One of the five nominees in an incredibly strong Foreign Language Film category at this year’s Academy Awards, competing against Bullhead, Footnote, as well as eventual winner A Separation, Monsieur Lazhar is a deeply moving classroom drama that sees a substitute teacher from Algeria deal with a shaken class. Contemplating the education system in French-Canada, alongside a number of other issues, the feature focuses on the characters of Bachir Lazhar (Mohamed Saïd Fellag), Alice (Sophie Nélisse), and Simon (Émilien Néron) and is both beautifully acted and stunningly shot. Ahead of its Australian premiere at the Sydney Film Festival this weekend, Julian Buckeridge sat down with director Philippe Falardeau to discuss his feature.
[PLEASE NOTE: THE FOLLOWING INTERVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS]
Congratulations on the film.
Falardeau: Thank you.
Monsieur Lazhar originated as a one-character play. Why did you want to take on such a project?
It’s really difficult to explain rationally at first because it’s just an emotion you have when you watch the play. And, yes, it’s a one man play, so at first you’re not thinking about how you’re going to do this. It’s just I’m moved by the character who is an immigrant and a refugee from Algeria and so full of humanity and fragility. And I was interested in the topic of immigration – I had been interested in it for a long time – but, for me, it is difficult to tackle these kinds of subjects without being didactic or without trying to convey some sort of message, which I don’t like in film.
But there the character was…it’s his humanity that was interesting. Watching a solo play, you have to – even people who are not filmmakers – you have to imagine the other characters. And that process led me to think that there was perhaps a film there and, as a scriptwriter, I would have some manoeuvring space to invent my own stuff.
How did you go about fleshing out the story? What was the process like?
Well, you need something to sustain the dramatic tension. In the play, it was more about him trying to fit in a place that he does not know the culture, and him talking about the fact that there seems to be a big taboo around death in his new home, which was North America, Montreal. And also him talking to his deceased wife and children, so it was very poetic.
I knew I had to ground that in some specific event: the event would be starting with the hanging of the teacher at the beginning and I struggled for a long time in deciding if I should show it for like five or six versions of the script. It was not even in the film script. Filming started for two or three days and then I realised that if you want to sustain some kind of emotional tension throughout the film – because not many events happen in the film when you think about it – you needed to discover the body but through the eyes of the children’s point of view. That was important, and I invented this character, Simon, who had a special relationship with the teacher –
Because he wasn’t even in the play, he was never mentioned-
No, no he wasn’t. But I knew I needed something to – it allowed me to also talk about other stuff. Talk about the protocols, the regulations, the rules at school, and the fact that he cannot touch the children – I’ve been told in other countries that this is also a problem in some places. And the way I did it was, “Yeah, a few children in the film,” and I just dug into my own memories of how I was when I was a child to invent these guys.
One of the major changes from the play – or a significant change – is the ending with Lazhar’s status. Was that a very immediate change in the script?
I can see you did your research. [Laughs] I struggled with that also but I shot both – when he does go back to the immigration office– I shot both endings: one where he was allowed in and one where his application is rejected. I tried both in editing and the thing is I was not afraid of having a film that ended on a sad note but, by having his request rejected, all of the sudden the film was about immigration and the process of immigration in Canada and if you look at the film, you will agree it is not all about that. The relationship with the children, and the grieving – this is much more important than the immigration process. I wanted the immigration process to enrich the film but stay in the canvas, so that’s why I decided he would stay – although he loses his job at the school at the end, which is probably understandable because he did lie.
But there is still that bit of hope from him.
Yes! Absolutely! He’s an accidental teacher. He was the right person at that time, but I don’t have any – a lot of people back home said, “Yeah, but what happens to Monsieur Lazhar at the end?” He’ll be fine!
And the film features a lot of children, particularly ones with little to no professional acting experience. What is your process working with actors, and does it differ with children?
The path is different with the children, a little bit, but let’s start with what is the same. The same is how you take for granted that a child can understand the psychology of the character. It’s just I won’t be telling the children “Do this! Do that! Faster! Slower!” like if I was giving orders to a monkey, because it doesn’t work that way. When they’re eleven or twelve, they know what’s happening in the story – they just don’t use the same words to express it.
