Award-winning filmmaker Philippe Falardeau was recently included on Variety’s 2012 list of 10 Directors to Watch. Known for La Moitié Gauche du Frigo (The Left-Hand Side of the Fridge), Congorama, and C’est Pas Moi, Je Le Jure! (It’s Not Me, I Swear!), his fourth feature film, Monsieur Lazhar, is an adaptation of the play Bachir Lazhar by Montreal playwright Évelyne de la Chenelière. The film, which was a 2011 Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, tells the story of an Algerian immigrant (Mohamed Fellag) who learns of the death of an elementary school teacher and offers his services as a substitute teacher.
We sat down at a roundtable interview with Falardeau to talk about what inspired him to make a film set in a school community about children dealing with issues of loss and death. He told us why he thought the character of Bachir Lazhar was rich enough for a movie, how the story was more interesting told through the eyes of an immigrant who comes from a different background, and what it is about words and communication that helps us go through dramatic moments. He also discussed the politics of immigration, the education system, the importance of cinema to a national identity and a national culture, and why it’s important to allow every teacher to invest something of themselves into their class.
And if you haven’t seen it, here’s the trailer for Monsieur Lazhar:
Question: How did you get this project off the ground?
PF: Getting it off the ground is one thing because it has to do with finding the proper people and the financing, but finding the subject is another thing and this is always for me the most difficult part. When I want to tackle a story or a subject, I always ask myself three questions: Is it important to talk about that? Will it interest other people than just me? Can I live with that for three or four years because that’s how long it takes to do the project, to write the script, and to direct it, and then to do this. One particular night I was at the theater. I was not scouting for a project, but I was touched by this play by Évelyne de la Chenelière. I was touched by the character. I thought it was a rich character that could be rich enough for a movie. I was interested in immigration and I wanted to use that in the film, not necessarily to talk about immigrants, although I wanted to do that, but to talk about ourselves through the eyes of an immigrant. The film takes place in the school and it tells us a little bit about who we are and where we’re at, but through the eyes of someone who has a different background.
Was Monsieur Lazhar based on a play with just one character?
PF: Yes, it’s a one-man play.
Did that involve a great deal of adaptation to get it to screen?
PF: Yes. If you’re writing a screenplay from scratch, it involves a lot of creation. In this play, I had a strong main character and it involved some creation around him. That’s what I like about adapting that particular play because I added some maneuvering space as a scriptwriter to invent my own things. I needed to create some dramatic tension to sustain the interest of the audience. For instance, the boy in the film is not in the play, so this relationship that he had with the former teacher, and his guilt, this is not at all in the play. I thought it would be interesting to look at in the film, and I added stuff like that around the main character. For me, it was not more difficult or less difficult.
How long were you actually shooting for?
PF: It was 28 days of shooting which is the average in Quebec. We have to do our films normally in 30 days, but it was enough this time. I needed principal shooting during the summer, so we could use the school and the kids wouldn’t miss any school time, and four days also in winter.
PF: There is back home also, but you have two systems: the public system and the private system. In the private system and the private schools, the principal is pretty much a dictator. He or she can hire whoever s/he wants. Of course, in the movie, in the story, she makes a mistake by hiring him. But, if she doesn’t, I have no story. What I liked about the character is that he tells the truth to the immigration officer and he lies at school. And he lies for good reasons. He knows he can help these children but also because he needs to be there. He’s an accidental teacher. It’s a little sad at the end that he doesn’t get to stay there, but at the same time he was not meant to be a teacher for the rest of his life. I think he wanted to be a teacher that particular year and he was the right person at the right time.
Can you talk about the theme of communication in this story and how our common humanity enables us to transcend difficulties in communicating across cultures?
PF: Any place where you have to deal with many social actors like a school – you have the parents, the Ministry of Education, the school board, and the teachers – you need all kinds of sets and rules. You’re trying to foresee anything that can happen and everything becomes really rigid. They don’t want to talk about death because they don’t want to overwhelm the children, but that has already happened, so you’re not going to overwhelm them more. We also have this reflex of using specialists for everything, instead of having the person who is there every day with them, the teacher, talk about death and suicide. In the film, it’s portrayed a little bit like a caricature, but it’s the psychologist who comes in and Monsieur Lazhar does not think it’s a good idea. He thinks he should be the one who should talk about that with the children. For me, it’s just trusting the power of words and communication, and right up until the end, Monsieur Lazhar will do that. At the end of the film, he has to say goodbye. Now, as a scriptwriter, I’m thinking about how I’m going to write this scene. How can I do this? I don’t want the film to be melodramatic at the end and so I came up with this idea that he will correct the fable. He will present them with his fable and they will correct the spelling mistakes together. It’s his way of saying goodbye. Through an act of again teaching and communication, he can say goodbye. That was the premise for me of the film – that words and communication can help us go through dramatic moments.
