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‘Felix and Meira’ Director Maxime Giroux on Understanding Hasidim and Quebecois Isolation

'Felix and Meira' Director Maxime Giroux on Understanding Hasidim and Quebecois Isolation

Felix and Meira ” is Canada’s Official Submission in the Best Foreign Language Film category at the 88th Academy Awards. ISA: UDI. U.S. Distributor: Oscilloscope Laboratories

United by spatial closeness yet separated by an ocean of cultural
distance, the two doomed lovers in Maxime Giroux‘s “Felix and Meira” embody a romance
caught between the clutches of strict religious mandates and the refreshing air
of freedom.

Sumptuously intimate and permeated with seductive melancholy,
Giroux film follows a secular French Canadian man and a married Hasidic woman
as they find comfort, even if temporary, from the quiet turmoil in their lives.

READ MORE: Review: ‘Felix and Meira’ is a Delicate Portrait of a Uniquely Forbidden Romance

Felix (Martin Dubreuil) is no longer a young man, but his life is far from
being stable. His lack of interest in following his father’s footsteps has
turned him into an outcast in our success-driven society. Bound to exist under
the shadow of the Hasidic community’s expectations, Meira’s only respite from
her duties as a wife are music and her occasional walks around the
neighborhood. Once Felix and Meira (Hadas Yaron) cross paths and their tender desperation to
be someone else takes over them, her husband, Shulem (Luzer Twersky), becomes the collateral
victim. Is it Shulem’s fault that Meira feels trapped? Or are they both victims
of the only lifestyle they’ve ever known?  Is Felix offering an escape or destroying a family? It’s in
the intricate search for these answers that Giroux finds moments of human truth
for all the affected parts in this emotional triangle.

READ MORE: Whistler Film Festival 2015 Unveils First 18 Films Plus Other Highlights

Giroux is not a Jewish man and knew nothing about this
community and their faith prior to the making of the film, but living in a
community where the secular and the religious shared space but never connected
inspired him to dive into the unknown.  Though he was fearful of the risk he was taking, the result is
elegantly executed and unassumingly affecting. He proves that melodrama rarely
has a place where there is truth.

Here is our conversation with Giroux on understanding the
Hasidic community he only knew from afar before, on the identity Quebecois people,
and why he enjoys making films about things he is against.

Aguilar: Both Felix and Meira’s world’s coexist without ever touching
each other.
What prompted you to delve into
these parallel lifestyles, in particular that of the Hasidic community, which is foreign to most of us?

Maxime Giroux: I
have to say I was a little like Felix, the character. I was a bit naïve about
the Hasidic community. I didn’t know anything about it and I was living, like
him, in the same neighborhood as the Hasidic people. I don’t know why, but for
some reason I wasn’t really interested in them. My community and their
community live together, but we don’t talk to them and they don’t talk to
us. At one point I was searching
for an idea to make a movie. I was
outside this cafe everyday and they would walk by in front of me. I talked to my co-writer Alexandre Laferrière and said,
“Why don’t we make a film about this community? We don’t know anything about
them. We should do research and try to learn more about them. We should try to
be in contact with them.”

It was as simple as that. The reason why I made this movie
was to get to know them a little bit more. I was naïve because I didn’t know it
would be so complex to write a movie about them. The movie is simple in a way. It’s a simple love story or a normal love story, but it was tough to
write it because there were things we couldn’t say and there were other things we
could say but only in a certain way. We had to be careful. Our goal was to say a
lot of things about this community but when we wrote it, I realized that it was too much and that we couldn’t show it all in the
movie. It was really difficult. It took like two and a half years to write the
script, to rewrite it, and to figure it all out.

What sort of research did you do or what kind of interaction did you have with this community in order to portray them accurately or in an honest
manner?  You are not part of the community, so in a sense, like Felix, you were
an outsider looking at them from afar.

Maxime Giroux: That
was the main complexity of making the film.
Alex was more into the books. He was reading books about the Hassidic community and
Judaism. We are not Jewish, so we were starting to learn from the beginning. We
knew nothing. We started to write the script and while he was more into the
books, I was more on the field. I was riding my bicycle, walking the
neighborhood, going into synagogues and community centers, and talking to them.
I discovered that every time I started to talk about how I was going to make a
movie about their community they stop talking about the subject of the film.
They said, “No, you can’t make a movie about that. Forget about it.” Some
people among them were curious and asked me, “What’s your story about?” I would
say, “It’s a love story between a French Canadian man and a Hasidic woman. ” They would say, “That’s impossible.” I would asked them, “Why do you say it’s impossible I’ve heard
stories?” They would always reply, “No, it’s impossible.” At one point I thought,
“Oh my God, it’s going to be impossible for me to make this movie because I
need some of these people to help me make it. I can’t do it myself. I don’t know this
community.” The only way for me to make the movie was to talk to people who
have left the Hasidic community.

