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Philippe Falardeau grew up studying politics and international relations in Canada. But his career path ultimately steered him toward film – an arc that culminated in a nomination for best foreign language film at this year’s Academy Awards. He joins us to chat about “Monsieur Lazhar,” the story of an Algerian immigrant who becomes a substitute teacher to grief-stricken children in Canada – and the future of the Canadian cinema itself.
- Philippe Falardeau Director, "Monsieur Lazhar"
“Monsieur Lazhar” Trailer
MR. MATT MCCLESKEYWelcome back. I'm Matt McCleskey, local host of "Morning Edition" here on WAMU 88.5, sitting in today for Kojo Nnamdi. Thanks so much for listening. Philippe Falardeau knows a thing or two about being a fish out of the bowl, a French-Canadian filmmaker who represented his country at this year's Academy Awards, nominated for a picture about an Algerian substitute teacher who finds himself in front of a classroom in Montreal, where the children are still grieving from the suicide of their previous instructor.
MR. MATT MCCLESKEYIt's a story where an adult from one world collides with children from another, people who ultimately find comfort with each other in the classroom they share and a story is shaped by a brand of (word?) that's intersecting with our local world, in Washington this week as part of Filmfest DC. Philippe Falardeau, director of "Monsieur Lazhar," thanks so much for being with us.
MR. PHILIPPE FALARDEAUThank you for having me.
MCCLESKEYNow, you've described the Algerian substitute teacher at the center of this film as a fish out of the bowl. But it's my understanding you also considered yourself an outsider of sorts in the film industry. How did you go from studying politics to what you do now?
FALARDEAUBy accident, and it's like standing on, you know, in a train somewhere. And you see the trains coming, and you see the direction they're going and just hopping on the train and go for it. So 20 years ago, the French broadcasting corporation in Canada, they used to have this program called "The Race Around the World," which was the ancestor of the reality shows. But it was an intelligent one.
FALARDEAUInstead of putting people into Jacuzzis and lofts, they would give them -- young people, they would give them cameras and ask them to travel around the world and make short films. And so I did that in 1992. I had to travel alone for 26 weeks and do 20 short films in countries I knew nothing about, and it was a race. So you had to come in, shoot a film, edit it on paper, because those cameras didn't have any, you know, time code and screens.
MCCLESKEYDifferent world technologically.
FALARDEAUDefinitely. And I would send the stuff back to Canada by Federal Express, and they would edit it in Montreal while I was going to another country, and it was like that for six months. The films were shown before a panel of judges on television every week, and we had, like, ratings. And when I came back, I won the race to my own surprise, and then it changed my life because I began to have offers to do documentaries or stuff like that. And I never looked back since.
MCCLESKEYSounds like a great opportunity and a lot fun. So as an accidental filmmaker, where did you find commonality with the outsider character at the center of this film?
FALARDEAUWell, the thing is when I did this trip, actually, that I just told you about, I was the outsider. I was the immigrant. I was the one not fitting in, trying to figure out this society in which I was. Of course, I was not trying to immigrate there, but it was the same feeling of being the one that stood out, you know? And so back home, I always had some -- I was curious to know about immigrants, know their experience.
FALARDEAUSo this character, when I kind of met this character, seeing a play five years ago, a one-man play with this Algerian immigrant character, I thought it was a nice way in a way to revisit who we are as a society through his eyes. Of course, it's about him and who he is, different from us or not so different from us. But when you get a character like that, it's an amazing chance to really talk about who we are and our school system because he works in a school, through the eyes of someone who has different set of values that comes from somewhere else.
MCCLESKEYAnd that theme of intersecting values and intersecting world certainly does play out through the film. Without giving too much about the story, as we mentioned, the teacher is an Algerian immigrant who's come to Canada, running away from personal pain of his own, also helping a classroom of children recover from the suicide of their previous teacher. You mentioned it was borne out of a one-man play. What drew you to the story?
