Quebecois filmmaker Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette started off as a documentary director, making such features as Les Petits princes des bidonvilles (2000), focusing on young Hondurans growing up in Montreal, and Si j’avais un chapeau (2005), which is about children in Quebec, India, Tanzania and Palestine. In 2007, she progressed to fiction features with The Ring, a coming of age story centering on a 12-year-old in the Montreal neighborhood of Hochelaga. At TIFF 2012, she now premieres her second narrative effort, Inch’Allah, about Chloé (Evelyne Brochu), a 20-something doctor from Quebec, who works at a women’s clinic in Palestine, and gets drawn into the West Bank conflict after becoming close to people on both sides. Filmmaker interviewed Barbeau-Lavalette about her new film, which plays at the festival on Saturday September 8 and Monday September 10.
Filmmaker: How did you come to tell this story? What was inspiration behind it?
Barbeau-Lavalette: I first visited Palestine while making the documentary Si j’avais un chapeau. We were filming in a refugee camp, with children. I had a kind of epiphany, a real flash of inspiration, about all the ambiguities of the situation. A combination of love and hate, fascination and confrontation. I decided to go back for a longer visit. I studied politics and Arabic; I made some friends. My time there wasn’t simple. I was shaken several times, especially as a woman. On several occasions, people asked me what I was doing there. As a society it’s the polar opposite of what defines me in my bones, in my soul: freedom. I realized it was probably that paradox that was drawing me in. The fact that this place I love, full of wonderful people and daily acts of resistance, is deprived of the liberty that is so essential to human beings, both internally (women’s freedom) and externally (the occupation). In some sense, that’s what attracted me in. I went back several times, to several cities, and the more often I returned, the less I understood, the more I wanted to immerse myself. I started to write my script over there, after meeting various people. Most of the characters are inspired by real people.
I don’t know if this film marks the end of my encounter with Palestine. But I do know that I’ve reached a different place by telling this story. I no longer need to wonder why I’m so interested in this place. The answer is now clear to me: I needed to make this film, to tell the story of Palestine in my own way.
Filmmaker: How much research did you do?
Barbeau-Lavalette: Whenever you immerse yourself in such a subject, its true depth is revealed to you, so exploring it is an endless process. Even now I can’t say I understand Palestine or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I’ve met people there, so it’s a war with a human face for me, which brings me closer to it and makes it more accessible, more transparent. But I’m still very far from being an expert! My connection to the region is both emotional (through my friendships), and sensorial (though my travel – sounds, odors, powerful experiences). So I feel closer to it then most of the people,but without necessarily being equipped to get into a serious debate about the conflict.
Apart from that, the Arab world is often depicted very superficially, as a monolithic culture. Those distant “Arabs” frighten us. We don’t get them and don’t want to truly understand them. The monstrous nature of terrorist acts (which have been happening for a long time, everywhere) is exacerbated, taken out of its context, never explained, and always associated with “the Arabs.” It terrifies us, distances us, reduces the desire for dialogue. That was my context for plotting my characters’ path. I wanted to bring us closer to something that seems incomprehensible at first. Without justifying their choices, I wanted to restore a human face to an inhuman act. It’s disturbing, but I think it contributes to a process of building peace and openness to the Other. At least, that’s my hope.
Filmmaker: Does your documentary background affect the way that you approach fiction filmmaking? If so, how did that apply to this film?
Barbeau-Lavalette: Of course it does. My “grip” on the real is the beginning of everything. I hold on to what I meet, to what I felt of a reality to tell a story. I want to talk about the things inside me. Hochelaga-Maisonneuve is inside me. I first took it on by mentoring a child from the neighborhood, then I made a documentary (Si j’avais un chapeau), then I wrote a fictional script (Le Ring) and a novel (Je voudrais qu’on m’efface). And I’ve just finished a short film, Ina Litovski, co-directed with André Turpin, inspired by my novel. When I encounter a country – and Hochelaga is one – I want to tell its story. But first I need to experience it physically, through all my senses, to give myself permission – and inspiration – to do it.
I went through the same process with Inch’Allah. I travelled in Palestine then made Si j’avais un chapeau (which has four segments, each set in a different country) before going back to stay, study, and write a series of columns recently published as Embrasser Yasser Arafat. Then I immersed myself in writing Inch’Allah. I wrote some of the script in Quebec, and some in Palestine to allow me to do more research. I’ll never forget the days spent writing in the small garden belonging to a very old lady from Nablus, between cardamom-flavoured coffees and encounters with the parents of suicide bombers.
Than, there’s this strong affection to realism. We can feel it in the mise en scène of Inch’Allah. It all looked so real, both the place and the people, but it’s all staged. There’s hardly a scene where the extras aren’t choreographed to the step. But it all melts into the background because we used shoulder-held cameras, documentary-style. You get the impression that nothing is staged, but all of it is.
Same for the way we filmed Chloé. We stayed very close to her. I had an instinctive desire to stick to her. Without ignoring the landscape, of course, but exploring it with her, hanging on her breathing, her skin, her reactions. We see Palestine – its life, its people, the conflict -– through her. I didn’t want either a postcard or simple contextualizing. Above all, I wanted Chloe to be our country. And that the elements of the territory – the barrier, the checkpoints, the camps –provide dramatic punctuation rather than simply be the backdrop.
Filmmaker: Was it daunting to try to present a picture of the West Bank? Did it help that your protagonist was an outside observer?
Barbeau-Lavalette: I wouldn’t have dared make a fictional piece in that region from any but a Quebecer’s point of view. In fact, it’s what interests me about the film – to what extent can someone else’s conflict become our own? Over time, the character of Chloé becomes a battlefield. She’s swallowed up by the war. She can no longer be a simple witness. That’s what I wanted to express. In such a setting, our protective walls come down. Everything that makes us what we are is threatened. That is war. It can enter us and ravage us. We aren’t immune to it. War doesn’t belong only to other people. I think by focusing on an alter ego, it’s easier to grasp the “humanity”behind the “inhumanity” of war. Chloé could be me, my sister, my neighbor. Her path could be our own. That’s what I’m interested in. What’s more, a number of women – Americans, English, even Israeli – are currently in prison in Israel due to actions similar to Chloé’s. I didn’t make anything up.
Filmmaker: You are very politically engaged as a filmmaker. In this film, did you try to remain completely unbiased toward one side or the other? Or is that impossible?
Barbeau-Lavalette: Even if it isn’t my war, it’s most definitely a war that’s now part of me, like it or not. As a filmmaker, I feel as though I’m talking about my own war: the one inside me. I don’t pretend to talk about others’ pain, those who live with war, or those who think about it every day. But I don’t feel as though I’m an impostor, either. I’ve encountered that war. And it encountered me.
For the most part, the Palestinians and Israelis who read the script liked it. They found it daring, original and not Manichean. It’s very reassuring to hear things like that before you start filming, when you’re taking on such a huge subject that’s so far from your own reality. I never had any intention of making a thesis on the conflict. In fact, Inch’Allah is not a film about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It’s a film about a Quebecer in Palestine, about a doctor who is thrown into the deep end of the war. I wanted to talk, first and foremost, about what doesn’t belong to us, about what happens to us when we’re confronted with a reality so much bigger than us: war. That was my point of view, and the Middle Eastern people who read the script understood it right away. My perspective on Israelis and Palestinians is not political. I’m telling the story of a woman caught between a rock and a hard place. I wanted to convey that we’re not sheltered from anything and that when we’re faced with the worst, even our deepest moral values, which we think are so firmly rooted, can give way.