Canadian director Philippe Falardeau is on a career high. Originally studying to be a journalist, Falardeau found his true calling when he the televised competition program The Race Around the World where participants tour the world for 6 months making short films.
Making his feature film debut in 2000 with The Left Hand Side of the Fridge, Falardeau has gone on to make one well received film after another in his native Quebec, before garnering international acclaim for latest film Monsieur Lazharwhere he received a nomination for Best Foreign Film at this year’s Academy Awards.
Based on the one character play written by Evelyne de la Cheneliere, Monsieur Lazharis a touching movie set in a Montreal school where a year 6 class is coming to terms with the suicide of their teacher. Hired as a substitute is Bachir Lazhar (Mohamed Fellag) an immigrant who is dealing with a loss of his own.
Matt’s Movie Reviews spoke to Phillipe Falardeau about making Monsieur Lazhar, his entry into the world of filmmaking and shunning Hollywood’s advances.
Monsieur Lazhar is an adaptation of the one character play “Bashir Lazhar”. What was it about the play that you thought it would make a good movie, and explain the process of adapting it into a movie with several characters?
Well it was a situation where one of the biggest anguish I have every time I finish a film is “What is going to be my next film?” When I saw the play on that particular night I was not scouting for a subject, so it was a situation where the subject found me, which is the easiest thing that can happen. It just strikes you. First of all you have to be moved and I was not moved intellectually, I was deeply moved because I loved the character’s humanity, dignity and his fragility also.
The fact that I started political science and international relations, I am really into these topics like immigration. But it was not about immigration. He was an immigrant, he was a refugee who had his whole background story that enriched the character, but it was not about that.
I thought it could make a great film as I was listening to it. I had to imagine the other characters because he was there alone on stage, speaking to either the class, or the school headmaster, or other teachers and we would have to imagine them. We didn’t see them, we didn’t hear them and I guess I was drafting at that time the first script, in a way.
About transforming that into a film is not that difficult. Because I am a script writer I like to put in my own stuff. It meant that I had efficient manoeuvring space to invent additional characters and issues. The thing that was pivotal was to make sure that there would be a dramatic tension and that would sustain the interest of the audience throughout the film.
In the play everything is suggested, and the spectator is involved in a very poetic way. In the film you have to show things, and therefore you have to be real. So the start of the film was important to set up the dramatic tension and emotional tension to carry the story until the end. Like for instance when the boy breaks down at the end, that has to be installed at the beginning of the film.
Mohamed Said Faleg was great in the title role. Did you know of him beforehand?
No. It was the playwright who had seen him in a show, because he is a stand-up comic and she had seen him at a show in Brussels a few years back. It was a coincidence, but he had read the play. He had done one public reading of the play in France so he knew about the play.
I went to see him on You Tube and I liked how he looked, but I didn’t think that what he was doing was the right tone for the film. But still I wanted to meet him because I knew that he lived what the character went through, and we hit it off immediately.
I made a small addition with him. Coming back home I looked at it and there were some things that were right on and then there were some things that were totally off. I just thought if he was right on with certain aspects, it means that with some work he can be right one everywhere. So surely enough we worked hard…he worked very hard to use a lot of restraint to portray this character, which was what I wanted because I don’t like over acting and I think he did a good job.
|"I was much more interested in the man and the film is saying that it’s about meeting the other much more than the problem of integrating an immigrant." - Phillipe Falardeau
You touched on that the main character is an immigrant from Algeria. Immigration is a big issue in Australian culture and politics. Is that the same case in Canada, especially Quebec?
Yeah in both sides of French Canada and English Canada. It’s a topic that concerns mainly the big city’s really, because outside of the big city’s the immigrant population is not as important. It’s funny because we both Australia and Canada are a land of immigrants. They were built by immigrants that arrived here, there were always Aboriginal people on the land before, so it’s very similar.
Then we get to the second part of the 20th Century where things change. There is an established population that consider themselves from there, and then you get the refugee phenomenon mixed with the immigrant phenomenon and I think after 9/11 things have changed a lot. People are suspicious of the other and the governments have been cracking down on the illegal immigration, but also making the rules much more difficult for people to immigrate.
I wanted to show in the film a story where these issues were there but not there. Like, there is no racism in the film…maybe a little hint of that when the parents are meeting him, but it’s very ambiguous. As for religion considerations, we don’t know if he’s Muslim or what. He’s probably Muslim. Does he practice? I don’t know and I don’t care. It was that attitude. I was much more interested in the man and the film is saying that it’s about meeting the other much more than the problem of integrating an immigrant.
