The eyes of an interpreter

Pier-Philippe Chevigny on Richelieu

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Pier-Philippe Chevigny with Anne-Katrin Titze on Luc Dardenne and Jean-Pierre Dardenne: “They are my true heroes and Abbas Kiarostami.” And on Jayro Bustamante: “He has a production company in Guatemala City and they actually held auditions for us.”
Pier-Philippe Chevigny with Anne-Katrin Titze on Luc Dardenne and Jean-Pierre Dardenne: “They are my true heroes and Abbas Kiarostami.” And on Jayro Bustamante: “He has a production company in Guatemala City and they actually held auditions for us.”

Ariane (Ariane Castellanos) sees a crying man (Manuel, played by Nelson Coronado) on a bus and is told by Michèle (Eve Duranceau) to take care of it. So starts Pier-Philippe Chevigny’s gripping Richelieu (Temporaries, a highlight of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival). Ariane is beginning her new job as an interpreter of French and Spanish and is traveling to a corn facility in the Richelieu region of Quebec with migrant workers on board. Upon arrival she is greeted by her boss Stéphane (Marc-André Grondin) and is told that “any fool” could do her job.

Stéphane (Marc-André Grondin) confronts Ariane (Ariane Castellanos)
Stéphane (Marc-André Grondin) confronts Ariane (Ariane Castellanos) Photo: Gabriel Brault Tardif

The work environment is abominable. Steadily, the minutiae of injustice mounts. The seasonal workers cannot join the union but have to pay dues. Indeed, they are being told that “it’s the law” and that people are lining up to replace them in their job. The strain on the Guatemalan workers Ariane was hired to “coordinate” is immense and many of them had borrowed money to make the journey. As the smoke from Canadian wildfires blows into New York City from up North, producing a burnt orange sun on the Kiss The Future Tribeca Opening Night Gala, so does this vital debut feature by Chevigny.

From Montreal, Pier-Philippe Chevigny joined me on Zoom for an in-depth conversation on Richelieu (Temporaries).

Anne-Katrin Titze: Nice to meet you! Where are you?

Pier-Philippe Chevigny: Nice to meet you! I’m in Montreal actually, home. On my way to Tribeca tomorrow.

AKT: Congratulations on a really powerful film!

PPC: Thank you so much.

AKT: It has two titles. I still saw it under the name Richelieu; at Tribeca it is called Temporaries. Was the idea that people might think it’s about the Cardinal and not about power structures?

Pier-Philippe Chevigny: “You’re supposed to be neutral and then, just like Ariane (Ariane Castellanos), you get sucked into it.”
Pier-Philippe Chevigny: “You’re supposed to be neutral and then, just like Ariane (Ariane Castellanos), you get sucked into it.” Photo: Gabriel Brault Tardif

PPC: Actually Richelieu is the name of a region in Quebec. It’s going to stay the title for the Canadian theatrical release. It’s known as a valley that has a lot of farms and big industry. It doesn’t really make sense outside of here, which is why there’s two titles.

AKT: The title Richelieu also works because of the idea of absolute power and forced obedience.

PPC: That’s an interpretation that I never made myself because here the name Richelieu is not so much associated with the Cardinal. It’s really the region and the river. Like all the towns where I come from are something-on-Richelieu. It’s known as a geographical location.

AKT: You got me into the film right from the first moment. A woman on a bus spots a crying man. Tell me about your decision to begin this way!

PPC: First of all, I wanted to create a mirror effect from the beginning with the end, because it also ends with a man crying on a bus. Perhaps you didn’t notice that.

AKT: I did.

PPC: I like the idea of not knowing where we are. We just start into the story not knowing who these people are, what happened before. It creates a sense of lacking that forces you to question what is going on. I did the same thing with my short films. You just start in medias res. Something dramatic is happening but you don’t know what it is or who that person is and then you are questioning for the rest of the film who that person is.

Pier-Philippe Chevigny on Nelson Coronado as Manuel: “This is his first acting job and I don’t think it’s going to be his last either.”
Pier-Philippe Chevigny on Nelson Coronado as Manuel: “This is his first acting job and I don’t think it’s going to be his last either.” Photo: Gabriel Brault Tardif

AKT: I did notice the end. I just didn’t want to give it away because people will remember once they see the ending.

PPC: Ah, right, I’m spoiling my own film!

