Since making his feature-film debut in 2000 with The Left-Hand Side of the Fridge, Canadian filmmaker Philippe Falardeau has travelled across Europe, Asia and America to appear at festival screenings of his films. All this travelling mirrors the theme which underlines his oeuvre: the search for one's place and identity in a foreign culture. It's a question which came to him early in his career, in 1993, when he participated in a contest to make a short film in each of 20 countries he visited in 26 weeks.
'I think identity is probably the most important question in an individual's life, regardless of what's happening politically,' the 43-year-old said before a screening of his latest Oscar-nominated film, Monsieur Lazhar, at the International Film Festival Rotterdam last month.
And it's a question which is central to Monsieur Lazhar, as the titular protagonist tries to leave behind his troubled past in Algeria to settle into a new life as an elementary schoolteacher in Montreal. His attempt to reinvent himself parallels his efforts to help his new charges come to terms with who they are, in light of a deadly tragedy.
'There's a scene where the parents go to see [their children's] teachers, and there's a couple who tell Lazhar that 'You are not from here, so there are things you don't understand',' Falardeau said.
'Finally they say, 'We want you to just content yourself with teaching our child and not raising her'. I think it's a mistake to say that, because if a child is there for more hours [than at home], it's obvious there's an identity-building process going on in class. For me, school is that place where we learn how to live, make friends and enemies, and experience the good and the bad in life.'
Monsieur Lazhar is an expanded adaptation of Evelyne de la Cheneliere's one-man play, Bashir Lazhar. 'It was like a monologue,' Falardeau said. 'The character is an immigrant with a very difficult and dramatic past, but it's not the main subject of the play. So I thought it was interesting because [the playwright] made the character very rich and complex, and brought us somewhere else to the subject of grieving and education.'
Still, Falardeau says immigration is a key theme of his film, as shown in the multicultural make-up of the student population. He points to a short scene in which a white girl and another wearing a hijab are seen wearing the same kind of shoes and gleefully comparing them.
'They don't care about their religion - they care about fashion, these young girls,' he said, noting that they differed from the subjects of his first documentary from 1997, Pate Chinois, which looks at Chinese immigrants in Canada. 'You see the Canadian-born Chinese in it, and it's quite different. I think for the next generation, this will not be an issue, the colour of their skin.'
Monsieur Lazhar is screening as part of the Hong Kong International Film Festival on Mar 22, 7.30pm, HK Exhibition and Convention Centre, and Mar 29, 9.45pm, The Grand Cinema