So that part, you’re dealing with the same way as an adult, but you have to make sure there is a playful atmosphere on the set because they will tire much faster than adults. Also, when you’re choosing them in the auditions, I don’t really care for auditions where you see 800 children in the school gymnasium and they have five minutes each in front of the camera – I don’t believe in that. I’m there for every audition and I take my time. I take a lot of time. I meet them, talk to them, ask them what they are into. I also ask about why they’re there. Make sure it’s not their parents who want them to be there. So you’re kind of asking the parents at the same time.
Was it initially difficult to see Mohammed Said Fellag in such a delicate dramatic role, considering his background?
Yes, it was. It was a gamble. When I saw him for the first time on YouTube – because of his one-man show with that burlesque tone to it – I said “That’s not what I’m looking for, but I like this face.” I knew this man was a literary man – he writes novels, he’s an author, he’s a very sensitive guy – and we tried an audition, and he was right on for some moments and off for some moments. But I said, “If he’s right on, he can be right on all the time.” It’s just work. Sometimes when you’re casting, you’re looking for that person who will do the scene right away 100 per cent, but that’s a mistake. You have to see a glimpse of what he can do and-
Work with it-
Yeah! And he worked a lot. And he used a lot of restraint in the film.
One of the key moments of the film is when Lazhar states to the children “Don’t try to find meaning in death; because there isn’t one.” Is that a point of realisation for him that he cannot connect his past to the children’s grief?
I think it’s a point of realisation for me that we are often looking for meaning in death from a religious point of view and from a personal point of view. We need to have a reason and sometimes there are no rational reasons as to why something happen. And since this woman committed suicide in the class and his wife died because she decided to stay longer at school back at home in Algeria, for him it doesn’t compute. And he will severely judge the teacher who committed suicide much more severely than I would. So I think there’s a word of wisdom there but, at the same time, of despair because he cannot handle it himself. But what he does – which I think is a good thing – he is telling the children you should not feel responsible for what happened because you are not.
And I think one of the really powerful moments that you don’t expect is when Marie-Frédérique breaks free from being a transmitter of her parents and says “Everyone thinks we’re the ones who are traumatised, but it’s the adults who are.” Do you think children react differently to death than adults?
I think she is right in some ways when she says that, although it depends on the child. A guy like Simon is involved – he’s traumatised, probably for life. But where she is right is that suppose you are with children and both of you live through a traumatic experience: the children will find it traumatic; the adults will find it traumatic also but will also take into account the trauma of the children and put it on their shoulders. The children don’t do that. They don’t look at the adults and say, “They also feel traumatised and I feel for them.” They don’t do that! So, in a way, she is right. She is saying, “We deal with our own stuff.” There is nothing you can do for that and they are also resilient in a way that they haven’t grown old enough to measure all the implications of that.
Do you think the regulations of the education system mean the teachers cannot properly help them cope?
I think we have come to a time and place where we are trying to find protocols for every situation possible but the reality is that we won’t be able to predict everything. In the meantime, we dehumanise the relationship between the adults and the children at school.
Can you talk us through the theme of communication in the film? It seems communication between Lazhar and the children is very important to get through the dramatic moments in their lives.
I’m going to dig out a cliché here and use… it comes from a Mediterranean culture and I’ve travelled around the Mediterranean Sea, and one thing people do there is they sit down and have tea or coffee and they talk – and they talk for hours. Sometimes you wonder if these people have jobs but these people certainly talk. They do communicate and it’s not – the concept of taboo is certainly not the same – so when Lazhar is in the class, he thinks the best way is not to go through a specialist but to let the children bring up the subject whenever they feel it’s important.
So Bachir has this intuition that he is the best person to listen to them, and I think he is right because children at that age spend more time with their teacher than with their parents, so it’s normal that we should accept that children feel more comfortable opening up with their normal, everyday teacher. In fact, it has let them open up to whoever they want and not just the psychologist once a week.
And that point about spending more time with the teacher is important, as during the parent-teacher interview, Marie-Frédérique’s parents tell Bachir to “Stop trying to raise our child”. Well, the teacher’s not raising the kid; they’re giving them someone to talk to.