I found the film was much more about grieving.
Yes it was.
I find grieving to be a very hard emotion to try and portray to an audience because that kind of loss is not something a lot of people experience. Is it difficult communicating that type of emotion to an audience?
Yes! It’s funny, I have not gone through a major grieving…my parents are still alive. My father is 83 and, you know…some Uncles have died but nobody that was super-duper close to me. So I had to tackle this from first of all a more rational point of view. What happens if? Or, what happens when?
So by making it happen in a school, you have to take the point of view of the children. That’s where it gets interesting. Do you talk about death in school? About suicide? Is it more complicated with children? The old topic of having to cope with your own grieving, plus the children’s grieving…in the children’s point of view they deal with their own trauma. They don’t have to take also the trauma of the adult and put them on their shoulder, which is what the adults do so their doubly traumatised.
So dealing with all that but in small gestures, small things, small events, without being an expert I think things emerge just naturally. It’s funny because you meet some people where for them the film is about grieving, for some others it’s about suicide, for some it’s about immigration, but I went to Japan to promote the film and most of the journalists made the comparison to grieving in the film and their own national grieving in the aftermath of the tsunami and the earthquake.
These people are really good at rebuilding the country, but not so good at expressing individual emotions which is the topic of this film, and they thought it was a film that dealt with that. They made a metaphor: the school was the nation, the father figure was the teacher and they thought I was an expert on grieving and kept asking me questions on how we could should their children how to grieve…I just wrote a story! But it was interesting to me that they made a metaphor, that they made a comparison between their own national grieving and the movie.
But it must be nice to have a film that can touch people in some many different, profound ways?
Yes. I think the films that work are the films that will reach you and me through a different path. In a film normally text book screenwriting forces you to really limit the topics in the film…the issues, the subject. In this case there are a lot of subjects. Why? Because it takes place in a school, and a school is like a mirror or a laboratory of life. What happens in life is what happens in school, and vice-versa. So the audience doesn’t have a feeling that you’re piling many issues in one film, because we’ve all been to school and we all know stuff like that can happen in a school.
The child actors in this film give wonderful performances. What is the process like working with these children, especially when such weighty themes like suicide and grieving?
You have to remember from the audience point of view that the drama happens to the children in real time in a shocking way. But it doesn’t happen like that to the actor. They see it coming three months before, so you do have time to prepare them and prepare yourself.
When you’re inviting them to an audition, you send them a scene and also a synopsis so the parents can make a first decision there. But after that I try to engage in a conversation during the audition and not just have them do the scene, to feel there level of comfort with the subject. It is really about also making sure the parents are there supporting them.
So I find at that age they can tackle these difficult issues more than we think, a bit like the young girl says in the film: “Every adult thinks we’re traumatised for life, but I think it’s the adults who are traumatised.” I’ve had this experience also in Q&A’s, people asking me “Wasn’t it difficult for children to deal with these issues?” It’s a very, very slow process, so it’s never traumatising for them.
"I think the films that work are the films that will reach you and me through a different path." - Phillipe Falardeau
You mentioned that you studied to be a journalist and that you wanted to work in foreign affairs. What were the experiences that made you want to be a director? Was there a specific movie or a specific event?
It was an event, it was an accident called The Race Around the World, a television program we had on public television back in 1992. It was from ’88 to ’99. I was watching that program where every year they chose 8 young contestant amateur filmmakers, they gave them VHS cameras so those were dinosaur cassette film cameras without any time code or anything, and they would travel alone for 6 months and they had to do 20 short films in 20 countries.
I was watching that on television every year and I applied. I didn’t think my chances were really good. I thought it was like buying a lottery ticket, you know? To my surprise they chose me and I went out on this race for 6 months where I had to arrive in a country, find a subject, shoot, lock myself in a hotel room, do the editing plan on paper, send it back by Federal Express to Montreal and then move on to another country.
So when I came back I was not sure whether I wanted to pursue a career in international relations like a bureaucrat. I knew that I wanted to tackle subjects and journalist was still something that was on my mind, but I had opportunities to make a documentary film, then a second one with someone else, then I moved on to fiction.
Monsieur Lazhar was nominated for an Oscar. What was it like attending the Oscar ceremony?
First of all it’s a long process that is surrealist, because when your country decides that your film is going to be the countries entry, you kind of dismiss it because you say “Yeah! 80 countries are submitting films and there are 5 spots.”