AKT: There are moments that are so precise about the situation. Little insults have large implications. For example, when Ariane gets the job and is being told “anyone can do it, you’re just a translator.”

PPC: That’s really the bulk of my research of what happens in real life in real factories where they employ real Guatemalan workers like that. It’s the everyday common racism, not the big over-the-top things, that they’re being beaten or abused. It’s the subtle little things that add up over time. An accumulation of small things.

AKT: Yes, they build up and become a mosaic of insults. What was the spark for the film? Was it a specific incident you witnessed? Something that you saw, heard, read?

PPC: It’s really a mixture of plenty of things. I’m interested in social issue topics and do very very broad research. I accumulate material for a very long time, sometimes over years. After a while there’s a spark like that, ideas that come out of the research. In this case it was the idea of telling the story through the eyes of an interpreter, someone who is not siding necessarily with the workers or the employers.

Pier-Philippe Chevigny: “Actually when I was doing research I wasn’t speaking to the very top. I was speaking to the workers and the people in-between.”
Pier-Philippe Chevigny: “Actually when I was doing research I wasn’t speaking to the very top. I was speaking to the workers and the people in-between.”

Someone who is in the middle, who is neutral in the beginning but then will become involved in the struggle. That was interesting dramatically because it’s pretty much the position that the viewer will have when he or she starts watching the film. You’re supposed to be neutral and then, just like Ariane, you get sucked into it. By the end hopefully you take position.

AKT: Later on a second interpreter, Richard, is introduced, who is so very very different from the start and anything but neutral. And he gets the job because of it.

PPC: I spoke to a lot of interpreters during my research and of course the people who talked to me were the people who were empathetic. The character of Richard was pretty much built on what they were saying about their colleagues. Some people just want to do their job and not upset the boss.

AKT: When I spoke with Tribeca Artistic Director Frédéric Boyer about this upcoming festival, he was the one who brought up your film and said “Don’t miss it. It’s a bit like Ken Loach.” Do you like Ken Loach? Is he one of your heroes? Do you have filmic heroes?

PPC: I get compared, but honestly I’m not that familiar with Ken Loach. I’ve seen the big titles, the Palme d’Ors. But I think I’m mostly inspired by the Dardenne brothers. They are my true heroes and Abbas Kiarostami. Although it’s not obvious there’s a lot of his poetry that had a big influence on me. But the Dardenne brothers for sure, their over-the-shoulder camera, the long takes, and everything. It’s a huge visual inspiration for sure.

Pier-Philippe Chevigny on Jayro Bustamante: “We met him through the Berlinale co-production market and they were super helpful. We cast three roles with them.”
Pier-Philippe Chevigny on Jayro Bustamante: “We met him through the Berlinale co-production market and they were super helpful. We cast three roles with them.” Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Also in the way I really wanted to make a film that’s suspenseful. That’s also what I took from the Dardenne brothers because they always write their stories as thrillers basically and I think that’s inspiring, to be rooted in social life but to also have this sense of suspense and thriller and mystery which is way more engaging for the audience.

AKT: Very true! When I spoke with them about their film Two Days, One Night with Marion Cotillard, they said something to the effect of “Oh yeah, she is like a western hero; she is our John Wayne.” They provide the perfect combination of something that is entertaining and thrilling to watch in a classic structure, and at the same time deals with urgent social issues that are so very much of the now.

PPC: Right!

AKT: I saw in the end credits that you thank the Guatemalan director of the great La Llorona, Jayro Bustamante!

PPC: Jayro Bustamante, yeah! They helped us with the casting. He has a production company in Guatemala City and they actually held auditions for us. We met him through the Berlinale co-production market and they were super helpful. We cast three roles with them. I really wanted to be authentic and have as much as possible actual citizens of Guatemala and not just Guatemalans that live in Montreal. The pandemic had other plans for me and it was much harder for people coming, so we resorted to only three.

Pier-Philippe Chevigny: “I think I’m mostly inspired by the Dardenne brothers.”
Pier-Philippe Chevigny: “I think I’m mostly inspired by the Dardenne brothers.” Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: What is the background for Manuel?

PPC: Manuel actually was a backup.

AKT: Great backup!