FALARDEAUI was not scouting for a subject when I saw the play, but I just fell in love with the character, is mixed of -- is mixture of humanity and sense of dignity and also its fragility. And I had been looking for a character who was an immigrant, but every time I had an idea, it was too didactic to my -- for my taste. But there, it was his humanity was interesting, not the fact that he was an immigrant. And it was there, like in the canvass, but the story was about something else.
FALARDEAUIt was about the meeting of him and the children in the classroom, both of them grieving for different reason, demurring of the grieving. And I thought he was a rich character, and I wanted to turn that into a film. But, yeah, it was a one-man play, so I had work to do, scriptwriting, but it made sense to me because when you're there watching the play, you have to imagine the other characters. And so in a way, I was scriptwriting the film as I was watching the play that night.
MCCLESKEYIt certainly doesn't have a didactic feel. It's as if you're just immersed in this world for the period of time that the picture takes place. One fascinating thing about the title character, "Monsieur Lazhar," you picked a comedian to play the lead role, and it's a very serious role. And there's humor in the film, but it's not a funny film. It's sort of the humor that might arise out of everyday life. How did you find your lead character, and what drew you to him?
FALARDEAUThe playwright had seen him do his monologue and his standup show a few years back, and she said, it's probably not what you want, but you could check him out because he knows my play. He has done one public reading of the play in France. And so I go on YouTube. I watched this guy do his stuff.
FALARDEAUAnd it's very funny, but it's kind of old-style humor burlesque with -- he writes monologue about characters who are candid, but when you listen to them closely, there's a sub-political, you know, undertone to it. And I like how he looked like. And I knew that in cinema, I had to have this face that would immediately be an outsider, be an Algerian to us.
MCCLESKEYAnd he is Algerian.
FALARDEAUHe is Algerian.
MCCLESKEYHis name, for our listeners who may be familiar with the word, is Fellag?
FALARDEAUFellag, yeah. And he also had to flee his own country back in the 1990s during the civil war in Algeria. So he had this intimate experience that was close to the character's experience. So I went to meet him. I went to see his show in Brussels. We met. I did an audition with him. And it took me a while to decide. But I -- when I look at the film today, I always ask myself, why did I wait so long to offer him the job? He's perfect.
MCCLESKEYI watched the film not knowing any of his previous work and before I read any of the materials, just to get a sense of the film first, and I would not have guessed that he was known for more burlesque or comedy.
MCCLESKEYBut it makes sense once you see it, once I read that. But at the same time, he does such a good job of carrying what's a very serious film.
FALARDEAUIt is. But we notice those crossovers when, you know, a comedian go to drama. There's been many examples of that. You think about Robin Williams, for instance, and it strikes us. But it makes sense. I think humor is much more difficult than drama. And people who are making a living out of humor, when it's done intelligently and -- because this guy writes monologue that are saying something.
FALARDEAUSo he's grounded into, you know, social reality. He's a man of -- he writes his own stuff. So he's not just there to make people laugh but to make them think. So, for me, it makes sense, the crossover, because they have an insight into human beings, into who we are, into the psyche of human beings.
MCCLESKEYAnd I would imagine, perhaps, that the experience of having -- having done a one-man show might help one in playing a teacher. You're up in front of a classroom of students, playing a role.
FALARDEAUExactly. And when you look at some of his moves sometime in the class, he looks a little bit out of place. And he is out of place because this man, when you, you know, when you see the movie, you understand that teaching is not necessarily his thing.
FALARDEAUHe finds a way to do it in a very, very good way, but it's not his thing. And he fact that he's -- he has these very small mimics just enrich the character and makes him funny without him trying to be funny.
MCCLESKEYYou mention the emotion of his character. Also, the emotion displayed, both by -- with humor and also with a very serious grieving of the loss of their prior teacher, some of the children who were in this really give astounding performances, particularly the two featured kids. Had they done acting before? Or -- and how did you work with a room full of kids to get what ultimately was a very natural performance, but naturally delivering some intense emotions at points?