And raising, what does that mean? Of course, if someone becomes violent in the class, there’s going to have to be some raising there to do. You have to apply some kind of moral and this is raising someone, or else all hell breaks loose. So I disagree with the parents when they ask Bachir to teach and not to raise.
Also on the theme of communication, the film seems critical of the level of French being spoken. Is that a Montreal-specific issue or one across French-Canada?
French-Canada as a whole – I’m saying, we can aim for higher standards. I was afraid this criticism wouldn’t be well-received in education circles. Nothing, I got no feedback at all. I think a lot of people agreed, actually. The problem is in elementary school. At higher levels – like at college or university – when you have a chemistry teacher who does not know how to write properly, that’s a problem. We should expect every teacher, no matter what the field, to be able to write properly.
On Canadian issues, the film clearly discusses the immigration process. People often praise cities like Toronto for their multi-cultural societies, but is that a rose-tinted version of Canada?
Yes because in the city, it is different. If you take Montreal, Vancouver and Toronto, those are multi-cultural cities and, outside of that, it is pretty white. And I know it is a land that was built on immigration but nowadays immigration – especially after the 9/11 events – the government has been closing down on immigration and refugees. There’s a lot of fear going on – fear based on just not knowing the other.
I didn’t want to go into that in the film because there are already so many layers already in the film. When you look at it, apart from maybe the scene with the parents, there’s no hint of racism in the film. I just wanted to be: yeah, he’s from another country and he makes some faux-pas because he doesn’t know how it works in Montreal. It’s the same thing with religion. Is he Muslim? Probably. Does he pray? Maybe. I don’t care. There was a scene where I made a joke about that – it was a funny scene – but I took it out because I didn’t want to go there.
Like during the process at the administrative court: there’s that bit of suspicion but it comes from a legal rather than a racial standpoint.
Absolutely. It’s a checklist that the guy has to do and he has to know if his family was the target of the attack or victims of another attack or if it was just an accident. And he has to do that! So that’s why he is pressing Monsieur Lazhar, but the pressing process can be very cruel and when you think about Monsieur Lazhar, he reveals nothing to anyone in the film except when he is compelled to do so.
One of the things I really enjoyed about the film was how the school itself became an organic being, where the building itself felt the grief of the students. I was interested in how you approached that physical aspect?
For me, the most important thing – even though we’re not there very often – the most important space is the corridor. The corridor is where I have the most memories of my schooldays. It’s where we came in the morning and there was the noise of the lockers, and you would talk – it’s the place you had fun because when you came out of class, you knew where you were going: for a break or back home. Stuff happens there. It is like the intestines of the school and that’s why the film begins there. The revealing of the body is shot from there and we always stay there. There is something viral sapping and infecting the school from the inside. Also, the school lives no matter what happens in one place. Things are happening elsewhere and that’s why you see the janitor playing basketball all alone or, when Monsieur Lazhar is walking in the corridor, he can hear the other teachers talking. I wanted to have that sense that the school is a living organism.
When you see a comedy that takes place in a high school in Hollywood, it’s so lazy in the way they portray the school. They will put up a banner of some kind of sports team, they’ll have a few props, and that’s it. You don’t believe it’s a real school. The art director on my film did an amazing job of scouting for real objects made by real children. Even when you open up the desks, I wanted every desk to be particular to the person who was sitting in front of them. So I was telling the children that if they didn’t know what to do at any point to just open their desk and take something out. You’ll find out that you have stuff in your desks that other people don’t have. And that’s also important for the actors: that they can work their character around the objects they have inside their desks.
Was that particularly useful for the actor playing Boris, the anaemic?
Yeah, Boris. Simon also. I had all kinds of pictures – I cut a scene where Bachir at some point looks inside the desk and finds tonnes of photos by Simon of him working on the blackboard. I cut it out because I had a feeling that he was looking for some kind of clue, which he wasn’t because it was just pure curiosity. Marie-Frédérique, Victor – they all had stuff that could help them build their own character.
I think Alice’s relationship with Bachir is incredibly delicate in that it never becomes anything other than a paternal relationship. Was that something you were very aware of?
