Talking with a reporter over tea, Antoine Bourges is worried about what he might sound like. Not the inflection of his voice or the quality of his interview answers, but just whether or not the tiny digital recorder that has been set in front of him is going to be able to hear anything over the clanging bustle and hustle of the Berlin café where he’s currently killing time.
“It’s just hard to turn off that part of my filmmaker brain, to ensure we get everything we need,” the franco-Canadian director says. “I don’t want you to lose my voice!”
That’s doubtful. It is a few days ahead of the Berlinale film festival premiere of Bourges’ drama Concrete Valley, and the Vancouver-based director is not likely to have his voice lost any time soon. Not only here in this restaurant a few blocks away from Potsdamer Platz, the hub of the frantic Berlinale, where his replies are as articulate as they are considerate. But also onscreen in Concrete Valley, where Bourges’ cinematic voice registers loud and clear in a small-scale but hugely alive story about connection and community in the isolated corners of Toronto’s Thorncliffe Park neighbourhood.
Focused on one couple deep in the midst of marital dysfunction, Bourges’ film follows Rashid (Hussam Douhna), who was a doctor back home in Syria, and his wife Farah (Amani Ibrahim), once an actor. Now in Toronto for five years with one young son, both husband and wife are forced to contend with myriad cultural adjustments and disappointments: Rashid tries to recapture his professional glory by going door-to-door in his apartment building making house calls, while Farah dives into activism in order to compensate for her dead-end retail job. Between chronicling the couple’s quotidian existence and subtle spats, Bourges paints a portrait of a world that is both refuge and limbo for an untold number of immigrant families.
The film is sensitive, steady, but also quite funny in parts, with Bourges careful to balance the ever-present anxiety of Rashid and Farah’s marriage with the gentle humour that can come from, say, attending dry-as-paint English lessons or struggling to connect with neighbours who are just as lost as anybody else. Already, the film has earned comparisons to the cinematic naturalism of French icon Robert Bresson and the enigmatically tender work of German master Angela Schanelec, the latter of whom has a new movie, Music, premiering at the Berlinale the same day as Bourges.
“I think what connected with Berlin’s programmers is that this is an immigrant story but not focused on the fact that the characters are immigrants,” says the 39-year-old director. “I’m trying to create space for the characters’ flaws and idiosyncrasies. I’m not trying to make moralistic characters full of great values. This is a little different.”
Just as different as Concrete Valley’s themes are its construction and methods. Douhna and much of the film’s cast (with the exception of Ibrahim) are non-actors, appearing onscreen here for the first time in their lives. Without the benefit of professional training, their raw, somewhat innocent performances are captured by Bourges with a real-world pacing and you-are-there aesthetic. At certain points, it isn’t clear whether the film is documentary or fiction – the actors are both organic and stilted, as any real-life resident of Thorncliffe Park might be were they suddenly asked to step in front of a camera’s lens and recite a monologue.
“The challenge was creating filmmaking conditions that would allow for mistakes to happen all the time,” says Bourges, who wrote the script with Syrian filmmaker Teyama Alkamli. “That means instead of shooting three scenes a day it means shooting one. Which means instead of shooting for 15 days, we shoot for 30. Which means a smaller crew, because we can’t pay for too many people for that long. But it’s a beautiful constraint because it can create interesting results.”
The most interesting result just might be how Concrete Valley landed a one-time NHL hopeful a spot at one of Europe’s most prestigious film festivals. Born in France but having spent his adolescence in Montreal, Bourges once had his eyes on becoming a professional hockey player. But after leaving those dreams on the ice, he found himself trying to imagine a life that involved his other two passions: business and film. The answer seemed easy: why not focus on the business of film, and become a producer?
“I tried working in production companies back in France, but the fact is that the films I want to make are, let’s say, less traditional,” says Bourges, who moved back to Canada to study film at the University of British Columbia, where he now teaches film production.
After making a number of short- and medium-length films to increasing acclaim – his 2017 project Fail to Appear premiered at the Vancouver International Film Festival and featured a lead performance from future Canadian cinema indie star Deragh Campbell (Anne at 13,000 ft.) – Bourges began to consider what his next production might be. The idea for Concrete Valley struck him when, while driving around Toronto, he kept seeing Thorncliffe Park’s massive cluster of apartment towers across the Don Valley Parkway.
“I was fascinated by them from an architectural point of view, these mid-century buildings in this Brutalist style, so I decided to visit the neighbourhood to see what it was like from the inside,” the director recalls. “I found a place that was an arrival city, a landing spot for new immigrants that was cut off from the rest of the city by the ravine. There was something sad but also optimistic about the neighbourhood.”
Which is what led him to get in touch with The Neighbourhood Organization, a non-profit operating in the area. Soon, Bourges was making a film about a community starring members of that community.
“I try to make my work as simply as I can, and when we’re making them I’m not trying to see whether they’re accessible or not. I just make what I want to see.”
At home, the reaction to Concrete Valley has been open-hearted and excitable, especially after the film made its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival this past fall. It was there that the film secured a Canadian theatrical-release deal from MDFF as that highly respected Toronto-based production company moves into distribution.
What Berlin offers, though, is the opportunity for Bourges to make connections on a global level, with the hope that he can leverage such exposure to be that much more ambitious with his next production. Not that he felt all that constrained while making Concrete Valley, despite its tiny $250,000 budget, much of it secured through Telefilm’s micro-budget Talent to Watch program.
“I made Fail to Appear with very little money, so this actually felt like a pretty big budget to me,” Bourges says with a laugh. “There are certain freedoms you get when you don’t have a larger budget, too. I couldn’t afford union actors, which means I was more flexible in using the non-actors I wanted. And the expectations with such a low budget are the same as working with arts councils, in that there are no expectations. There’s a freedom – though it would be nice to pay myself next time.”
Concrete Valley opens in Canadian theatres this summer