Painting on the Social Canvas

Although the Oscar-nominated film Monsieur Lazhar, directed by Philippe  Falardeau, didn’t scoop up a 2011 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, it did recently dominate the Canadian Genie Awards, winning Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor – a grand total of six wins out of nine nominations.  No small accomplishment for this humble and engaging Canadian filmmaker who casually switches from English to French while addressing the audience at the press breakfast hosted at the Canadian Embassy in Washington, DC, last Friday. 

The film was inspired by a one-man play, Bashir Lazhir.  The play was written by a friend of his, Evelyne  de la Cheneliere.  The original play contained strong themes of immigration and grief, and the main character, an Algerian immigrant who is hired to teach a classroom of children whose teacher recently died, wrestles with both.  In the early screenwriting, the playwright served as one of Philippe’s main sounding boards as he developed the story for film.

Philippe responds to a question about how to find stories that will do well in a global market by saying that he wasn’t searching for a political agenda to promote – he was inspired by the personal aspect of the story and that’s what he wanted to depict.  In fact, he changed the ending of the film so that the focus would remain more on the characters and their relationships, rather than the issue of immigration.  In the play, the teacher has to leave – in the film, he remains.  Cynics might call this the typical Hollywood happy ending, but when Philippe explains his logic, he is so sincere it’s hard to doubt his motives.

It’s hard not to believe a man who entertains the audience by recounting his journey down the Oscar red carpet, which he compares to the Grand Canyon.  Or the story about the exclusive restaurant that will seat him quickly due to his Oscar nominee status, but his inability to attend some of the more exclusive after parties.  “You only go to those if you are an [Oscar] winner.” 

The most charming story is perhaps about his proximity to Stephen Spielberg at the Oscars – so close and yet so far.  He was only a few feet away, but did not speak to him.  His tongue was tied.  Philippe cites Spielberg as his first inspiration for movie-making.  At the age of twelve, he had the realization that behind the lens for Close Encounters and E. T., there was a single person driving the story with expert hands.  Although he did not decide to become a filmmaker until the age of 27, it left an indelible mark.

Perhaps it is lucky for us that Philippe did not realize his calling to be a filmmaker at 12, but initially pursued political science instead.  His films, while personal in perspective, carry overtones of political awareness and influence the viewer to rethink perceptions of “other” and “us”.  It is this perception of “other”, that Philippe says is at the heart of Monsieur Lazhar.   Ultimately it is a story about a man . . . painted on a social canvas.

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Monsieur Lazhar opens April 27th in Washington, DC, theaters.  I attended this event as a representative of Women in Film and Video, DC (WIFV).  Go to www.wifv.org to find out more about WIFV.

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