When U.S. citizens visit Canada, we’re always so impressed with cities like Toronto that have an amazing, multi-cultural aspect and have accepted all of these outside cultures into their community. Is that viewing things through rose-colored glasses?
PF: It’s a romantic view of Canada. It’s like Michael Moore saying we don’t lock our doors in Canada. I lock my door mainly because my girlfriend wants me to lock the door, but mind you we lock our doors. It is a little simplistic to say that we blend easily back home with other cultures. It’s difficult, but I think it’s mainly a big city phenomenon. In the province of Quebec where I come from, we speak French and the only cosmopolitan city is Montreal. Every time we tackle the subject of immigration and racial tension, it’s an issue that concerns Montreal. Also, in Quebec, we have this added issue that we want people to speak French, because French is always on the verge of disappearing to some extent. I work, play and do everything in French. My film is in French. It’s not something folkloric. It’s who we are. There’s this tension about immigrants coming in. Will they learn French? Will they adapt? In this film, I’m on the reverse side because Monsieur Lazhar comes from a society where French is also the second language. He loves French. He comes to teach our kids a better French than we’re used to speaking back home. My film is actually very critical of the level of French we’re using back home. To have an immigrant from an ancient French colony come and do that is a little critical of our education system back home. Balzac is definitely over their heads. It’s meant to be funny also because it would be also probably too much for kids in France, but kids in France would know who Balzac is. But, back home at that age, I guarantee you they don’t know who he is.
One of the things that I liked about the story is sometimes an outsider can come in. You don’t need a teaching credential to teach and Monsieur Lazhar proves it in the film.
PF: I’m walking on eggshells here because I don’t work in the education system. What I know is that if I was asked to teach mathematics in French for a week to young kids, I would do my homework and I think I could do a decent job. I don’t think a degree in education would make me a better teacher. I sometimes teach in college. I don’t teach for long periods of time, but I give workshops and I think I can communicate stuff. So, it’s about communicating. What I like in this film is that Monsieur Lazhar is this old style teacher. He’s not a teacher back home. He said he was, but he was not. It was his wife. He probably is copying some of the stuff he saw his wife do. He is also digging into the system and the time when he was a student some 50 years ago. I would do the same probably. And then, in the class, there’s Claire who has this colorful wall and all kinds of activities and theater. She’s really into the new education system and it works fine with her. What the film is saying basically is, let every teacher invest in their own class and let their class resemble who they are.
PF: For sure, and we haven’t found it yet. I understand why we have come to a time and place where we cannot touch the children at school for obvious reasons. I’m not that old, but back then some teacher would take our arm and squeeze it, and it was not fun. It’s cool that we got rid of that, but we got rid of everything – the encouraging pat on the back or even a hug which I find can be acceptable in some situations. I know that it’s a sensible subject and that we’re trying to avoid nasty things, but [you can] have as many rules as you want, there will still be stuff happening anyway. Like it or not, shit will happen. Excuse my French. So what are we supposed to do? What I like about the film is that Bachir is not from here so he doesn’t consider this hitting a person. I do. But the way I portray it, it’s kind of funny. It’s not that bad. At the end, what I like is that it’s the girl’s decision to go back in the room. She needs a hug, she wants a hug, she asks for a hug and he gives it to her. For me, it’s like an act of resistance to go there and to transgress the taboo and to do what started the whole thing in the beginning. It was supposedly a hug that started this whole drama between the character of Simon and the teacher.
How did you find the right person to play the critical role of Bachir?
PF: The playwright knew him from a play she saw a few years ago. She told me “This guy could be great. You should check him out.” I watched him on YouTube. It’s funny because he’s a stand-up comedian. What he does is really far from what he does in the film, but I liked how he looked. I went to see him. I auditioned him. He also had to flee his country because of the war there in the 1990s, so he knew the character intimately and I thought he could use that in the film. He’s also an author. He writes novels and he has a very good sensibility. We became friends. Although he was not exactly what I was looking for in terms of performance – he was too theatrical for me – he told me, “I know you think I’m too theatrical, but I will work hard on that” – and he convinced me.