FALARDEAUIt starts by going back to school. When I was scriptwriting, I asked some teachers if I could sit in the back of their class. And I just observed kids, just small stuff: dropping pencils, throwing things, talking. And then -- so when I auditioned the kids, most of them hadn't had any experience in filmmaking, and I just wanted them to feel and to sound true. So I close my eyes often sometime in the audition, just to listen to them.
FALARDEAUAnd I was asking myself, you know, is that a real conversation? Can I -- is that believable? Or is that a kid playing or just saying his lines? So I tried to take a lot of time in the audition process, not go about it very quickly and give them time to shake away the nervousness and have a real meeting, you know?
FALARDEAUAnd then I work with a kid's coach who's used to work with kid. And so when I'm off to other tasks on the set, she can continue rehearsing with the kid. And, finally, I tried to install a playful atmosphere on set, and I think that that's the most important thing. The kids, they have to have fun to perform.
FALARDEAUIf they're having fun, if they feel that like it's summer camp going to the set, then they will trust you. And when it's time to dig inside of them for more emotional stuff, they will do it. I'm not the kind of director who will force them to cry or do stuff like that because it won't feel real anyway. But they trust me. They can go there by their own.
MCCLESKEYOur phone lines are open. 800-433-8850, the number to call if you have a question for Philippe Falardeau, filmmaker and director of "Monsieur Lazhar," nominated for best foreign language film at the Academy Awards this year, and it's being featured at Filmfest D.C., which begins today and runs through April 22. Again, our phone number: 800-433-8850. You can email comments to email@example.com. We're going to take a short break. I'm Matt McCleskey, filling in today for Kojo Nnamdi. And we'll be back in just a minute. Stay with us.
MCCLESKEYWelcome back. I'm Matt McCleskey, your local host of Morning Edition here on WAMU 88.5, sitting in today for Kojo Nnamdi. And we're speaking with Philippe Falardeau, a filmmaker and director of "Monsieur Lazhar," which is going to be featured at Filmfest D.C. beginning today and running through April 22. It's also was nominated for best foreign language film at the Academy Awards this year. And, Philippe Falardeau, it has already won awards in Canada, the Genie Awards, sort of the Canadian Oscars...
MCCLESKEY...a whole slew of awards there. And I don't have the list in front of me now, but I believe best in direction, also the best picture. Is that correct?
MCCLESKEYAnd a couple of the best acting awards, also editing. And I was thinking, as I watched it, how immersed I felt in the school that's featured in the film story. And the way you went about bringing the viewer into the school, there were inserts of things that weren't necessarily related to immediately what was happening.
MCCLESKEYI'm thinking of one of -- the gym teacher or the janitor at the school shooting basketball at one point, just things that were going on at different moments we were to see for a second or two, and then we'd be back to the action. How did you think about putting together the -- creating the landscape of that school on film?
FALARDEAUI considered -- when I was writing it, I thought that the school was a living organism, and I shot it that way. So it's -- even if we're not in the gymnasium or in the corridor or if we're in the classroom, it is still living. So you can hear when Lazhar is teaching. If you pay attention and you're in a good theater, you can hear some other teachers also teaching because you hear other classes. And when someone is walking in the hallway, you see -- you hear one teacher, and then her voice just slowly disappears.
FALARDEAUAnd then there's another teacher's voice that's -- so I treated the school like a living organism. A lot of the important stuff -- and without giving anything away -- happens in the corridor, especially at the beginning of the film.
FALARDEAUThe corridor is like the intestine of the school. It's the belly. It's the digestive system. So that's why I wanted to shoot and to grab things that are still happening in the school, to get the feeling to the audience that it's real. And everybody went to school. That's the amazing thing about doing a film in school. It's that everyone -- you know that the audience is going to have the point of reference and their own personal point of entry into the movie because we've all been to elementary school. So you have to be very thorough in how you portray this because we all have our references.
