First published on 27 Jul 2012. Updated on 28 Aug 2012.
In Monsieur Lazhar, a class of Montreal youngsters grieving for their dead teacher cannot be hugged by staff because of rules designed to protect teachers from accusations of molestation.
It’s a sorry situation but, as the film’s writer-director Philippe Falardeau discovered, the sensitivities around the touching of kids at school are very real. “It's funny,” he says, “because a few months after the release of the film [in Canada], at the school where we shot it, there was a major controversy of a child making an accusation against a teacher.”
The movie’s title character is an Algerian refugee who volunteers to fill the breach after a teacher’s suicide. Bachir Lazhar has methods that the kids and staff find old fashioned: he arranges the children’s desks into straight rows instead of a trendy arc, and does not hesitate to administer either light physical punishments or reassuring pats on the shoulder to his charges.
At the same time, he’s battling immigration authorities over his right to stay in the country. “The argument of the film is that we have dehumanised the relationship between the teachers and the kids,” says Falardeau. “But the fear of contact can also be the fear of the other, of the immigrant. I studied political science and I know that in the past ten years in Canada we’ve been less and less generous with how we treat refugees.”
Falardeau based the film on a one-man play written by the actor Evelyne de la Chenelière. In the title role he cast France-based Algerian comedian Fellag, whose personal history is uncannily similar to Lazhar’s.
“He was performing in Tunisia [in 1995] and a bomb exploded in the women’s washroom [of the theatre],” Falardeau, 43, says. “It was a warning. He was on a hit list with many other artists and judges and journalists so he fled the country. He could relate to the path the character takes in the film.”
Working with a large cast of children, he says, was like “summer camp”: “Normally a cinema set is military-like: you cannot waste time. But with child actors you have to waste time. When the children get tired you have to say: ‘OK, everyone in the schoolyard for 15 minutes of soccer.’ The come back and they’re refreshed. Children lose energy when they’re doing nothing.”
The film has been fêted all over the world, culminating in an Oscar nomination in the Best Foreign Language Film category. Falardeau attended the ceremony (at which Monsieur Lazhar was defeated by Iran’s A Separation). “You cannot say ‘it’s Hollywood, it’s crap, I won’t go.’ Woody Allen can afford to, but I can’t! So you go along and try to have fun, walking alongside Meryl Streep and Glenn Close and George Clooney,” he laughs. “I recommend it.”
Monsieur Lazhar opens Thu Sep 6.