How difficult was it
to find them and how willing were they to help you tell this story?

Maxime Giroux: I
found Luzer, who plays Meira’s husband Shulem, on the Internet. I also found other ex-Hasidic people who lived in New York. I went there to talk to a lot of people who
had left the community and all of them told me to go see Luzer. I already knew
that I wanted to meet him because I thought he was the best prospect for the
role, but everybody in New York confirm it and said, “You should go see this
guy, he is amazing and he wants to act in movies.” I met him and he was such a
character in real life and then I decided to work with him. He helped us translate the script into Yiddish. It was super important for me to make the
film in Yiddish. He also helped us be accurate in terms of the set decorations, the
props, and the costumes. He really helped us. Without him it would have been
impossible to make the movie.

In the film there are also four other ex-members
of the Hasidic community. All of them really helped me. A few months before
making the film I thought, “I’m not going to make this film. It’s impossible. I
don’t have the key to make this film even if I have the script,” but when I met
these people they really helped us. That’s why I think that the ex-Hasidic people
who saw the film really liked it because they feel it’s accurate. Just
yesterday a guy from the U.K, an ex-member of the community, wrote to me
because the film played in London a few days ago. He saw it and said, “Oh my
God. It’s like my life.”

When you talked to
them what were some of the reasons they gave you for leaving the Hasidic
community?

Maxime Giroux:  There are a lot of reasons. Just
like in every community bad things happen. For example, I heard stories that in
Brooklyn there have been cases of boys being sexually abused by adults in the
community. Some people want to leave the community because of that. Others just
don’t accept this way of living and others just don’t believe in religion. They
were born into it but then at 8 or 9-years-old they start asking questions and
by 14 they want to quit. There are a lot of different reasons depending on the
person.

In your film Meira
wants to leave because she wants freedom and she is loves,
or at least is interested in Felix. Tell me about writing this beautifully complex character. She a woman living a double life. 

Maxime Giroux: For
me the main thing is that she wants freedom. We discovered that when you are a Hasidic woman you are first a
child and then at 12-years-old instantly you become a woman. At 12-years-old
they tell you, “OK, now you have to learn to be a woman in order to become a
mother.” They don’t have teenage years. For me, Meira wants to have those
teenage years. She never had them but she wants to live them. She wants that
freedom when you have when are teenager and you start to listen to music and to define yourself with art. She wants those years where you find a path for yourself. I
think she wants freedom. Is she really in love with Felix? He is there and she
is perfect for him. I think love in life is like that most of the time. We fall
in love with someone that’s at the same place and the same moment of his or her
life. You need that person so you can grow for a certain period of time.
Sometimes this growth is for 10, 20 or 30 years, and sometimes it’s only for a
few months. So is she really in love with him? Maybe.

The ending is also
very ambiguous. It doesn’t give us a straight answer or a perfectly wrapped
happy ending
. There is uncertainty in both of their faces.

Maxime Giroux: Yes,
it was very important for a lot of reasons. Even us, in our society, when we
leave someone, like if you have two children and a wife or a husband, we are
not sure about doing it. After a few months you might think, “Did I do the right
thing? Maybe I was wrong. Maybe my life with my wife and children was wonderful
but I fucked it up.” There was also the fact that when Hassidic people leave the
community they don’t have family anymore, they don’t have friends anymore, they
don’t have education anymore.

Are they sort of like
the stories we hear about people who leave Scientology or cults?

Maxime Giroux: I
don’t know much about scientology, but at least some of those people have
something before that and they have an education. Hasidic people don’t have an
education, some of them barely speak English. When they leave their
community they arrive in this society like if they were an immigrant from
another country without a job, without money, without friends, and without
family. They have nothing. There is a high suicide rate among them because you
can’t quit religion in one day. That’s why the ending of the film is like that. Religion was so strong for 20-something years in Meira’s life, so when you try to quit
everything you feel lost and you feel alone even if there is someone
there.  She doesn’t really know
Felix and he doesn’t know her. It’s going to be a new life for him too. He will
have to take care of her and of a child that he doesn’t know. In turn, Meira’s daughter will
never see her father again, even if he was a good guy and love both of them. It
was impossible for me to write a happy ending.

Through small details we see that when Meira is with Felix, outside of her real life her self-image change. The beauty
that she’s been hiding comes out and there is a certain glow about her. She rediscovers herself when she is outside of her religious world.

