Reviews and comments on Quebec, international and author cinema

A Coffee with… Patricia Chica, Director of Montréal Girls

Patricia Chica’s film Montréal Girls opens tomorrow. I took the opportunity to meet her.

We talked about her new film, her short Morning after, and her background. Here are some of the highlights of our chat over a coffee at the Café du Cinéma Moderne.

Interview with Patricia Chica

Montréal Girls - affiche

F.G. Thanks for taking a few minutes to talk about your new film. Your first feature film, Montréal Girls. In English, but with an accent. Is that it?

P.C. Yes, it was important for me to keep a French touch in the title. 

F.G. I was wondering, in fact, at the outset, whether this was intentional or just for the French version. 

P.C. The original title has an acute accent on the “E” in Montreal, because the film is about diversity of language, cultural diversity and diversity of subcultures. So it’s important that it reflects that. So I asked the distributor to keep the accent even in the English version. 

F.G. We’re going to dive straight into the action… I get the impression that you’re taking a rather, how shall I put it? A bit like Quebec girls are a bit toxic. At least towards people who are a little more naive. That’s the impression I was left with at the end of the film. 

P.C. In fact, the character who is toxic is Yaz. And she’s a Middle Eastern girl. And what I observe and what I anticipate from French-speaking Quebec audiences, who are used to French-speaking Quebec cinema, is that the central character’s perspective is not Quebecois. It’s really a foreigner’s view of Montreal, of our culture. And I would never claim that Montréal Girls represents all the girls or women of Montreal. It’s really a personal experience, authentic to what I’ve experienced in the milieu of Montreal’s underground subcultures. 

F.G. A scene that’s at the heart of your work in general. 

P.C. That’s right. I’ve evolved a lot in all things underground, so it’s an environment I know. And it’s inspired by those years when I was an underground photographer in the world of punk rock, rockabilly, fetish and burlesque. So it’s all an amalgam of emotions. And of course, of the Montreal girls, the toxic one is Yaz, who’s not a native Quebecer. But Désirée is a pretty centered, grounded girl, and the poet, Sophia, is the one who leads Ramy to discover himself and follow his vocation as a poet. 

So there’s definitely a mix of all these girls. But I have a feeling that Quebec audiences aren’t ready for a film about diversity that doesn’t have their own point of view. It’s going to shake things up, but it’s also going to open the door for other diverse filmmakers to express themselves. Because at the end of the day, it’s an authentic story. People have asked me, “Why did you make the film in English when it’s set in Montreal, Quebec? Well, because the main character doesn’t speak French. 

F.G. You’re stealing one of my questions. Ah ah ah. But I’ll jump right in.

F.G. The film was shot in 2021, but right now there’s a big issue around the place of English and the number of students who come here to study in English. As a result, I was wondering how the film was going to be seen because of that.

P.C. Well, listen, there’s diversity in Montreal, there are foreign students. It’s a reality that exists. And the French-speaking characters speak French. When he meets Nahéma Ricci, who plays Sophia, she speaks to him in French. I’m not distorting the authenticity of each of the characters in their culture of origin. What makes it English is that the central character, whose point of view and perspective it is, doesn’t understand French. 

When Martin Dubreuil, the wise man by the river, speaks to him in French, he says: “I’m sorry, I don’t understand French”. So sure, it’s English by default. But that’s not because I impose English on the characters. I let them live in their natural language. 

F.G. We don’t like the protagonist Phénix . He’s a snob, in fact. He’s the only one who refuses, so to speak, to speak to Ramy in English. And he’s also the character who stands out as the villain of the story. Is it a deliberate choice that this character who refuses to speak to him in English would be less pleasant, or is it a bit of a coincidence?

P.C. No, it’s not even a conscious choice. It’s a matter of working with the actor. He’s a French-speaking poet. I wanted to put Ramy face to face with this very talented poet, who expresses himself in his own language. And he doesn’t understand his language, but he thinks he’s very good. So, no, it wasn’t to make him mean because he speaks French. It wasn’t at all. 

F.G. It’s more in his exchanges with Ramy. I had the impression that there was a kind of closeness on Phénix’s part. It’s as if he were saying: “Speak French or get out!” I think that’s a bit how he felt. 

