Programme Note: Monsieur Lazhar
Director Phillipe Falardeau / Cast Mohamed Fellag, Evelyne de la Cheneliére, Émilien Néron
Canada 2011, 1h34m, subtitles
Please note this article contains spoilers
French-Canadian director Philippe Falardeau describes his film, Monsieur Lazhar, as ‘an ode to teaching, while scratching a little bit at the system.’ The film tells the story of Algerian immigrant to Quebec, Bashir Lazhar (played by Algerian comedian Fellag, himself an immigrant to France), who fills a vacancy in a primary school after a teacher commits suicide. Lazhar has fled to Canada following the deaths of his family in a terrorist attack, staged after the publication of a controversial book by his wife. He manages to bluff his way into the teaching job, hiding the fact that he is a refugee, with no teaching qualifications.
Prior to Monsieur Lazhar (which was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2012 Oscars, but lost out to Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation), Falardeau had made only three films: La Moitié gauche du frigo (The Left-hand Side of the Fridge, 2000), a mockumentary about unemployed engineer Christophe’s search for work in Montreal, which won the award for Best Canadian First Feature Film at the Toronto International Film Festival that year; 2006’s Congorama, in which a Belgian inventor, Michel, finds out at the age of 41 that he was adopted, travels to Quebec in search of his birth family; and 2008’s dark comedy C’est pas moi, je le jure! (It’s Not Me, I Swear!), the story of a restless ten year old boy, Léon, who repeatedly attempts suicide but fails, and never seems convinced that he wants to die anyway.
Monsieur Lazhar’s source material is Quebecois playwright Évelyne de la Chenelière’s (who, in fact, appears as schoolgirl Alice’s mother in Falardeau’s film) one-man play Bashir Lazhar. For Falardeau to draw the narrative away from its monologue beginnings, he looked back to his own memories of school: ‘When you’re nine years old […] If we say to you that one day, you’ll realise that these were the best years in your life, you don’t want to hear that. While watching the play, I was realising that those were the best years of my life. I really enjoyed being at school […] So, I went back to school. I asked teachers if I could go in their classes and just watch how the kids move and talk.’ In Quebec, in Britain, almost anywhere, even the idea of children walking alone to school or playing in the street can provoke hysteria, so the prospect of an unqualified man with no references walking into a school and being employed as a teacher may seem horrifying, or at least designed to shock. But Falardeau’s film asks if the bureaucratic rules set up in schools for children’s protection do not in fact create unhelpful distances between teachers and pupils. Indeed, he feels that teachers in modern society have far too little control over how they interact with their classes. He accuses Western education systems of ‘over-codifying everything, like how you should not touch a child.’
Bashir Lazhar may not have the requisite training, but he slowly helps his pupils work through and talk openly about their grief at the death of their former teacher. The fact that a child’s accusation that the teacher ‘kissed’ him is held by many as a reason for her suicide means that the issue of intimacy between adults and children is already a source of tension in the school. When the boy in question breaks down in the classroom, Bashir puts his arm around him and there is absolutely no sense that the gesture is inappropriate. Part of the poignancy of Falardeau’s film undoubtedly comes from an appeal to our own memories of childhood. The snow-covered playground locates the film in Montreal, but the images shot inside the school itself evoke memories of sounds and sensations that many of us would recognise – the squeak of plimsolls on linoleum, blue-painted corridors, teachers’ wooden desks, children swinging on chairs and dancing with gleeful abandon at a school disco, the bumptious male PE teacher who patrols playtimes with a whistle.
Canada is often regarded as being far more welcoming to immigrants than many other countries, and a spot of harmonious ethnic diversity. As Bashir’s painful struggle to prove in court that he would be in danger if he returned to Algeria reflects, however, nowhere in the world opens its borders to immigrants without suspicion. As Falardeau says, ‘It’s a romantic view of Canada. It’s like Michael Moore saying we don’t lock our doors in Canada […] It is a little simplistic to say that we blend easily […] with other cultures.’ The film certainly asks Quebecois viewers to remember that their own ancestors were once strangers in Canada, made especially clear when Bashir (from French-speaking Algeria) is told by fellow teachers that the work of Balzac is too difficult for the children to understand. Falardeau says, ‘French is always on the verge of disappearing to some extent. I work, play and do everything in French. My film is in French. It’s not something folkloric. It’s who we are.’ Falardeau’s gentle film does not ask us to make monumental decisions regarding immigration, whether or not it is acceptable for a teacher to hug a child, or for children to discuss death in class; rather, it emphasises quietly the need for understanding, kindness and communication between adults and children, between ourselves and strangers: ‘If you look at history, [it] is just a succession of people meeting other people, either through commerce, voyages or wars. If you read Herodotus, the first Greek historian 2500 years ago, he was talking about that – about people mixing with other people. Sometimes it produces great societies. Sometimes it triggers war. But, we’re not going to change that.’
Researcher, University of Glasgow
 Falardeau, interviewed by Steve Greene, ‘Newly Minted Oscar Nominee Philippe Falardeau Discusses Monsieur Lazhar,’ <http://www.indiewire.com/article/newly-minted-oscar-nominee-philippe-falardeau-discusses-monsieur-lazhar#> [accessed 30 April 2012].
 Falardeau, interviewed by Sheila Roberts, ‘Director Philippe Falardeau Monsieur Lazhar Interview,’ <http://collider.com/philippe-falardeau-monsieur-lazhar-interview/160745/> [accessed 30 April 2012].