Maxime Giroux: Yes.
Something like this happened to me. I was with a woman for years. She was
always a beautiful woman, but when she left me everyone was telling her, “You
look great!” It’s not that I was a bad guy to her, but we were not happy together at
the end of the relationship. Once someone leaves a relationship where he or she
feels trapped, there is like a new light about that person. That’s what freedom
gives you. Hadas Yaron was perfect for this role. She doesn’t have to say
anything. It’s all in her eyes and the way she moves. When she puts jeans on for
the first time it’s an incredible moment.

Those moments, which we take for granted and consider mundane, are revelatory experiences for her.

Maxime Giroux:
When we wrote the scene with the jeans we didn’t really know what it meant. We wrote
it thinking, “Probably for her, since she has never had the chance to wear pants
in her life, this will mean something.” Jeans are a symbol of freedom. In the
1950s young people would wear casual jeans as a “fuck you” to their parents.
Still today they represent something casual and free. For most Hasidic people,
men or women, the first time they put jeans on is one of their most memorable
experiences. The first time they wear them is like, “Oh my God, what’s
happening!” It’s something they’ve never experienced. Something so tight on their
skin. It’s a pretty sensual sensation. We discovered what it meant after we did
the film. Hasidic people who watched the film would say, “The scene with the
jeans is perfect.” Those are great little details, but without a good actress
it would have been impossible.

Tell me about your
decision to cast Hadas Yaron. This is a challenging role in terms of the languages spoken and the delicate vulnerability required to play a woman divided between two lives. 

Maxime Giroux: As
you know she was in film called “Fill the Void,” which is also about the
Hasidic community, because of that I didn’t want her in my movie at first. I
said, “She already acted in a movie about the Hasidic community, and she
doesn’t speak Yiddish or French.” I started doing research
here in the U.S. to find an actress. I found a few Hasidic women but they were
two tall for my two actors who are short and thin. I didn’t really find someone
that was good. Then my two producers, who are also Xavier Dolan’s producers,
without my permission, asked her to audition. I saw the video in my
computer and she was speaking French and 15 seconds after I thought,
“That’s Meira. That’s totally her.” She is very different from her
role in “Fill the Void” where she is more reserved. I said, “Yes
she is Meira but she needs to learn Yiddish and French,” and she did. She
was really good. 


Speaking
about language, although there is dialogue in the film, this is a very quiet story. Silences and gazes are really powerful between the protagonists.

Maxime
Giroux:
I think that really
represents who I am. Even if I talk a lot with you right now, I’m not a really
intellectual person. I’m more introspective. My world is more inside of me. I
think this comes from my culture, from the Quebecois culture. We are really instinctive people. We don’t talk much. We
are not like French people from France who talk and talk and who are really intellectual
when they speak. I think this is one of the reasons why my characters not talk
a lot. It’s more about little actions and little details. That’s because of who
I am. In a way I see myself in Meira too, even if I didn’t live that life. When
I was young I was a little bit like her in way. I was trying to get out of the
community I grew up in, which was uneducated and where there was no art. Even
if I loved those people I wanted to have more than. I see myself in Meira maybe
more than in Felix. I think Felix is more like my co-writer.

Felix is going through his own problems after his father’s death. He is a mess. He
acts like a young man who hasn’t figured himself out. I feel that’s what makes him connect with Meira, the fact that he is also, despite his age, still discovering who he wants to be.

Maxime Giroux: He represents a
lot of people I know, but I also think he represents my society, the French
Canadian society, which is getting older. We are a new country like the U.S. We
are a young country unlike France or Germany. In those terms French-Canadian society is really
like a teenager in a way. We are a little bit lost. In the 1950s, 60s, and 70s
we decided to remove everything religious. Before that we were a very religious
society, but not anymore. We lost our sense of family and community. I think in
that sense Felix really represents my community. These are two communities that
are living together. One is really about community and family values and the
other one is like, “I don’t give a shit about my father, mother or my
neighbor.” It’s a bit like in America too. We care about ourselves: the
individual. It was really important for us two have these two communities. He
is lost in this community because we have to perform. To be a good citizen in
our society you need to be successful and make money, and he doesn’t want to do
that. His father did that and he was not happy. Felix is more like, “I don’t
give a shit about being that.” He doesn’t want to be part of the system and she
is not part of the system either.

Does he love
Meira?

Maxime Giroux: I think he loves
her more than she loves him, but she loves him too in a way too.

Do you think
this sense of isolation in your film also comes from the idea that Quebec and French Canadians
are an island within Canada?

