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Monsieur Lazhar is the best of the fest 

AFF Day 8

The nonsensical embargo that my colleague Carsten Knox wrote about a few days back prevents me from effusing the way I’d like to about Monsieur Lazhar, which I was lucky enough to be able to see last night. From Canadian director Philippe Falardeau, it’s the story of an Algerian refugee claimant who takes over as teacher of a Grade 6-or-so class after his predecessor’s suicide shakes up the school.

I’ve been able to see some truly fine films this past week---Take This Waltz and Afghan Luke stand out in particular---but Monsieur Lazhar was, to me, the best of the bunch. Little wonder it’s Telefilm’s nominee to represent Canada at the Oscars (a piece of news revealed prior to the screening last night). It’s graceful, it’s beautiful, it’s heartbreaking. But I’m sure Falardeau, who was in attendance and took the time to answer questions from the audience, would hate for me to go on. Thank god for that embargo!

So I won’t review his movie, exactly. Instead, I’ll write about the many issues it made me think of. One of those was the creative process itself. Falardeau’s screenplay is an adaptation of a one-man play by Evelyne de la Cheneliere and stars an Algerian stand-up comedian (Fellag) in the lead role. It’s quite a feat of imagination to translate such a minimalist stage play into a multi-character film, and maybe even more of a leap to cast a humourist in such a weighty dramatic role. Falardeau said it took two years just to write the screenplay. The filmmaker also graciously discussed many elements of his filmmaking process, from directing child actors to working with music composers, in one of the more informative Q&A sessions I can recall attending.

The film itself, meanwhile, raises questions about immigrant experiences, the education system and the way children and adults process grief. Adjusting to a new country and culture is difficult enough, but doing so while working as a teacher would be doubly confusing. In an age of hyper-vigilant parenting, when everyone’s child is the extra-specialist and overprotected both physically and emotionally, educators’ hands are often duct-taped. As one character notes, the endless litigation-proof, one-size-fits-all rules forces teachers to handle kids like “radioactive waste.” What works for Lazhar in the classroom but fails him in bureaucratic channels is his insistence on treating his students as individuals.

The respect he has for his kids leads me to another, related point. I wondered, after seeing the film---and in response to a particular line of dialogue---whether our society’s increasing bubble-ization of kids has more to do with our own weakness as adults, not our kids’ sensitivities. Children’s emotions are volatile, yes, but they are resilient. That we now guard so vigilantly against such formerly ordinary things as playground roughhousing suggests a grownup world that is gradually losing its collective shit.

These were a few thoughts Monsieur Lazhar implanted in me, but there’s so much more to the movie that any number of other things might jump into the foreground for other viewers. I’d love to get into them all, but...well, you know.

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