PPC: He’s actually from Montreal. I had cast Marvin [Coroy] who is one of Jayro’s favorite actors. He is in every one of his films. In the script originally, the character of Manuel was an indigenous man who spoke Kaqchikel and that added a layer of complexity with his interactions with Ariane. Unfortunately Marvin didn’t get his visa in time. We wrote another part for him so he could be in the film.

AKT: Who is he playing now?

PPC: The character is called Hector, he is in several scenes. He is the one in the bank who doesn’t know what a pin code is. For Nelson (who plays Manuel) it’s his first acting job. He works as a stand-in and an extra in the film industry in Montreal. This is his first acting job and I don’t think it’s going to be his last either.

AKT: No, he is terrific. They all are. Ariane is fantastic. Topic-wise, you build this fragile house of cards, where every level works on terror. Everyone is afraid to lose their livelihood and somewhere at the top is a faceless voice from France, M. Ricard.

PPC: Actually when I was doing research I wasn’t speaking to the very top. I was speaking to the workers and the people in-between. In the first draft I wrote, people were always saying that the Bosses are too evil. The structure where you understand everyone’s position, even Stéphane’s position, came as a reaction to that. I wanted to make sure that you didn’t get into the film already hating the boss. You understand his motivation, you know that he is also scared to lose his job.

Ariane (Ariane Castellanos) with her mother Nicole (Micheline Bernard)
Ariane (Ariane Castellanos) with her mother Nicole (Micheline Bernard) Photo: Gabriel Brault Tardif

That’s also part of the reason why I cast Marc-André Grondin. He is a huge star on Quebec and someone the Quebec audience really loves. He is known as always a good guy, so having him play the bad guy is kind of a misdirection. I wanted the viewer to be neutral in the beginning and discover what’s going on little by little.

AKT: What is really exposed is the heartlessness of the system. People here in the US who wonder what is going on at the border, big topic and debate - well, this is what’s going on.

PPC: Right!

AKT: You tackle very very big subjects. Were you sometimes scared what you are taking on with this film?

PPC: To be honest with you, I’m scared right now of the reaction, not in Tribeca, but back home, because I know this is a very sensitive issue here. I began my research before the pandemic and things have changed for the worse since then. Inflation makes it so that grocery stores are making record profits and the people are struggling to pay for food.

The reason why it’s not that expensive is because at some point we are exploiting workers from Guatemala. I don’t have an answer for that. There’s no easy solution but there’s definitely an ethical problem that we have to discuss and it’s very very sensitive. The whole farming industry here really relies on these workers. It’s not necessarily that in every farm in the region there’s exploitation, it’s just that the system is built in a way that if you have bad intentions you can get away with it. And I think that’s the problem.

Richelieu (Temporaries) poster
Richelieu (Temporaries) poster

AKT: You show it in the details: That it takes them two hours to get to a store to buy food, that they are woken up in the middle of the night for overtime, that there are cameras in their sleeping quarters, that there’s only one bathroom. It goes on and on and I suppose all of it came from research. One of them cannot go to his father’s funeral because he cannot miss four days, or even two days. It begins with having to pay union fees for a union they are not allowed to join…

PPC: Absolutely everything that’s in the film is something that was told to me by somebody at some point. Actually I had to filter out the stuff that is more extreme. There was physical abuse and violence and some people died. That’s not what the film is about because I wanted it to feel like this can be real and it’s never over the top. I wanted it to be as believable as it could be. Instead it’s an accumulation of small things that builds the full picture.

AKT: It works well in the mode of then Dardennes. Do you have a new project you are working on?

PPC: Yes, right now I am finishing the script of my second feature. It’s on police brutality. If all goes well, we’ll be shooting next year.

AKT: Will it be again a mix of tones? Police Brutality, the musical? You could get away with it!

PPC: Ha, yes, it’s the same creative process once again. I’m co-writing the script with Chloé Robichaud who is a director here in Quebec also. It’s inspired by a real event that took place in Montreal in the 1990s. It’s again the same kind of aesthetics, all over-the-shoulder cameras, long takes. Actually ten sequences, ten long takes. I’m super excited. It’s going to be the next big step for me for sure.

AKT: I’m looking forward to it. Maybe I’ll run into you somewhere at Tribeca!

PPC: Thank you so much, hopefully we’ll get to meet!

The remaining screening of Richelieu at the Tribeca Film Festival is on Friday, June 16 at 6:30pm - AMC 19th Street.

The 22nd edition of the Tribeca Film Festival runs through June 18.

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