Maxime Giroux: Yes. Right now
we are a little bit lost in terms of who we are. In the 70s and 80s we were
like, “Yes, we are French-Canadian! Quebecois!” We were proud of it. Now we
are more like, “Yes, we are French-Canadian but at the same we want to make
money and we want the same things as other Canadians. We don’t give a shit
about who are. We just want to make money. “

Something that really makes the film emotionally poignant is that you don’t make
Shulem, Meira’s husband, a villain. He is a man who loves his wife and child but who has chosen to live by the parameters of his faith.

Maxime Giroux: That was
incredibly important. I’m an atheist. I don’t believe in religion, but at the
same time the goal of the film was to try to understand people who need
religion. I didn’t understand them before making this movie. There are so
many people who believe in and who need religion. It was important for me to
represent them, which is why Meira’s husband is very important. We had to see his humanity, not only
the religion behind him but also the human. Most humans on this planet are good
people. Most of them. I don’t have a number, but everywhere I’ve traveled most
people are good. When you spend time with people you see most of them are good.
Society or religion sometimes makes them bad.

In life, I hate police. In Montreal whenever there is a
student protest I’m always on the student’s side, not the police. But I know
that there are good people in the police force. That’s why I want to make a movie
about police at some point, because I don’t like them and I want to like them a little bit
more. I want to say to myself at the end of the journey, “You were wrong.  There are some fucking good people in
the police.”

Is there a
reason why you don’t like police?

Maxime Giroux: I don’t like
people with that kind of power. I feel like they are often on a power trip. Not all of them,
but in my head I generalize them, just like I did with religion. After making
“Felix and Meira” I understood that some people need religion and others simply
don’t.

It’s very
interesting and admirable that you make films about things you don’t understand
in order to understand them better.

Maxime Giroux: Not only that I
don’t understand, but that at the beginning of the process I’m against. I know
that at the end I’ll change my ideas and that’s the reason why I’m making a
film on the subject. I want to understand those people and I want
to prove to myself that humans and life are more complex and more beautiful than
I thought.

Shulem is just doing
what his religion mandates. It’s definitely his choice, but we know that he doesn’t have may options. 

Maxime Giroux: He is also a
victim. It was important for me to show that in the movie even if it’s subtle.
Religion can be good, but in this case the problem is that if you don’t act like
you are supposed to in that community people will slap your hand. They tell Meira,
“You have to be like this. You have to have children and you have to take care
of your children.” That’s the bad thing about this religion, and I wanted to
show that. This guy is a victim of that because if the community would give
women more space and freedom, he would still be with her. He would still be the
father of that child and the husband to that woman.

Regarding the film’s cinematography, what kind of references or specific styles did you discuss with your DP? There is a classic, almost tender quality to the images. 

Maxime Giroux: I’ve worked with Sara Mishara, the director of photography, before. I started working with her in university.
We don’t have to talk a lot, but the few things we said to ourselves before
starting the movie was that we wanted it to look a little bit like the
immigrant movies of the 70s. Not 
“The Godfather” but all those movies about immigrants that took place in
Brooklyn. For me Meira is an immigrant living in North America in a sense. We
wanted the 70ish look or Gordon Willis-ish. I had the chance to
visit some Hasidic households in Brooklyn and Montreal and all of the colors
felt like if I was in the 70s. The color palette was really toned down and
there were not bright colors. There might be bright colors sometimes in their
clothing but not in the house. We decided to get some lenses that are not very
good to avoid having a perfectly sharp image. We decided to make a
very simple movie in terms of how we were going to shoot it and let the
characters talk. We weren’t trying to do too much. We wanted to be humble like
the characters and the subject. At the same we didn’t have a big budget, which
I think was good for us because Sara didn’t really have the chance to light
the scenes so we were playing with the sun and the available light. I think it
gives the film a special quality.

The scenes in
New York City, particularly those in Time Square, are incredibly beautiful and intimate. You found a very intimate moment between these two people in a crowded place full of lights. 

Maxime Giroux: I thought the
scene we shot in Time Square could turn out to be really cheesy, but it didn’t. We didn’t have a lot of
references for that scene, but I found a screen test that Natalie Wood and James
Dean did for a movie. In that test they were doing what Felix and Meira do in the film. I don’t know why, but I just did the same scene but in Time Square. I decided not to actually show Time Square but let the lights fall on them. We are in their bubble. It’s funny because we had the camera but no lights, nobody saw or noticed us shooting there. The camera wasn’t too big or high and there were so many people there that nobody thought we were shooting a movie. You can feel it in the scene, that they are in their bubble and the lights are just falling on them. For Meira, the character, this is special. Most Hasidic people in New York or Brooklyn have never gone to Time Square. They don’t know what’s there. For her is like, “Wow! There is also things like this out in the world,” when for us it might like, “It’s only Time Square.” I think you can feel that for her it’s not only Time Square, it’s something more. It’s something open, a big world has opened for her. I really like that scene and the music on it too.

