By Sophia Savage | Thompson on Hollywood April 11, 2012 at 3:08PM
Canada's "Monsieur Lazhar," from director Philippe Falardeau (One of five Oscar nominees for Best Foreign Language film; it lost to Iran's "A Separation"), is a quiet portrait of a mysterious new teacher (Mohamed Fellag) and his suffering young pupils, all of whom are coping with tragedy. While the intimate story is told with delicacy, it doesn't shy away from big issues -- education, death and immigration. The film comes from Falardeau's adaptation of Evelyne de la Cheneliere's play, "Bashir Lazhar."
Crossing the ill-defined boundaries between students and teachers has become rife with fear, Falardeau suggests in our interview below. The issue is front and center in "Monsieur Lazhar." Well-meaning teachers are thus cautioned against providing emotional support for children -- from a pat on the back or a hug to simply discussing taboo issues, such as death -- even when they see a child in need. "Monsieur Lazhar" raises tough questions, and while Falardeau doesn't claim to know the answers, he offers a venue for audiences to consider them. Fellag leads with a fine performance, alongside a troupe of excellent young actors. Music Box will release the film in New York and Los Angeles April 13, followed by a national roll-out. Here's the trailer. (Spoilers below.)
Would Monsieur Lazhar function the same way for his students without his layered backstory?
No, I don’t think he would. It would become your usual school genre drama where the teacher is an inspirational figure. The character’s background enriches the relationship with the children and deepens the drama without making the film specifically about immigration. Monsieur Lazhar is an accidental teacher. He rushes to this class for his own salvation. He needs to surround himself with children, in part to sublimate the loss of his own family. And he needs to reproduce the work and habits of his wife; she was the teacher in Algeria, not him. Only the audience is aware that the children's grief mirrors his own, although the young Alice does suspect something. He knows intimately what they are going through, without admitting to anyone -- even to himself -- that he also needs help.
One of the students declares; "Everyone thinks we're traumatized, but it's the adults who are." Do you think children experience death differently than adults?
It’s funny because that line is probably the only thing the character says out of her own thinking. Everything else she says is transmitted from her parents (the same parents we see criticizing Bashir and his teaching). I haven’t had to deal with the situation [of death] from up close, so I’m not sure. But I know that children are more resilient than we think. And they can talk about death and suicide, they understand the reality of it, but they do have a different perspective on it. More candid. They have fewer words to express what they feel.
Lazhar crosses many lines to become the children's teacher and to help them process the trauma they've been through, yet he does more good for them than any other adult. What does this say about the regulations of the education system, which are intended for the benefit and protection of students?
Oh boy! A tricky question! The fact that he tells the truth to the immigration officer and lies at school to become a teacher makes for an interesting character, that’s for sure. But also, his behavior, his outsider point of view, reveals who we are, where we are at, etc… It’s giving us a Polaroid of our school system, allowing us to questions some of the rules, like no physical contact with the children (in my film I’m suggesting that we could tolerate hugs and pats of encouragements, but never punishment). The film suggests we allow each teacher to invest classes with their own humanity; a classroom should resemble who the teacher is. It’s natural and it’s beneficial. (Sometimes there are mediocre or unmotivated teachers, but you can’t build or restrict a system just to avoid those situations.)
To quote Lazhar - "Don't try to find meaning" in death, because; "there isn't one." Is this message specific to Lazhar's loss and the children's, or a broader message about death?
It is specific to the fact that his wife died trying to finish the school year in Algeria (an act of resistance) and that he is now teaching in a class where a teacher committed suicide (an act of despair or profound depression). Bashir can’t put the two together. I myself, think that death is absurd. Most will say it gives meaning to life. I just think it ends it.
What is your process working with actors, and is it different with children?
Time, work, work, and more time. Especially choosing the actors. I give everyone a lot of time in the audition (and usually the whole script), adults or children. A ten minute audition is a farce, even for smaller roles. With the children, I rehearse much more and I work with a coach. She can see where I want to go, so she can continue the work when I’m occupied on another task. She really brings the children to another level, she’s relentless.
Then I try to install a playful atmosphere on the set, like summer camp, so the children don’t get exhausted. They know it’s work, but you have to give them a little bonus, playing time. Also, it’s important that they trust you, that they know you won’t force them to do something they don’t want to do. Then they go all the way with you.