Canadian film director and screenwriter Philippe Falardeau is touring… (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times )
At this year's Oscars, Philippe Falardeau spotted his idol Steven Spielberg standing alone, firing off a text message.
Falardeau panicked. How, the French-Canadian director fretted, could he break the ice and strike up a chat?
"I was like, 'What do I do? What am I going to say to this guy?' So I just ran away," Falardeau, 44, recalled recently over breakfast at a Sunset Strip hotel. "I was just too shy. I blew my assignment."
Perhaps. But Falardeau seems to be making the most of an improbable career that was handed to him 20 years ago when he was picked for a TV-show filmmaking contest, and that reached a midlife apogee this year when he earned a foreign language film Oscar nomination for his fourth feature, the bittersweet classroom drama "Monsieur Lazhar." The film, in French with English subtitles, opens Friday in Los Angeles.
It's an ironic turn of events for an auteur who, despite his mounting collection of festival prizes from Sundance, Toronto and elsewhere, doesn't regard himself as an artist or even a filmmaker.
"I studied political science and international relations, so I never considered myself an artist. I still don't," said the Montreal-based writer-director, sporting John Lennon-style antiquarian glasses and a quintessential grad-student ensemble (T-shirt and jeans). "I still have the impostor syndrome that somebody's going to stand up in a room and say, 'You! We know who you are, get out of the business!'"
Falardeau's phobia may diminish with the success of "Monsieur Lazhar," which he adapted and expanded from a one-act stage play by Évelyne de la Chenelière. Although the movie was bested at the Oscars by the Iranian entry"A Separation,"it won six Genie Awards, including best picture, from the Academy of Canadian Cinema & Television.
Quietly observant and globally aware, "Monsieur Lazhar" relates the fable-like story of an Algerian immigrant substitute teacher trying to impart higher learning and emotional healing to a group of Montreal middle-schoolers whose previous female instructor committed suicide. While grappling with a devastating personal loss, Bachir Lazhar struggles to earn his students' trust and cope with post-colonial cultural differences that put him at odds with parents, colleagues and the school's principal.
In a conventional Hollywood treatment, "Monsieur Lazhar" is the kind of child-centric, cross-cultural scenario that might be squeezed for every last ounce of misty-eyed catharsis and liberal-minded sermonizing. Instead, the low-budget movie shuns emotional manipulation and takes a nonjudgmental view of the hot-button topics it touches on, such as immigration.
In casting the film, which was partly funded by the federal cultural agency Telefilm Canada, Falardeau made several unorthodox choices. He assigned the lead role to the one-named Algerian actor Fellag, who was forced to flee his native country for France during the brutal Algerian civil war of the 1990s. Although Fellag specializes in burlesque comedy, "I knew this guy would know intimately what Bachir went through," Falardeau said.
Falardeau also cast two children with no previous acting experience, Sophie Nélisse and Émilien Néron, in the crucial roles of two schoolmates who share a tragic bond. Nélisse won a Genie Award for her naturalistic performance, and critics praised Falardeau's handling of the young actors, an aptitude that the director is slightly at a loss to explain.
"I have a girlfriend, she wants children badly, and I'm always saying, 'I'm 44, I'll have children when I grow up.' But I think I'm tapping into my own memories of who I was."
Falardeau said his internationalist perspective on cinema took hold when he was chosen as a contestant for the 1993 edition of the television series "A Race Around the World." Required to make 20 short films in six months, he traveled from Libya and Sudan to Peru and Colombia.
That launched a directing career that has included a documentary on Chinese immigration in Canada and the 2006 feature "Congorama," about a Belgian inventor's journey into the enigma of identity and contemporary geopolitics. His next projects include a film about the so-called Football War between El Salvador and Honduras in 1969.
But with "Monsieur Lazhar," Falardeau thinks he may have found the ultimate global microcosm: a school.
"You have this incubator of small human beings that is the classroom, which is also a laboratory of real life where anything can happen," he said. "I'm just shooting a Polaroid of where we're at and asking the question, 'Is that where we want to be?'"