French Toast: Monsieur le professeur

One of the highlights of this year’s Available Light Film Festival is Philippe Falardeau’s 2011 film, Monsieur Lazhar.

The film won two awards at the Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland, and was chosen best Canadian feature film at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF).

Last week, it received an Oscar nomination in the best foreign language film category.

The story is taken from a one-character play, Bashir Lazhar, by Montreal actor-playwright Évelynede la Chenelière (who also has a small role in the film).

Falardeau came up with the idea of making a movie several years ago, after being touched by the 2002 play.

Bachir Lazhar is an immigrant teacher from Algeria now living in Montreal, who suddenly becomes the replacement teacher for a Grade 6 class after the previous teacher commits suicide.

Lazhar quickly has to upgrade his understanding of Québec’s youth culture, as well as recent ministerial changes to the educational system – not to mention how to find acceptance for his cultural differences from his co-workers.

Dealing with immigration issues and painful memories from a tragedy in his own past, Lazhar also has to help his young students confront their pain and grief over their teacher’s sudden death.

Mohamed Saïd Fellag, who plays M. Lazhar, is a real star in Algeria. Most often playing one-man theatre shows, he also appears from time to time on the big screen.

An immigrant himself in real life, Fellag first chose Paris as the city where he could upgrade his career, then came to Québec for a time.

Fellag has been involved with the Lazhar role from the very beginning, when Bashir Lazhar was first presented as a staged reading in France. He found himself very touched and connected closely to the role.

The kids of M. Lazhar’s class make a professional contribution to the film. The young stars, SophieNélisse as Alice and Émilien Néron as Simon, the boy who discovers the former teacher’s body in the classroom, have both put serious work into their acting.

The movie is also supported by a very strong cast, including Danielle Proulx (from the movieCRAZY), Brigitte Pourpart and Francine Ruel.

Director-screenwriter Falardeau has been known since the ’80s and ’90s TV show, Course destination monde.

The concept of that series was to hire a few inexperienced filmmakers to travel around the world for a year and produce documentaries about the regions and countries they visited. From that first experience, Falardeau became a documentary maker.

He made the transition to fiction with his successful movie La Moitié gauche du frigo, which won the 2000 TIFF award for best Canadian first feature. Half-way between fiction and documentary, it dealt with the story of a man trying to find a job in Québec.

Falardeau’s other work includes the Genie award-winning Congorama (2006) and C’est pas moi, je le jure! (2008).

Monsieur Lazhar is a realistic story about sensitive educational issues in Canadian society: violence in the schools, inability of schools to combat problems because of the opinions of parents and gaps caused by numerous reforms in the educational system.

The film raises many questions, such as: What is the work of the teachers versus the works of parents? Are we able to deal with all the cultural differences at work or in the schools?

But, most of all, Monsieur Lazhar suggests that conflicts can be resolved by understanding, love, tenderness and humour.

Virginie Hamel is a regular contributor to What’s Up Yukon who keeps tab on events in Yukon’s francophone community.

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