisín McGilloway, Co-Film & TV Editor