- RatedPG13 /GenreComedy, Drama
In the realistic, richly layered and very humane French-Canadian film, ‘Monsieur Lazhar’, a primary schoolteacher is found dead in a classroom in Montreal, Quebec. Her shaken students are unable to express their trauma at the shocking news beyond an appearance of false normalcy.
Philippe Falardeau, director of 'Monsieur Lazhar'
Into the classroom enters a 55-year-old Algerian immigrant Bachir Lazhar (played by Algerian comedian, Mohamed Fellag) as their substitute teacher.
He comes from a culture with a different, more open way of confronting grief.
Suffering a personal tragedy of his own, Bachir relates to his young students in a strict but empathic manner. He encourages them to heal in a way that is not approved by the Canadian school principal, and to a wider extent, the western world in which he is essentially an outsider.
The result is a film so finely crafted, intelligently scripted and superbly acted (both adults and the terrific students) that ‘Monsieur Lazhar’ was nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar at the Academy Awards early this year. It lost to ‘A Separation' from Iran.
The film is the fourth feature for French-Canadian director, Philippe Falardeau. Insing Movies catches up with him over a phone call to Montreal.
What is it like directing the children in a movie about death, loss and grief?
I think it’s good to let kids be kids and have fun on the set. But they knew they were there to work, even though they were participating in something creative. We discussed the film and the topic, and they could ask me any questions they wanted. So they felt like they were collaborators in the story.
Monsieur Lazhar can talk about death even with very young students. But the principal refuses to let him do this. Is this a reflection of the stark differences in the world right now? The different way the western world and the Arab world see things?
I think so. Death in any form is taboo here in Quebec, especially when it’s a violent death. But Lazhar comes from a culture where it’s okay to address painful loss. That’s why it is interesting when you have an immigrant character. You revisit who you are as a society through the eyes of a stranger who has a different set of values. I’m fascinated by the clash of cultures which produces different kinds of reflections on the main issues of life.
'Monsieur Lazhar' trailer
There are two worlds in the movie: an adult one and a children’s one. Which fascinates you more?
It’s the intersection. I remember when I was 10 or 12 years old and I was asking questions about stuff that I didn’t understand, sometimes adults would say, 'Oh, you’re too young for that'. Well, I can’t be too young if I’m asking the question, right? And so adults have to engage sometimes in deep conversations with children. That’s what interests me, the meeting point between the world of an adult and the world of a child and the ground on which they can communicate.
‘Monsieur Lazhar’ was one of the five films in contention for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar this year. How did you feel when it did not win?
Of course, I was disappointed. But to tell you the truth, I kind of knew in my heart that ‘A Separation’ from Iran, would win. And it deserved to. I was able to snap out of my disappointment and say, well, let’s enjoy this. I mean, there I was at the Academy Awards in the same room as George Clooney and Brad Pitt. You have to enjoy that. Part of me was also relieved that I hadn’t won. That my world wouldn’t, you know, be dramatically changed and I could still continue to do what I like.
Coincidentally, your film before ‘Monsieur Lazhar’, the comedy ‘It’s Not Me, I Swear!’ (2008), also began with the death of a boy by suicide. Why this morbid fascination?
I swear it’s just a coincidence that my two last films start with people hanging themselves. But the tone of ‘It’s Not Me, I Swear!’ is much, much lighter. It’s a comedy about a hyperactive kid. When you see the opening with the boy hanging himself, you knew instinctively that he’s going to be all right. It’s a gag. Not so in ‘Monsieur Lazhar’. That’s very dramatic and serious.
Tell us why people should see ‘Monsieur Lazhar’.
Well, it’s a good, enriching, humane and very human story. I also think it’s a way to travel to Canada, to Quebec, to Montreal and back to a time when we were all children in elementary school. You would be able to look into another society, but through a universally familiar place: the classroom.
'Monsieur Lazhar' is showing at The Projector on 26 June 2015, 7.30pm, as part of the Singapore Writers Festival