This post is part of my much delayed report on the two days I spend in Abu Dhabi for it’s annual film festival which took place October 13-22nd. This was my first visit to the country and I was very excited about it.
It’s a beautiful place and from what I saw, the event was very organized. Two hotels were hosting the venue, the Inter-Continental and the Fairmont. Small buses were always at the ready to transport guests and media to and from both hotels as well as other relevant locations, most importantly Marina Mall (conveniently only five minutes from the Inter-Continental) where most of the films were being screened. Some of the films were also screened at the Fairmont’s outdoor cinema, under the stars. Such was the case for the Festival’s opening film, Monsieur Lazhar (premiering for the first time in the Middle East) which took place the evening of October 13th.
I had an important meeting that day which ran late, so I was unable to catch the film’s first screening. But it turned out for the best because when I caught the movie the next day at the Marina Mall cinemas, I ended up meeting the director, Mr. Phillipe Falardeau.
I had raced from the festival’s first panel discussion at the Fairmont (which will be discussed in another post), begged the nice shuttle drivers “Can we please go now, I’m going to miss the movie, no one else is coming”, and rushed to Marina Mall. At the huge crowd gathered at the theatre, I was thankful that we had already picked up our tickets the day before (purchased beforehand online) and made it just in time before the movie started. Taking our seats, I heard one of the festival organizers whisper that there were people outside still waiting for standby tickets. It was a full house. Ignoring my companion’s claim “Really, you’re taking a picture of a full house, like people don’t know what that looks like.” I approached a man standing with a microphone in his hand for permission, showing him my press badge.
“Oh, I’m sure they won’t mind,” he said with an enigmatic smile.
Imagine my surprise when, prior to the start of the film, he was later introduced by a festival staff member as the film’s writer/director Phillipe Falardeau. I would have felt foolish had I not been so excited about “meeting” him.
Instead of telling you about his amiability and great sense of humor, I’ll just show you the clips I filmed of his little talk to the audience before the film. I apologize in advance for the quality, we were in a darkened theater and it was filmed by my iphone 3G (terrible camera).
For the record, there was only *one* person who needed a translator, but it was so nice how conscientious he was about not wanting anyone to be left out of the discussion.
Isn’t he great? (There’s one more video here)
Falardeau continued on to say that he’ll be back before the end of the film to conduct a Q & A session with the audience and he asked that we stick around even if we didn’t like the film. I think he was reassured as to that point when he heard the round of appreciative applause for the movie when it ended.
As the credits were rolling, I threw caution to the wind and took one of the few empty seats next to Falardeau to grab some comments before the Q and A session started. He was very friendly and obliging. I asked how him how he came to have his film screened at Abu Dhabi. Phillipe told me that he had been screening Monsieur Lazhar in a festival in Switzerland and that someone from the Abu Dhabi Film Festival had been there and approached him about screening it in the UAE. He added that it was an honor as there is plenty of competition. I then asked him about the idea of the movie, and he explained that it came from a one man play he’d seen four years ago written by Evelyn de la Cheneliere. He said that he was affected by the idea that a man would become a teacher simply to help a group of children recover from a tragedy. Later, during the Q and A, Phillipe added the he appreciated the irony that while Lazhar was being completely honest on one front, he had to lie on another (vagueness is intentional to keep the article spoiler free).
Monsieur Lazhar touches on some serious issues including depression, the complications of immigration and the prescriptively detached role of teachers today. But this is done very lightly and the movie never loses sight of its ultimate goal; a poignant tale that deals with grief without ever becoming overbearing. There were some aspects of the movie I wished had been dealt with in more detail, especially concerning one of the characters, but Falardeau pointed out that the ambiguity was intentional (again, I don’t want to spoil the movie).
Personal preference aside, I was very impressed by how well developed the rest of the characters were, especially since most don’t have a lot of lines. It was a great lesson especially to a wordy writer like myself. A classic example of less is more, Monsieur Lazhar shows that when all the right elements of a movie are in place (casting, direction, clarity of vision) you don’t need a lot of dialogue. The character interaction is what tells the story.
Speaking of character interaction, the two child actors Émilien Néron (as Simon) and Sophie Nélisse (as Alice) were phenomenal. Neron, especially carries the climax of the movie; ironic since his character wasn’t even in the original play but was created by Falardeau. It’s a powerful emotional scene, and I doubt anyone who sees the film will not be affected by it. I hadn’t been so moved by a child’s performance since Freddie Highmore’s in ‘Finding Neverland’.
I wasn’t the only one who felt this way either. The audience was just as impressed; one of the questions to Phillipe was to elaborate on how he cast the children. Phillipe stated that he took his time during their auditions, had them run as long as necessary and had the kids return to ensure he made the right decision. He also added that he made some of them audition in pairs, tried several combinations to ensure that they would work well together too. But he stressed that he didn’t overdo the auditions, because he didn’t want to burn them out; he saved their best for filming.
The result was certainly worth it.
As to the direction, it was as refreshingly subtle as the rest of the movie. Angle shots were used creatively to help tell the story. They depicted obscurity when needed, kept the focus on the children, and tacitly conveyed the minimal role of the absent parents.
Finally, Felag’s performance as Bachir Larhar was, in keeping with his character’s personality, full of quiet intensity and restraint. I was as astonished as Falardeau said he was when he learned that this man was actually a star comedian in France. But perhaps even harder to believe is his IMDB page’s claim that this is his first credit as an actor. That doesn’t seem possible but if it’s true, I doubt this will be his last role.
Equally entertaining and deep, I’d recommend this film to anyone and everyone.