P.C. Ah, okay. It’s interesting to get that kind of feedback. 

F.G. In fact, he seems to be a bit of an opponent for part of the film. 

P.C. In fact, Phénix is a poet in his own right, and he was offended when Ramy told him “I really liked your poetry” even though he didn’t understand French. He replies: “You like my poetry that you didn’t understand, I could have been reciting my grocery list”. He thinks he’s a bit of an idiot. Because it’s true that Ramy is naive, and he’s intimidated by this great poet.

F.G. He’s very naive. He accepts the position of the student, in a way. He doesn’t know the culture, and he doesn’t impose. 

P.C. Also, the character of Phénix serves to challenge his convictions. He’s always asking a question that moves the central character forward in his journey.

F.G. I’m going to deviate a little, on something I read. You say, “When I make a film, I also have the marketing side in mind.” 

P.C. Yes, that’s true. 

F.G. Is it the writing or is casting Nahéma Ricci in a small role part of that idea? 

P.C. Of course, casting Nahéma Ricci… I’d just discovered her in Antigone. And Nahéma had auditioned for both Désirée and Yaz, but it wasn’t either of them, and I love this actress. So I spoke to her agent. I said, “Listen, would she be willing to do the role of one of the Montreal Girls, who’s the poet who turns the story upside down?” She talked to her about it and said yes right away. So there was this shared desire to work together. 

And it certainly helps with marketing. For me, it’s a way of discovering how to work with an artist I like, and at the same time it helps my casting. 

F.G. So, if we talk a little about this notion of marketing that is included directly in the story, could you elaborate a little on that?

P.C. For me, marketing isn’t just about haggling and getting money. For me, it’s the connection between the artist and the public. And I don’t want this connection between artist and audience to be at the expense of press agents and distributors. I want control. I want to be able to communicate with the public in my own way. And that’s why I help other filmmakers promote them. Because I love that job. 

It’s all about context. When you present a work with the authentic context of how the artist created it, you can change your perspective. And the public can see it through the artist’s eyes. Because if I don’t talk about my film, Quebec audiences will shoot me down.  They’ll say “it’s Anglophone, Montreal girls aren’t like that, it’s toxic…”. It’s all that. Because I’ve lived it.

F.G. Well. There is indeed a risk. 

P.C. There’s a huge risk, because they don’t have the context in which the film was made, with a lot of authenticity in relation to what I really experienced. From a different point of view, from a different perspective, from someone who’s not from here. Someone from diversity. Someone who lives in a society where they are constantly put down. Where you feel diminished, no matter what you are. 

Hakim Brahimi (Ramy) 3 - ©Patricia Chica
Ramy (Hakim Brahimi)

F.G. Do you still feel that way today?

P.C. Absolutely. Listen, I have producer friend who have won international awards, black directors… We had a symposium called The Media Coalition, and it touched me so much that I had tears in my eyes, because the black reality is not my reality. I come from a Latin background. I don’t experience this oppression as much, but listen, the black woman and the black man were telling me that for them, just going out on the street is a danger. 

F.G. Here in Montreal?

P.C. In Montreal, Quebec. As a director. The black woman, who’s a director, who’s won awards I won’t name, she said “if I’m at a table, no one listens to what I have to say. I need a white producer to get it across. And it has to come from his mouth. Because if it doesn’t, we don’t have the financing.” 

And I tell myself that’s so true. So this film really fills a space for us to coexist from different perspectives. That’s why marketing is so important to me. Because otherwise, the film does really well internationally, and in Quebec it was quite a challenge to get it out there. Because there’s no space for diversity communities, for English-language films… There’s no space. 

So, it’s really an issue that exists, and without this marketing, without this communication, so that people understand the perspective and the context, there’s no communication. There’s just an observation, a judgment about our perception of things. 

F.G. I actually live in Montreal. And I really had the impression that it’s not a Montreal film. I feel it’s a film set in Mile End. 

P.C. Yes.