There was more in the script, for sure. They were trading books and I had other scenes where they would be talking about the books. There were nice scenes but, eventually, I took them out because I didn’t want the film to be about their relationship. But, yeah, it was finding the balance with this intellectual relationship. She’s the precocious child; she’s the most mature student there, for sure – and her eyes were perfect for that. It’s coming back to the topic of communication, sharing stuff, sharing information, and not just teaching how to read and write.
I noticed you employ a low/close shooting style, particularly in the classroom. Was that an early and deliberate decision or something that came about during the shooting process?
When we submitted the project to the financial institutions back in Canada, I wrote the fifteen-page intention and it described how I would shoot this. Every time I wanted the camera to be at the height of the children, when they were talking or talking to someone else, I didn’t want to have the camera looking down on them. And I didn’t want the camera necessarily looking up on the adults, except for certain situations when the children are sitting down. That’s why I use the 2.35:1 format because when you’re at the height of the desks, you have a feeling you see more children. You don’t. You just see less of the roof and less of the floor. But it gives you the impression that you have more children at the same time in the same frame. I was [initially] against that format because I thought it was too cinematic and not enough documentary, and it was my DOP who convinced me to try it when we were just making some tests. When I saw what it did when I was kneeling, looking at the desks, I said “Yeah, you have a feeling you see more kids at the same time!”
Because you mentioned film financing, are you concerned about the cutbacks in Canada?
Yes, we are, but not only about culture. Yes, definitely. We have different bodies that finance film: we have a federal and provincial one. And thank god for the provincial one because they’re keeping pace – they’re adding money every two or three years to the fund. But the federal fund has been diminishing and we are very concerned about that, especially when it coincides with a policy that is trying to make box office [successes]. Which is stupid, because you never know when you’re going to make a box office hit. Nobody thought Monsieur Lazhar would be a box office hit.
Well, I thought it was ludicrous that the Sun News Network criticised Monsieur Lazhar for taking public money despite making it back!
It’s the wrong choice! They could have chosen a film that cost ten million and did $90,000 at the box office, and instead they chose the one that cost nearly nothing and made a good box office [return] and went to the Oscars. So I didn’t understand their logic. They’ve actually kept attacking us but it’s like Fox News in the United States – they attack anything that is publicly funded. They say to people, “It’s your tax money! How much did Philippe Falardeau get for that?” Well, I got a salary that was from the budget that was for working for three years on the same project, so it’s not that much at the end of the day!
But I think it’s the conservative government; they have an ideology that culture is like playing Mozart on the piano and drawing a painting of Queen Elizabeth – and that’s all. I’m being a little bit ironic here but they’re not into venturing into new territories when it comes to art and culture. And they want the culture to sustain itself. I know of very few countries that are able to make films without-
In Australia, for example.
In Europe. What country? The United States? And it’s Hollywood! And when you look at the independent films there – if I became an independent filmmaker in the United States, I would be making one film per ten years. It takes seven years to raise the money, at least! So we are concerned. We will fight back – we have the tools. We have had the chance to have a lot of success internationally with some of our films lately. The year before was Incendies by Denis Villeneuve and we have a nice balance between commercial films and more difficult auteur films.
On the success of the film, I know you were extremely stressed during the shortlist period coming up to the Oscars-
Wouldn’t you be? [Laughs]
But what was the experience like once you were announced in the final five nominees?
It’s like a party. It’s like a piece of good news that is stretched from the 24th of January to the 28th of February. It’s something that can only be positive because you know that you are a winner, no matter what, and that the film will take advantage of that. And that it will get some exposure. I’m not into red carpets and tuxedos but, if you’re smart enough, you will play the game and you will enjoy the process even more, which I finally did. Yes, at the end, when you’re at the Gala, all of a sudden you do want to win. And I didn’t and I felt depressed for about twenty minutes. After that, though, I said “Maybe a dodged a bullet there” in the sense that it would have been more press, more media, more interviews, more of this, more of that, and it’s already difficult to concentrate on the next film-
Although, saying that, you are talking to me in June!