When you have somebody who has that in their own background, is that a minefield that you have to tread carefully because you want him to react as the character, not as his own experiences might dictate?
PF: It’s his decision to be there. It’s the same thing with the kids. If they or the parents think that the subject is too heavy, it’s for them to decide. I know that I will not push them into dramatic stuff, and I will talk with them about everything that’s in the script before we start working on it. As for Bachir Lazhar, I know that in person Fellag didn’t want to talk too much about his own past, even with the journalists. It was interesting for the journalists to ask questions about his life in Algiers, but he wanted that to be part of his past, just like the character. He doesn’t want to talk about it because he doesn’t want it to become a burden on the people around him. He needs to cut from his past if he wants to move forward.
Finding your Bachir was critical to making the film work, but the kids too are beautifully cast. What was the challenge of finding your Alice and Simon and filling your classroom?
PF: It’s the same challenge as with any other character, adults or not. You want to take time with the kids. You want to tell them in the audition that they have time to exchange ideas. I’m there. It’s not someone else who does the audition, but I don’t want to audition a thousand children. I will see 100 or 200 and I will take my time with them and I audition them for the two main roles. If I like what I see, but they’re not exactly right for the role, I’ll think well I have this other role that might work for them. Sometimes I will write a role for them because I want to work with them because they’re so good. For instance, the chubby little kid, Victor Garideau La Riviere, who says his mother is from Quebec but his father is from Chile, he doesn’t look like he’s from Chile or his father is from Chile, but I said I want to work with him so I’ll make it work. Also, when I rehearse with them, I work with a coach who is used to working with kids and she sees where I want to take the kids. She can work with them when I’m off on other tasks because you cannot always be with the kids rehearsing. That’s the second thing. And the third thing is, I try to set up a playful atmosphere on the set so that they don’t get tired too easily. They know it’s work but they can also have fun, and when it’s time to dig deep inside of them, they can go there.
PF: Back home, they cannot be on the set for more than seven hours, and it’s less actual working hours than that.
We have a very big divide here in this country – some people are very anti-immigration while others are pro-immigration. It’s a big political fight. Is it like that in Canada?
PF: It’s a little bit like that. Again, something that’s very strange and odd, you will find sometimes that immigrants that have been here for many years and already have their citizenship might be the ones against additional immigration. We’ve seen that also. Sometimes it’s about the economic situation and sometimes it’s about the fear of others. Sometimes it’s about protecting the generally accepted values. If you look at history, history is just a succession of people meeting other people, either through commerce, voyages or wars. If you read Herodotus, the first Greek historian 2,500 years ago, he was talking about that – about people mixing with other people. Sometimes it produces great societies. Sometimes it triggers war. But, we’re not going to change that. I don’t think so. We’re living in nations that are state nations and countries. The notion, the invention of a country, is fairly new in the history of mankind. We tend to forget that. We want to protect our country. The country is something that’s fairly new. It’s 250 years old, maybe 300 years old, so it’s bound to change and evolve also. Migration is part of that.
One of the things that we marvel at from this side of the border is the fact that there is seed money available through government related funding to help get a film started. With the recent cutbacks at the CBC, are the arts in danger of losing that support?
PF: Yes, because we have a conservative government that only thinks in terms of efficiency. They are spending a lot of money on military expenses and less and less on culture. My position is that culture can actually be economically viable. When I make a film, the film costs $3 million. Now, in Quebec, it grossed $3.5 million, which is a small film. It’s not a comedy. There are no stars in it. And, it still grosses $3.5 million. That’s just in Quebec. It will be released in 25 countries in the world. It employed over 150 people throughout a period of one and a half years. There will be thousands and thousands of DVDs sold. So that’s economics for you. That’s grossing money for other people that has a multiplying factor, but the government doesn’t see that. It doesn’t see that making a film or culture or art is part of our economy. But the main reason is this, it’s part of our identity. I think cinema is the memory and the imagination of the country. Take the memory and imagination out of an individual and he’s stops being an individual. I think it’s the same thing for a country. We are lucky then that we can get some financing from the government, because it means when I get the money, when I get the grant to do the film, of course it’s based on the script, but I have total artistic control and I can do personal stuff. The irony is I did an intimate film in France with no stars and that got me to Hollywood. It got me to the Oscars. If I had tried to imitate the Americans or the Hollywood movies with a commercial recipe, I’d never have gotten to Hollywood. Although, it was not my goal in any way, and I never thought there was any connection between Monsieur Lazhar and the Oscars.
