In a stage show, Algerian comic Fellag considers why so many of his compatriots immigrate to France. In 1962, Algerians expelled French colonial power violently – as one might a child born of rape, Fellag says – but now they wonder how the absent child is doing, they fantasize about singing it a lullaby, they would like to benefit from its democracy, they want to plan a family get-together.
As the comic draws out this mixed list of peaceful desires in a singsong voice, the French-language piece emerges as a highly unusual bit of political satire, poignantly moving from an image of rape to one of parental love in seconds. Somewhere in that poignancy lies the key to Fellag’s hugely sympathetic performance in the title role of the Quebec hit Monsieur Lazhar, which is in the running for best foreign-language film at Sunday’s Academy Awards.
At first blush, Fellag’s casting in Monsieur Lazhar, a film directed by Philippe Falardeau and based on a play by Évelyne de la Chenelière, might seem improbable: A comic from France who favours ethnic jokes is being asked to carry a completely unfunny drama about a Montreal teacher trying to help a group of children traumatized by his predecessor’s suicide. But the character is an Algerian political refugee whose own suffering gives him an emotional intelligence and delicate sense of humour that the other adults lack.
“When I read the monologue that was the basis of the film, I had the impression that Évelyne de la Chenelière, without knowing me, had written it for me,” Fellag told a Swiss newspaper recently. (Fellag is currently touring a new one-man show in France and did not respond to requests for an interview with The Globe and Mail.)
In the film, Bachir Lazhar’s colleagues are completely unaware of his history. Having fled Algeria after his activist wife and his children were killed in suspicious circumstances, he is fighting to remain in Canada as a refugee. The comic’s story is less tragic but also marked by Algeria’s violent history: He chose to leave the region in the 1990s, after a bomb exploded in a theatre where he was performing.
“The threats and surveillance were constant, but I did not want to take others hostage with me,” he said in the Swiss interview. “I compartmentalize. I see that in Bachir too: He is a vessel filled with sorrow, but he never overflows. I play on that: I hold myself very straight. I never bend.”
The actor, now 61, was born Mohamed Fellag, the son of a Berber family, in the Kabylia region of northern Algeria. He studied at the National Institute of Dramatic Arts in Algiers before trying his luck abroad. He lived in Montreal for three years in the late seventies and early eighties before emigrating to France, but he eventually returned to Algeria to work in the theatre, soon beginning his career as a monologist. He was notorious for his candour, targeting the repressive government and the rising Islamists equally: During one show in the late 1980s, he apologized to the women in the room on behalf of all men, saying: “Excuse us. You can wear anything you like. You can even wear nothing at all.” Reports say male spectators sat there stony-faced.
Apparently, the fearless Fellag could go too far: The 1995 incident occurred while he was touring in Tunisia during a crackdown on artists and intellectuals in Algeria. His liberating shows were particularly popular with female audiences in North Africa and the bomb was planted in the women’s washroom in a Tunis theatre. No one was hurt, but Fellag got the message and exiled himself to France, where he works in film, has published several collections of fiction but, most of all, has built up a strong following for the one-man stage shows he now performs in French.
Tous les algériens sont des mécaniciens ( All Algerians are mechanics), his popular 2008 two-hander created with his partner, French actress Marianne Epin, examined Algerian reality at home and abroad. The title is punning, suggesting not only that Algerians are literally mechanics but also that they are always cunningly making do. The show’s comedy comes from observing the collision between a developing country and modern technology.
In his new show, Petits chocs des civilizations ( Little clashes of civilizations), he turns his attention on French society itself.
He is busy touring it this winter, now playing smaller centres across France after a detour to Brussels, and Falardeau has speculated his humble star won’t bother attending the Oscars. There is, however, a short gap in his touring schedule between now and next Tuesday. It’s a long shot: Monsieur Lazhar is in stiff competition with an Iranian film, A Separation, which is not only the favourite to take the best foreign-language Oscar but is also vying to win a similar category at France’s César awards Friday, a competition from which Monsieur Lazhar was excluded.
Of course, if Monsieur Lazhar were to take the Oscar, it would be a great boost not merely for Falardeau and Quebec film, but also for Fellag’s career in France. Falardeau had travelled to France to find his Bachir Lazhar because the North African acting community in Montreal is tiny, but he had declined to cast a big French star such as Kad Merad, who is of Algerian extraction. Instead, the director picked out Fellag at an audition, saying he saw something in his eyes. If the film takes home an Oscar on Sunday, it will mean international vindication for the comic’s sorrow.