Monsieur Lazhar   

by writer/director Philippe Falardeau

The most difficult thing for me in regard to making a film is finding the right story. I say "right" instead of "good" because I always ask myself three questions before embarking on a project: First, is it something important to talk about? Second, will it interest people other than me? And third, will I be able to live with it over the next three or four years? (That’s how long it takes me to write and direct; I’m no Woody Allen!) Most of the time, I drop an idea because I can’t answer yes to all three questions. Therefore, when you find your story, it’s pretty much like getting struck by lightning or falling in love. You immediately know it.
 
I got struck by lightning five years ago while watching this one-man play called "Bachir Lazhar." It was an intimate story about an Algerian refugee in Montreal who became a substitute teacher in a sixth grade class after their teacher had tragically passed away. All you would see on stage was Bachir Lazhar speaking to the class or to the principal without ever hearing or seeing the other characters responding. But the richness of the main character, his complexity and profound humanity coupled with his own tragic past, touched me profoundly. This man was convinced that the act of teaching went way beyond the transmission of factual knowledge and that the power of word and communication could help the children in their grieving.
 
At the end of the play, I was as moved as I was excited by the prospect of turning this solo play into a full-fledged feature film. My producers happened to be with me that night. When the lights went up, I turned to them and said: "We’re doing this!" They smiled, perplexed and replied, "We’re doing what?" I told them I was going to adapt this and it would be my next film. Being my friends, they kept smiling politely, but were very skeptical. Not that they didn’t like the play, but they couldn’t quite see how I could turn a one-man show into a film. But I had been struck by a lightning bolt, remember? So my brain had already started working.
 
When I asked the playwright if I could adapt her work, she was flattered but had one concern. In the movie, there would be other characters of course, including many children. She feared that because children are so inherently beautiful, it could divert the focus of the story and make the film too "cute." I understood what she meant, and I was on the same page. I wanted to tackle the issue of grief as frontally as possible.
 
I worked for two years on the script, extrapolating important child characters from what I could decipher in the play, inventing others and imagining an inciting event that would sustain a dramatic tension throughout the film. But the nature of the main character remains intact. I went back to school to research the film, sitting in the back of 6th grade classes, behind desks that were too small for my adult legs, taking notes on the new curriculum (I hadn’t been to elementary school in over 30 years), observing the kids, picking up small details of how they spoke, moved, listened or how they would just be lost in their own thoughts… I realised that the school is a laboratory of life, an incubator of "human beings in progress." It allowed me to tackle other side issues in the film like education, the stiffness of bureaucracy, clashes of culture and immigration without making the film didactic.
 
Despite the dramatic premise, I think I was able to make a luminous film, not without humour, hoping to convey to the public the emotional impact that the main character had on me when I saw the play, that night when I found my story, or I should say, when my story found me.
 
April 2012

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