Now that you mention music, that’s one of the things Meira enjoys the most and that is also prohibited. She enjoys these classic pop songs but is not allowed to listen to them.  

Maxime Giroux: Yes. She can’t listen to that kind of music. Like I said, for me, and I think also for most people, music defines you or shapes you when you are young, especially when you are on your teens. That’s why people still listen to U2 at 40-years-old, because when they discovered who they were  that music was there. At 40-years-old you still the same person, you’ll probably stay the same person all your life, and you still listen to U2. I don’t understand that but that’s how it is. She defined herself and found herself with this music, which is music by Black American singers from a particular time period. They were probably not slaves, but their mothers were slaves, they might feel like they are also slaves in a different way and they decide to take the fucking guitar and play music in a rebellious way. 

Why did you decide to include that particular clip of this Black woman playing the guitar? It’s also placed mostly without context within the narrative, a bold decision on your part because it break the cinematic grammar we are used to.

Maxime Giroux: That’s the reason. For me this woman took this guitar in a man’s world and said, “Fuck you! I’m gonna play the guitar and I’m gonna do whatever I want.” That’s what Meira wants, to do whatever she wants. At the beginning I was not supposed to put it in the movie but I decided to bring my computer on the set and I said to my DP, Sara, “Can you film this clip on YouTube?” I started the clip and she started to shoot. Then the entire crew gathered around the computer saying, “Oh my God, what’s that? It’s so great” I knew it was great, and everyone was amazed by this woman, so I said, “I have to put this in the movie.” I didn’t know where, but during the editing process I needed a transition. I placed somewhere where you feel like something happened at that moment even if you don’t see it. I thought, “OK, I’m not supposed to do that as a filmmaker. It’s a transgression, but I don’t give shit. I just love this scene. I’m going to put it in and I know that some people will ask me why and I understand, but most people will like it. They will enjoy watching this big black woman emancipate herself by taking this guitar.” Is the same idea during the scene at the Hispanic bar. This woman is dancing and she says to Meira, “Come dance with us.” It was important for me that some women embraced Meira.

“Felix and Meira” is a great film, but it’s a small. Did the positive reactions around the world surprise you? It did very well in the U.S. for a film its size.

Maxime Giroux: For sure. You are always surprised when you have success. It’s not a huge success, but is still a success. The film cost nearly half a million dollars, so we were very surprised. At the same time I knew that the subject was interesting. Every time someone asked me, “What’s your next movie?” I would say, “We’ll it’s a love story between a French Canadian man and a Hasidic woman who is married and has a daughter.” Everyone was like, “Oh that’s interesting.” I knew that before shooting the movie but I was really afraid. I’m not Jewish, and it’s difficult to make a movie about this subject. Telefilm Canada gave me money, but the Quebec government didn’t give me money. They said, “How can you talk about them? You are not a Jew.” I was really afraid and I knew that I had to be careful, but I also knew that people were interested in this story – even if it’s a classic story. Also, when you put music like that in the movie you know that people will be easily touched. In cinema you can put a song like that and a plate of fruit on the screen and people will be touched. Let’s be honest. Music is the easiest way to manipulate the audience in a movie. The director has to manipulate the audience in a good way, but music is the easiest way to manipulate the audience. You put a David Bowie song and people from that era will be touched because they will remember, “Oh that was the song that I liked when I was 16.” 

Now that “Felix and Meira” is traveling on its own two feet and is out there in the world, what are you working on next? Another small character study perhaps or something bigger?

Maxime Giroux: My next project will involve music. I was a drummer before and I did a lot of music videos. For my first film I refused to use music because I thought it was too easy. On “Felix and Meira” I said, “Fuck it, I’m doing whatever I want. I’m doing it for me.” But the next one is about a female singer who is not very famous but everywhere around the world some people know about her. Sort of like Grimes, she can walk down the street and most people wont recognize her, but everywhere in the world some people do know her. The character is French Canadian but she sings in English. She has some money problems and to solve this problems she is going to do a concert in China with a cover band at a hotel. However, the real reason why she is doing it is to do some industrial spying in China

“Felix and Meira” is now available on DVD and on digital platforms.

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