MCCLESKEYMm hmm. And it certainly does that -- does serve that purpose of getting one into the idea that this is a living active school where the -- even though it may be a little bit out of the plot for just that second or two, it builds to the overall character, if there -- if I may, of the school in the film, or at least creating the school as a character. Let's open the phones now, Nouri (sp?) calling from Ellicott City in Maryland. Nouri, thanks so much for your call. You're on the air.
NOURIThank you so much for taking my call. Congratulations, by the way. I want to know, as a minority film director, what kind of message are you intending to send to the future of current minority filmmakers?
FALARDEAUWell, dealing with a character that is a visible minority, it -- for me, it's important to treat this character as someone who can bring something to us instead of treating the theme in terms of political integration and -- because it's -- immigration is always seen as a political problem, first and foremost. And in my film, I try to tackle the subject in terms of meeting the other. So, back home, I'm just waiting to see more films coming out of minorities.
FALARDEAUAnd I think we have a lot of good subjects waiting with the native people. A lot of young native people have been studying film, and I -- my experience is that, in five or 10 years from now, we're going to have stories from their point of view back home. And that's going to be interesting because we only have, you know, the majority's point of view on society in filmmaking. But it's going to change now.
MCCLESKEYAnd, Nouri, I should just point out the movie does focus on a character who is an immigrant, but Philippe Falardeau himself is not an immigrant. You're French-Canadian.
FALARDEAUI'm French-Canadian. We're a minority in Canada, but when...
FALARDEAUIn our own province, we're a majority because the province of Quebec -- we're 7 million people, and more than 6.5 million people speak French. But, no, we're still a majority in our own province.
MCCLESKEYOK. All right. Well, thanks so much for your call, Nouri. We have an email from David regarding clashing cultures. He says, "I've never traveled to any French-Canadian places, but it seems that a collision of cultures is something that's central to those parts of Canada and to the identity there." He asks you how you feel about that aspect of where you're from.
FALARDEAUFor me, it makes life interesting, the collision of culture, and I tried to portray it in the film in -- most of the time in a humorous way.
FALARDEAUThe premise of the film is quite dark when you look at it, so I didn't want the film to, you know, drown at the bottom of the ocean, and I wanted the film to be luminous. I worked with the director of photography in that way, music composer. But humor was also used and most of the time in dealing with the culture clash. But it -- it's not something -- you know, the fact that he's an -- he's Arab-speaking, and he's probably a Muslim could have been integrated in the film.
FALARDEAUAnd -- but, you know, I didn't want to make a big message out of this. Yeah, sure, he comes from an Arab country. He speaks French. He speaks it well. He has obviously something to bring us, so that was the main focus for me, and especially in a, you know, post-9/11 era where every -- things can be very sensitive when you deal with an Arab character.
MCCLESKEYWell, certainly, the subject of French is taught in the film, and it comes up as a point of discussion between Monsieur Lazhar and his students. What is it about French -- the French language that you tried to get into the film and that appealed to you as a subject almost unto itself?
FALARDEAUWell, imagine a film -- you see a film that takes place in Dublin. You guys probably have, the first five minutes, a hard time understanding what they're saying, but it's still English. It's the same thing with French. This guy comes from Algeria. His French is closer to the French that's spoken in France. And so we have our own accent back home. We have our own expressions. So it's a -- we have to respect these differences, although it is the same language.
FALARDEAUBut what's funny in the film is that this guy comes from an ancient French colony, and he's teaching us -- he's teaching the kids to speak French, and Quebec is an ancient, also, French colony.
FALARDEAUSo there's this little, you know -- I thought it was funny to deal with that in that way. And also, when he comes in the class, the first thing he does, he does a dictation with the kids, but from a book...
