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Antigone loosely adapts Sophocles' Greek tragedy and situates it in contemporary Montreal.

Courtesy of TIFF

More than 2,000 years ago, Sophocles wrote Antigone, about a young Athenian who goes against the king to bury her brother. Choosing family over the state, Antigone sacrifices her life to stand up for her beliefs. The play has been reinterpreted countless times over the past century to address fascism, the patriarchy, the countercultural movement. The most recent adaptation, though, reimagines the story in contemporary Montreal as a family of refugees faces off against the Canadian government.

Adapted, directed and shot by Sophie Deraspe, Antigone was selected this fall as Canada’s contender for the 2020 Academy Awards, shortly after being honoured as best Canadian feature at the Toronto International Film Festival. “I feel like I’m an athlete going to the Olympics,” Deraspe said about the film’s Oscar journey, just before its screening at the Festival du nouveau cinéma in Montreal in mid-October. “There are so many people watching and supporting me; I don’t feel alone.”

Deraspe, in her mid-40s, has been making films for more than a decade. Antigone is her biggest hit outside of Quebec, but previous films such as Les Loups, about a young woman who travels to a remote North Atlantic island to connect with her past, and the documentary A Gay Girl in Damascus: The Amina Profile, demonstrated the filmmaker’s restrained sensitivity to justice, identity and new technologies. With Antigone, however, she changed her approach, moving away from her preference for introverted characters. “I wanted to open up and be more generous and it makes a big difference,” she said. “The pacing is different and I don’t restrain emotions or words.”

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Deraspe first fell in love with the play Antigone in her early 20s, long before she started making movies. “It’s about what it means to be human and living in an imperfect system,” she said. “Sometimes, we have to shake that system, or at least stay true to our set of values.” In recent years, it was reading and watching YouTube videos about the 2008 death of Fredy Villanueva in Montreal that played a key role in how she decided to adapt Sophocles’s text.

Villanueva was born in Honduras and had several run-ins with law enforcement in Canada by the time he was 18. He was fatally shot in an altercation when the police tried to break up a dice game in a parking lot. His death spurred protests against police brutality, and the officer who shot Villanueva was not charged. Villanueva’s older brother, Dany, was a key witness in the case and faced deportation in the aftermath of his sibling’s death because of a guilty plea to a 2006 armed robbery.

In writing Antigone, Deraspe was inspired by events in the Villanueva case, in particular in how she imagined Antigone’s two brothers: one murdered by police and the other, a key witness, facing deportation owing to a history of petty crimes.

Deraspe’s reworking of the Greek tragedy is loose: Rather than a king, it is the state that enforces the systems of justice, judges, police officers and lawyers. Crucially, in this film, Antigone becomes an outsider. Although she was born abroad, she immigrated as a toddler and grew up in Canada. The threat of deportation against her brother and then herself becomes the death sentence that hung over Sophocles’s Antigone 2,000 years ago. As for the Greek chorus, Deraspe reinterprets it as the collective voice of social media.

While it’s not the first time Deraspe has integrated the language of social media into her film, she conceded that people reading this script were unsure of it. Different episodes in the film are broken up by minifilms, playful and angry YouTube videos detailing and commenting on the events taking place. “People told me that they couldn’t imagine what these scenes will look like, but they trusted me,” she said.

This focus on social media helps bolster the film’s youthful perspective. “Young people,” Deraspe said, “either feel they have no future or that the future is theirs. They have to make it their own, and in a way, they have nothing to lose.” Antigone’s generation, in this film, stands up against an archaic and inflexible state.

Central to the youthful face of the film is actress Nahéma Ricci in a breakout performance. Her features jump out in striking red posters for Antigone. That deep red that immediately brings to mind blood; the blood spilled and the blood that connects family. On screen, though, it’s Ricci’s green eyes that stand out. Her performance has already been compared to Maria Falconetti from the silent masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928).

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It was no easy task finding Ricci. The 850 applicants at an open casting call were narrowed down to 300 in-person interviews. Once Ricci was found, though, and the rest of the family was cast, Deraspe worked hard to make sure that everyone bonded, and preproduction included workshops and family meetings. Things fell into place. “They were all very lovable. It felt like a real family," Deraspe said.

The film, though deeply rooted in an ancient play, feels contemporary. It addresses issues of identity, citizenship and justice with nuance and moral integrity. There is an urgency as it portrays young people standing up for a future that may not exist if they don't fight for it.

Deraspe talks about the climate march led by Greta Thunberg in Montreal at the end of September. She walked with her four-year-old and was inspired seeing the big crowds take to the streets. “It’s not as much about Greta as it is about all those people marching, wanting change and doing something,” she said. She also mentioned Jane Fonda, who continues to be a social activist in her 80s. Deraspe said that social change is usually a young person’s game, but some of us never lose our sense of justice. “People like Jane Fonda prove there’s no age to Antigone.”

Antigone opens Dec. 6 at Toronto’s TIFF Lightbox (tiff.net)

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