When it happened that I was nominated it felt like a dream come true, but a dream I never had because it’s not something when you make films in Montreal that you think of. You see no correlation between Hollywood and what you do. You’re excited because of the visibility it will give to the film, but also there is a chance it will change your opportunities. People have been telling me “it’s going to open doors!” and I would say “Yes, but to what building?” Do I want to make a film in the United States? Do I want to make a studio movie?
So I went through the process thinking “Just enjoy the ride!” and I think it was the best way to approach it. I’m not the kind of guy who likes to wear the tuxedo or go on the red carpet, but in that particular case either you do it and you play the game and you have fun, or you don’t and if you don’t you’re gonna be miserable because it’s an ostentatious party and you have to play along.
It’s interesting you say that in regards to what doors will open into what building…I’ve noticed of late my favourite film directors from Europe for example, they go to America to do a studio film and the film that they make is just not on par with the skills that they brought to the previous film. What exactly happens in that process?
It’s because most of these countries support the film industry with public money. It’s a grant and they respect the author’s point of view, the craft and the artistic process. In America it’s about money, and where it comes from is private money and they want to make money with the film so they want to take the least risks possible.
Some of them do take risks with the subject matter, but it’s rare. I found myself recently meeting people and producers in Hollywood, and they like my film very much but at the same time they’re telling you about this project you have and you look at the project and say, “This could be done by anyone.” Really! Probably people who have more skills than me!
Plus I know down the road they will be asking for some music so they can have a song at the end of the film, and all of them are talking about casting not trying to find the right person but who’s going to bring the financing together. They’re throwing names that…I would like to work with Michael Fassbender or to work with Colin Farrell whatever, but the real question to ask is are they the right person for that particular film, which is a question that they rarely ask themselves.
So I think if I go there to make a film there is to some extent some things I will not control, but it’s an opportunity to work with good actors. But I’ve told my agent that I will not. I have no ambition to make a film in Hollywood, therefor the objective is not to set one foot in California but if a project comes along and I can bring something personal to that project, yeah sure.
For instance they sent me a script about “The Lost Boys of Sudan”, which is a true story that there is a documentary about that a few years back called God Grew Tired of Us, and since I studied international relations I always wanted to shoot a documentary in southern Sudan so all of a sudden it makes sense to me to do that. Even though I wouldn’t be having the final cut on paper, I think it’s worth it, especially to show the American’s a film in English about these people.
So that’s how I’m going to approach it, and if no scripts come along that I really believe in, I’ll keep on making films in French. I am still writing stuff in French for the future, and I think my future is still in Montreal.
Canada has produced some really wonderful movies, especially of late with Café de Flore, Incendies and your film. However you have openly lamented the recent budget cut backs from the National Film Board of Canada and other organisations. You have openly lamented on how that is such a bad thing. What do you foresee in your film industry’s future?
I think it’s larger than just our industry. I think those are ideological cuts. We’ve been suffering but it’s also science, the environment, and I don’t think it’s not just the conservative government saying “We have to cut because the budget is swelling, and we have to keep expenses in check”. I think they are deliberately aiming at some aspects of life in which they believe the state shouldn’t have any say.
The question we have to ask ourselves is: “Is that the kind of country we want to have?” I’ve been saying that cinema, documentary and fiction is the memory and the imagination of a country. Take out the memory and the imagination of a human being and there is nothing left. It’s the same thing for a country.
So I think we have to fight this on an ideological level, and we have to do it with other fields. The scientific community doesn’t have big stars because they don’t have actors or singers to voice their concern when the cuts happens. I think we should try to merge together to fight this thing. I think there is still a future for cinema in Canada, especially us and Quebec because we also have provincial government financing the film because it’s in French. Bu the law of the market is certainly hard to answer for cultural production back home, I don’t think so.
I read the next film you’re working on is going to be political comedy. Will you be touching on any of these issues?
No. It’s funny you should mention that because a friend of mine wrote to me and she said, “You don’t need to write a fiction. Just take what is happening right now!” I think you have to go further than that in fiction. You have to transgress what is really happening. Especially if I want my film to travel, I have to make sure that what it talks about makes sense to anyone who is living in a western democracy, and not make it too local.
So it’s a thing where I’ve written a year ago and I haven’t had the chance to rewrite it yet, so after Sydney this is my first real break and I’m looking forward to go back and start writing my next film.