PF: I don’t like ostentatious galas and stuff like that, but if you get to the Oscars, you’d better get used to it and you’d better enjoy it. Some people around me said “Get a tux and live this and enjoy this” and that’s what I did. It was a fun experience. On the red carpet, I was just behind Rooney Mara who I adore, and I had to not act too conspicuously because my girlfriend was there. Behind me, there was Glenn Close. So, it was kind of interesting. Even if I knew that Separation would probably win, when they announced the film, I was thinking to myself “Oh! I want this! I want this!” And so, when we didn’t win, I got depressed for about 20 minutes, and then I snapped out of it and enjoyed the rest of the evening.
What message would you like us to take from this film?
PF: Now I realize that I have to let everyone take what they have to take from the film. No matter what I think about the film, it becomes a little irrelevant. I think I would say that the film is trying to show us that – and I spoke about that earlier – we have to let the teachers invest in their own classroom. There’s no use in trying to control everything. Education is fundamental. The parent who says to Monsieur Lazhar “Stop trying to raise our daughter and just teach her” — I think they’re wrong. The teacher will never be a parent. The parents are the parents. But they have to engage in some sort of active education beyond just teaching mathematics and French and English because the kids spend more time there than they do with their parents at that age. We have to accept that other adults will be part of our children’s education and they will have bad teachers. That’s going to happen. And they will have very good teachers. That’s bound to happen, too. We get through life and this is part of the education process also. In real life, we meet bad bosses and good bosses and good friends and bad friends. I think we should let the teachers do their work and not impose too much stuff on them.
PF: In Canada, I’ve had success raising money. I think I was fortunate enough. But today, I would have to write a very, very bad script not to be financed for the next one. I’m assured at least of the next one, but you’re always [only] as good as your last film. I think it’s true for anyone.
What is your next project?
PF: I’m writing a political comedy that takes place in Canada in Quebec. It’s funny. Saying political comedy is a little redundant but it’s a first. I’ve never done any comedy per se. There is some humor in Monsieur Lazhar and in all my other films, but this one I’ll try to make a real comedy from start to finish. It’s called Prescott Etc. because the name of the constituency is so long that everybody in the constituency just says Prescott Etc. I don’t know if that’s what it will be. It’s a working title.
Is a political comedy something that you have to be judicious with because sometimes we feel like we’re being treated to a political diatribe rather than an entertainment that has elements in it?
PF: You’re right. I didn’t want the film to be didactic, and this is tough because if you look at the list of issues, you have immigration, the education system, you have the grieving, you have suicide. I think what saved me were two things. I tried to do everything with some level of restraint and let the spectator make up his own mind. If you look at the end of the movie, I give a lot of space to what the spectator can also imagine of what’s going to be Bachir’s life afterwards. So, there’s the restraint part, and there’s the fact that the story is happening in the school which allowed me to tackle all these subjects without making it too didactic, because in the school everything happens. It’s like a laboratory, a micro-society of real life, so it didn’t look odd to talk about bureaucracy. In the school, in the class, there are already a lot of children from different ethnic backgrounds so the reality is there. I don’t have to shove it in people’s face. It’s just there and it’s normal.
You talked about the importance of cinema to a national identity and a national culture. What effect do you think that’s having on the kinds of films that are being made and the way people perceive them because there are no borders?
PF: Part of the answer to that is, if you look at the Oscars and look at the Best Foreign Language series, you see that the films are coming from everywhere – from Quebec, Israel, Poland, and Belgium. It’s not the usual French, German, etc. This category is opening up to socially engaged and political films. I think we’re going to see a cross over to the main categories also. It’s part of this global environment now and I’m grateful that the Academy is having this window on world cinema. I’m pretty optimistic that in the future these kind of films will also be part of the main categories, perhaps not in a foreign language, but certainly more socially and politically engaged films, or films that will happen where the story takes place outside the United States.
Monsieur Lazhar is now playing and expanding to more theaters in the coming weeks.