Monsieur Lazhar – A Portrait of the Newcomer Experience

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Monsieur Lazhar is the most celebrated Canadian film of the year, with an Oscar nomination for best foreign film and six Genie awards. Its story about human connections across cultural and community lines and compassionate portrayal of refugee and immigrant experience is both inspirational and thought-provoking.

Director Philippe Falardeau’s brilliant new film works on many levels. It is the story of an Algerian refugee claimant in Montreal, trained as a teacher, who secures a desperately-needed job when a teaching position in a primary school is left empty through tragic circumstances. It is a story about the desperate need to connect in times of grief. It is also a story about the modern education system, and how curricula in schools sometimes neglects children’s emotional education. Yet, it is also a story of refugee resilience, and of how people whose lives are shaped by tragic events manage to overcome them by the power of deep compassion.

Bachir Lazhar, the main character in the film, walks into a situation that many newcomers have experienced in their job searches – he happens to be at the right place at the right time. After reading in the newspaper about the tragedy, he goes to the Montreal primary school, with his résumé in hand, and offers to teach the class whose teacher has been lost. At first feeling like a fish out of water, he eventually forges a deep bond with his students and wins them over with his quiet and dignified demeanour, challenging them with unorthodox choices in reading material and educational approach. His notions of education often clash with established principles that sometimes seem separated from children’s real needs.

Monsieur Lazhar offers thoughtful reflection on several subjects. It is a study of how sudden and inexplicable loss can affect children and adults alike, and how children often seem better equipped than adults to deal with it, yet they are not allowed to express their feelings openly. The film also touches on differing cultural notions of what it means to educate children. As well, Monsieur Lazhar is a story whose elements many newcomers to Canada will recognize. Bachir Lazhar carries his tragic personal story buried within him, but it is precisely this experience that proves so valuable in his approach to students and the eventual bond that they establish with him. His students are a true multicultural microcosm, bringing their own personal stories and family dynamics that sometimes affect their behaviour and response to the tragedy that has befallen them.

Director and writer Philippe Falardeau weaves together all these themes in a careful and methodical way, and gets perfect performances from all his actors, especially Mohamed Fellag in his moving and dignified portrait of Lazhar, and Sophie Nélisse as one of his precocious students with whom he establishes a special connection.

Monsieur Lazhar contains moments of both sadness and joy that some will recognize from the time they first arrived in Canada. It is a film that shows how compassion, empathy and respect can show the way forward across cultural and community boundaries. In its intricate, yet profound way, it leaves us to ponder the infinite possibilities offered by simple human connection.

Monsieur Lazhar still plays in cinemas across Canada and is currently available on DVD.

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