F.G. It’s like… a separate bubble…

P.C. Yes, it’s a separate bubble. I’ve lived in Mile-End and the Plateau for as long as I can remember, and, listen, the only time I leave Mile-End or the Plateau is to go to the airport. So it’s become like my universe. So, of course, I’d never claim that the film represents all of Montreal. It’s really my perception, inspired by my life. It’s what I’ve lived through, how I perceive it. The places I love: Esco, Quai des brumes. They’re the real places, because that’s where I evolved as an underground artist. It’s a reflection of who I am. And I don’t claim to represent all of Quebec society. It’s a very personal film. 

F.G. So, the milieu in which all this takes place, well, the cousin who plays old punk-rock, it’s a bit like the milieu that saw you grow up as an artist. 

P.C. Yes, exactly.

We’re talking about themes (in French)  

F.G. I can’t wait to see how the film is received, since it’s a movie about diversity. 

P.C. I like the aesthetic choices, for example, how we filmed the angles of Montreal: the squirrels in the park, the colors… These are details that a foreigner will observe out of curiosity, wonder and discovery. And that we take for granted. For me, it’s important. The incredible director of photography, Alexandre Bussière, I told him to always put himself in the head of Ramy, who has just arrived. What does he notice? He’s from a super-strict, conservative Muslim country, and he doesn’t speak French. He sees girls, and his cousin is in the underground. It’s even more of a shock because there the girls are open, they’re friendly, they’re beautiful, sexy. At home, the girls are veiled up to here and you don’t touch them. 

Arno Schultz and Jade Hassouné (Tamer) - ©Geovanny Solis
Arno Schultz and Jade Hassouné (Tamer)

F.G. We don’t say exactly where he’s from.

P.C. No, we don’t say by choice. Nor do we say what religion he is. I didn’t want to point the finger at any particular religion. It’s really a cultural experience rather than a religious one. 

F.G. I don’t think it matters anyway. Because no matter what religion, or even no religion, it’s more the idea of conservatism. 

P.C. So, in that context, the way girls look at him, imagine if a Quebecer saw what Ramy sees, that would be another experience. But as we see it from his point of view, it amplifies the characters even more as being toxic or manipulative, or sensual… Everything is amplified because it’s the perspective that changes. 

F.G. Yes, and even Désirée, for quite a while, is seen as toxic. At the beginning, in the scene with the two girls and Ramy, we quickly put her in the same box as Yaz. 

P.C. And the funny thing is that Hakim Brahimi had just turned 22 when we started shooting the film, and he was a virgin. He comes from a very conservative Muslim family, and still lives with his parents…

Montréal girls - Threesome
Ramy with Désirée and Yaz

F.G. Okay. So he really fit in with his character?

P.C. The casting is so authentic. He’s studying engineering. Everything was so right. And everything that happened to him in the film is practically happening to him now…

And when he sees the two girls kiss, it’s the first time in his life he’s seen two girls kiss, live, with 2 cameras on him. So the reaction we get from him watching is a natural one. 

F.G. Was there a kind of concern on your part about his situation, that you didn’t want to push him over the edge?

P.C. He was aware that my intention was to cast as close to the characters as possible. And Hakim and I worked 1 year in advance to prepare it.

F.G. Are there any other projects in the pipeline?

P.C. There are three in the works. I’ve got one in Quebec, based on a true story about a refugee from Angola; another is a genre film that’s a bit of a psychological thriller/horror/paranormal, and at Cannes we signed with an American executive producer. But it’s going to be a Canadian film with international actors. One is called Spiral. 

F.G. There’s one last thing I’d like to talk about. I don’t want to sell the punch… The ending seems a bit… Like “too much”. 

P.C. Yes, I understand. It’s a fast-moving curve. 

F.G. Yes, that’s right. 

P.C. But at that age, you rebel fast. Especially when your parents don’t live in the same country as you. Young people are looking for a sense of belonging. I’ve observed this in the environments I’ve worked in, and it happens very quickly. And I must add that Ramy’s story is basically my story. Certain details have been changed, but it’s my story. 

F.G. We won’t go any further on the subject, because I’d like readers to go and see the film without knowing how it ends.

F.G. Patricia, thank you for taking the time to chat with me.

P.C. Thank you for taking the time to meet with me.


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