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One work, two directions

Evelyne de la Cheneliere laughs when asked if she ever considered becoming a teacher like one of her best known creations, Bashir Lazhar. “No!” she says with a broad smile over a cappuccino. “My God, I would cry all day, every day.”

MONTREAL — Evelyne de la Cheneliere laughs when asked if she ever considered becoming a teacher like one of her best known creations, Bashir Lazhar.

“No!” she says with a broad smile over a cappuccino. “My God, I would cry all day, every day.”

She’s kidding, the playwright quickly adds, but she also points out she believes teachers have a huge responsibility and need more energy than she has.

“I admire them a lot,” she said. “I had a lot of compassion for my teachers. I would never tease them or anything because I felt I had the responsibility of showing them I was interested — even when I wasn’t.”

A lot of people have been admiring Bashir Lazhar, from his first appearance in 2007 in de la Cheneliere’s one-character play to his leap to the big screen in Monsieur Lazhar, director Philippe Falardeau’s Oscar-nominated adaptation of her work.

Like the movie, Bashir Lazhar is a compelling tale of an Algerian immigrant who helps a class of young students cope with the shocking suicide of their teacher.

It’s a tender, multi-layered narrative as Lazhar negotiates the cultural divide at the Montreal elementary school while grappling with a tragedy of his own.

Besides raking it in at the box office, Monsieur Lazhar is in contention for the best foreign-language film Oscar to be handed out in Hollywood on Sunday.

It’s the second year in a row that the adaptation of a Quebec play has landed Canada in an Oscar race. Last year it was Denis Villeneuve’s film, Incendies, based on the play by Wajdi Mouawad. It didn’t win the golden statue, however.

De la Cheneliere will be in the audience when the winner is announced.

“I’m very excited about it,” she said. “It’s going to be great to be all together living this unexpected and unusual experience.”

De la Cheneliere, whose previous notable connection to the education system was that her father founded a major publishing house for French-language textbooks, says Bashir Lazhar was “many ideas put together.”

She had wanted to take a different direction from her previous works, which she said were very instinctive and reflective of her own point of view.

“I thought I needed to try with research and imagination and compassion to talk about something very far from me, which is having to leave your own country because of terrorism. I never lived something like that.”

De la Cheneliere, who won a Governor General’s Award in 2006 for her play Desordre public, was also fascinated by violence and how different societies cope with it.

Lazhar’s native Algeria is torn by civil war and terrorism, de la Cheneliere explains, yet Quebec, while a democracy, also has its share of violence.

“I wanted those two kinds of violence to hit themselves, in a way.”

The 36-year-old brunette, who worked with Falardeau as he adapted the play, says she’s pleased with Monsieur Lazhar.

“I like it because I wasn’t seeking to see the play, that the film would be just like the play. It wasn’t the goal of the exercise.

“When Philippe Falardeau was working on it, I really wished he would take the play and use all of his own freedom to make his own film, which he did.”

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