FALARDEAU...from Balzac, which is way over their head, and -- but in a way also, what I'm saying is that Balzac, even though he's a classic French author from France, I think he's part of us also. We're French-speaking, and I don't make any difference from, you know, people in North Africa, France or Quebec. It's the same language.
MCCLESKEYLet's go back to the phones, Sam calling from Washington. Sam, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SAMI keep thinking about Sidney Poitier and "To Sir, with Love" when I listen to you talk, and I just wonder whether you see any parallels between that movie and your movie.
MCCLESKEYAre you familiar with "To Sir, with Love"?
FALARDEAUI'm familiar with Sidney Poitier, but I haven't seen that film, I'm afraid I have to say. But -- yes, please.
MCCLESKEYCan you tell us a little more about it, Sam?
SAMWell, Sidney Poitier, of course, is a black actor, and he was a teacher in a London school back in the '60s, and there were a lot of personal racial issues and, you know, something that they overcame. And, of course, at the end, they sort of resolved their problems. And you just -- everybody's humanity was, like, you know, put out there, and I'm just -- like I say, I just keep thinking about that when I listen to you.
FALARDEAUI -- from listening to what you're saying, I think that, yeah, you can draw a resemblance from that film. Wasn't that the film where he won an Oscar for it? Because Sidney was really the first black actor to win an Oscar, I think...
SAMI'm not sure.
FALARDEAU...but I don't remember if it was that film.
MCCLESKEYWe'll have to go back and check. I knew he was an Oscar winner, but I'm ashamed to say I can't remember which film.
FALARDEAUI think that the films that deal with that, like in the 1960s, are more obvious. You know, the thematics are more obvious. It's more in-your-face. I tried to deal with those issues with more restraint because, nowadays, when you make film, if you underline too much the thematics, it becomes too didactic. I think people go see not ideas. When they go see films, they go see characters. They want to relate to characters. They won't relate to ideas. But if the story is good and if they relate to the characters, you can -- ideas and thematic can emerge.
MCCLESKEYThank you very much for your...
SAMWell, I can't wait to see your film.
SAMBut I suggest if you ever get a chance to look at that...
SAM...Sidney Poitier film, it's really excellent.
MCCLESKEYThanks a lot.
SAMAnd he won the Academy Award for "Lilies of the Field," but I don't think that movie -- I'm not sure.
MCCLESKEYThat's exactly what I'm seeing here, Sam. "Lilies of the Field" from 1963 was the Academy Award-winning...
FALARDEAUThat's what Internet does, eh? We can have the answer...
MCCLESKEYYes, the Internet. We can find out just like that. Well, thanks so much for your call, Sam, and for that recommendation. Philippe Falardeau is the director of "Monsieur Lazhar," nominated for best foreign language film at the Academy Awards this year. And it's being featured at Filmfest DC, which begins today and runs through April 22.
MCCLESKEYIf you can't make it to Filmfest DC this month, "Monsieur Lazhar" opens April 27 in Washington at the Landmark E Street Cinema. So that's another chance to take in the film. And what sort of release -- we only have a very short time left, but what sort of release are you looking at for this film?
FALARDEAUIt's a three -- I think, tomorrow, it's 30 screens in some cities like New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and then Music Box, the distributor, is going to work the -- from one city to another, depending on the response. And I'm just happy that the film is being distributed in the States. It's a very rare thing for us, for the French-Canadian film. So I'm not expecting, you know, huge box office. I just want the people who might be interested in those kind of film to be able to see it.
MCCLESKEYPhilippe Falardeau, he is the director of "Monsieur Lazhar," again, nominated for best foreign language film at the Academy Awards this year. And it will be airing at Filmfest DC, again, April 27, opening at the Landmark E Street Cinema. Thanks so much for joining us this hour.
FALARDEAUThank you. Thank you very much.
MCCLESKEYI'm Matt McCleskey, local host of "Morning Edition" here on WAMU 88.5, sitting in today for Kojo Nnamdi. Thanks for listening.
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