[Laughs] Yes but there would have been a lot of interviews about winning the Oscar. This is different. I’m promoting the film because it is coming out in Australia and I want to help the film. When you think about it, I now have an agent in Los Angeles who has been sending me scripts and we are working very hard to find the right script if I am [to work there]. Because I don’t need to make a film in the United States, so if I don’t find the right script I’ll keep on making my own films back home – which I will anyway!
Well, on that point, I know you have been working on a new fiction screenplay as well as a feature documentary. Which one will be your next project?
I had to drop the feature documentary because of what happened. Because I was in preproduction when the Oscar nomination occurred and I had to pass it along. It was about violence in hockey-
Yeah, the enforcers. Wow, where do you get all of this information? That’s incredible! Do you speak French? [Laughs] And the other one is a political comedy I am writing that takes place in Canada. I’ve written the first draft. That was last September. Since then, I haven’t had the chance to… I’ve been able to look at it but I need four, five, six days in a row to really get into it, which I haven’t had since the Oscars.
Was it a deliberate choice to make it a comedy?
Yes. My producers have been pressing me to make a comedy. But it’s tough – it’s tougher than making a drama – especially because I want to make a comedy where you can still feel something for the characters. That is difficult because you can laugh for the first 45 minutes of a real comedy and then [disengage] because you don’t really care what’s going to happen. It’s just jokes, jokes, and jokes. But I would like to make a comedy more in the vein of Little Miss Sunshine where you do feel something for the characters.
Well, it certainly is important in comedy to be able to invest in them, even more so than the laughs at times, because you have to sustain around ninety to a hundred and twenty minutes.
I’m a sucker for some comedies like The Hangover or Superbad and you laugh for an hour and a half, but you hold nothing after. There is nothing you can really think about afterwards – it doesn’t get to you. Making a film is too long a process not to try to do more than just make people laugh.
During the Oscars experience, were you able to see any of the other nominated films?
The only one I haven’t seen yet was Footnote. I have it back home. And I saw A Separation – it was the first one I saw. What can I say? It’s very good. It’s very powerful. A lot of people said it won because of the politics behind it. No, it won because it is a good film.
In terms of Canadian cinema, are there are any particular filmmakers you’re fond of?
It’s funny. I probably know World Cinema better than my own country’s. We have a schizophrenic country and we don’t see too many English-Canadian films and vice-versa. In English-Canada, I really enjoy pretty much all of David Cronenberg’s movies, although sometimes it’s difficult to see him as a Canadian filmmaker because he often shoots in the United States. Back home, it was the older documentary filmmakers from the National Film Board of Canada that made an impression on me in that I eventually made some films. [Filmmakers] like Mankiewicz, Gilles Groux, Denys Arcand – Jesus of Montreal, I loved very much.
And as for my fellow filmmakers nowadays, I have a lot of respect for someone like Denis Villeneuve. He made a tough film called Polytechnique about – it happened around twenty years ago – a shooting of some students by another student at the École Polytechnique. It’s like Elephant but like a war movie and it’s tough to watch. But I was influenced more by people like Mike Leigh or Ken Loach than my own fellow [Canadian] filmmakers.
I also wanted to get your thoughts on the promotion of Monsieur Lazhar because I know there are very distinct differences, particularly in the poster art. In Canada, you had a shot in the corridor with the fish, which I think specifically in French-Canada also means fool-
Yeah, it is April Fool’s.
And then you had the American – and it’s the same here – poster artwork with the class photo. What are your thoughts on the differences?
I understand why you can’t have the fish on his back in other countries because it doesn’t mean anything…or in some countries it has a religious meaning with the symbol of Christ. Of course, I don’t want the symbol of Christ on a Muslim. Back home, you immediately smile because you immediately understand it was a kid who put the fish on Lazhar’s back and that it is April Fool’s. And if you take the fish out, the poster is too neutral.
Now on the poster they had in the United States, it is okay but I think it’s too cute. I didn’t want the movie to be cute. But you’re stuck with a real decision in what to do with that poster. It’s a difficult one. But it worked very well in the United States – it grossed over 1.7 million dollars and it’s still in cinemas – so now my reaction is let the film defend itself.
Thank you very much, Philippe, for taking the time to talk to us.