The peculiarity of Washington’s film scene is such that even being feted at one of the world’s most enchanting embassies, located within a stone’s throw of the Capitol, can be a minor letdown.
Oscar-nominated director Philippe Falardeau has come a long way. His first foray into filmmaking came when he was a contestant on a Canadian game show that sent him around the world to make several short films in a six-month window.
His feature films, with titles such as “The Left-Hand Side of the Fridge” and “Congorama,” place him only tangentially in the American art-house and foreign-language circuit. And yet, there he was earlier this year, walking the red carpet in Hollywood with the likes of George Clooney at the Academy Awards.
So it’s not that Filmfest DC — which screened Falardeau’s latest film, the Oscar-nominated “Monsieur Lazhar” — doesn’t have its charms. Or that Falardeau, in town for Filmfest and as part of a worldwide tour to tout the film and discuss everything from Canada’s immigration policies to the food in Vancouver, isn’t honored to have his government’s adulation. It’s just, well, the Oscars have a way of grabbing the imagination.
“There are two things in the United States that are impressive,” Falardeau told a collection of Canadian dignitaries, members of the press and cineasts at the Canadian Embassy last Friday. “The Grand Canyon and the red carpet.”
And as far as that goes, the jeans-and-sneakers-clad director added, one can see the canyon whenever one wants. Walking the carpet is a bit more rare.
‘Act Like You’ve Been There’
It’s been a whirlwind few months for the Quebec-born Falardeau.
“Monsieur Lazhar,” his fourth feature, is the story of an Algerian immigrant to Quebec who is hired to be a long-term substitute for an elementary school class whose teacher has committed suicide. The title character has his own traumas to work through and is seeking political asylum. It’s a quiet film that avoids most of the cliches of similar films that feature an outsider teacher helping students heal or harness inner potential.
The film began attracting attention at the Sundance Film Festival in January, which was followed later that month by its Academy Award nomination for best foreign language film.
It ended up losing to Iran’s “A Separation,” at February’s Oscars, but the praise for the film hasn’t abated. It opened in limited U.S. release last week.
Falardeau seems to be taking it all in stride and in good humor. “You’ve got to act like you’ve been there,” he said of the Oscars, adding that when he walked the fabled red carpet, a publicist “had to hold a sign with my name on it and the film because no one knew who I was.”
The film did win six Genie Awards last month, Canada’s equivalent to the Oscars. Log on to the Genies’ website, and a slideshow prominently displays Falardeau barely able to hold the multiple statues for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay.
Certainly Canada’s Washington staff was impressed.
“It’s a great honor to have Philippe Falardeau here,” said Deanna Horton, Canada’s minister for Congressional, public and intergovernmental affairs and the host of the embassy’s Friday breakfast reception for the director.
Perhaps inadvertently, Horton signaled also the power that the Oscars have in shaping perceptions of artists. “I have only seen him on television, in advance of the Oscars,” Horton said.
Seeing the World
Falardeau took an interesting path to the movies. After studying politics and international relations in college, he was chosen in 1993 to be a contestant in a Canadian television game show, “La Course Destination Monde,” that sent him around the world to make 20 short films.
“Cinema was never at any point an objective,” Falardeau told Roll Call in an interview. But after traveling to Guatemala, El Salvador, Colombia, Peru, Argentina, Turkey, Syria, Egypt, Libya and other countries, his course was set.
Notwithstanding his Oscar attention, Filmfest DC is custom-made for a filmmaker with his international sensibilities.
“We wanted to take a lighter approach this year,” festival Director Tony Gittens said of this year’s selections. A film about a political refugee counseling traumatized children after a horrific death might seem to depart from that sentiment. But one of the remarkable things about “Monsieur Lazhar” is that it mixes humor with the melancholy.
Such a balancing act, reflected also in the film’s avoidance of any didacticism on immigration or grief, is what puts the movie into a different, more complex tier of filmmaking. Its loss to “A Separation” is a tribute to the strength of the field of nominees.
For his next project, Falardeau wants to make a movie about a cynical politician who is tasked with making the decision on whether to go to war and wants to punt the decision to “the people.” What he finds surprises him, as the voters are just as jaded.
“I’m trying to make a comedy about a guy not trying to make a decision,” he said.
“Political comedy might sound a bit redundant,” he told the embassy crowd. “Everyone’s pretty much to blame” for the current state of politics, not just politicians, but citizens, too, he added. His statements to the Canadian Embassy’s political staff suggest that American politics does not have a lock on polarization or cynicism.
Shaken, Not Stirred
Even though he has an agent in California now, he has no plans to pursue a more commercial path.
“If you start out planning for success, it’s a recipe for disaster,” he said. Still, he added, there is something that could lure him to a mega studio. “If they offer me to do a ‘James Bond,’ I’ll say ‘yes.’”
In the meantime, the acclaim directed at “Monsieur Lazhar” has taught him to keep doing what he’s done. “Keep making personal films and see where it leads — except for the ‘James Bond,’” he said.
Until then, though, he has the rigmarole of his current publicity tour, including a stop in Japan, before he gets to work on the next project.
“It is difficult because you’re not working,” he said of the schedule of screenings, hotel rooms, receptions, talk shows and interviews.
He might get used to it. Political comedies have a way of popping up among Washington audiences.