Antoine Bourges' unconventional filmmaking captures the rhythms of real life onscreen
One of Canada's most exciting up-and-coming filmmakers is also a professor, former hockey player and new dad
Rising Stars is a monthly column by Radheyan Simonpillai profiling a new generation of Canadian screen stars making their mark in front of and behind the camera.
Antoine Bourges didn't decide to make films because he fell in love with what he was seeing on screens. Instead, the director — who splits his time between Vancouver and Toronto — chose to pursue filmmaking during his college years because of what wasn't onscreen.
"The way that people speak, the way that people behave, the way that events unfold in real life, I didn't quite see that in movies," says Bourges on a Zoom call with CBC Arts. "I was not seeing the films that I wanted to see. It's not just a representation thing. It's very much about the way that life unfolds, the rhythms, and the conversations that you hear."
Bourges, who is both a filmmaker and assistant professor at UBC teaching film production, is on the call from a Vancouver cottage that belongs to his partner's family. He recently became a father, so he's splitting his time between caring for the newborn, planning future projects and preparing to head to the Berlin International Film Festival, where Concrete Valley will have its European premiere. We're discussing how the former hockey player, who once aspired to go pro, decided to make the leap behind the camera and develop the rhythms that would find their way into Concrete Valley.
The film — which, like his previous work, has been described as a hybrid between documentary and fiction — is about a Syrian couple whose relationship begins to splinter as they settle into their new community in Toronto's Thorncliffe Park, where a collection of towers are separated from downtown Toronto by the Don Valley. While following husband Rashid (Hussam Douhna) and wife Farah (Amani Ibrahim) as they find ways to integrate into their new lives, Bourges gently captures the pulse of this community that feels cut off from the rest of the city.
The characters, mostly played by non-actors, tend to their day-to-day routines: English classes, gig work, attending to their children who gather in the small park enveloped by post-war era residential towers. And like so many immigrant hubs, the community, in its isolation, becomes a self-sustaining economy where people often help and support each other. Uber drivers give their friends rides to run errands. Women set up catering from their apartments. Garage sales are run out of vans in the parking lots, a sight that drives home the transitional space this community exists in. Concrete Valley is so patient and naturalistic that the narrative unfolding to these authentic rhythms from everyday life just sneaks up on you.
"These are real things," says Bourges about the raw materials that compose his fiction film. "In fact, the very woman in the film [baking cakes], that's what she does. She has a little business where she makes cakes for people in her building."
There's something magical about the performances from non-actors in Concrete Valley. Their stilted delivery actually works in their favour since these characters are struggling to express themselves in a new language. A bug becomes a feature in Bourges' stylistic choice to cast real-life people, which also dictates how his films are made. "The way I shoot, the way I organize, the rhythm, the pace, the kind of people I work with, the size of my crew, everything is designed around that constraint that is also a precious, beautiful thing: people who don't know how to act."
English is a second language to Bourges as well; throughout our conversation he tests out different words and expressions trying to find the right fit. He was born in France to a mother from Madagascar and a French father and moved to Montreal temporarily in his high school years to play competitive hockey. He stayed to study business at McGill, which is when he started bingeing on the growing Criterion Collection. He was always in love with movies, but these are the years where he expanded his horizons discovering what other forms cinema could take — and the largely uncharted terrain left for him to explore.
After McGill, Bourges moved back to France and interned at a production company before returning to Canada to attend UBC's film production program. That's where he made the short Hello Goodbye, which he promises to never show anyone again. But that's the film that got programmed at TIFF's 2008 student showcase — and that was where he met Dan Montgomery and Kazik Radwanski, the Toronto-based filmmaking duo behind indie production and distribution shingle MDFF.
MDFF began to produce Bourges' early experimentations with observational fiction, like the shorts Woman Waiting, about a woman applying for social housing, and East Hastings Pharmacy, which surveys the comings and goings in a methadone clinic in east downtown Vancouver, where Bourges was living.
"Naturally I gravitated towards stories in this neighborhood," says Bourges. "My training was in fiction. I always saw myself as someone who was making fiction films. But the material that was there, the people that I was spending time with, they were more like documentary subjects."
"These were the years where I became more comfortable with the kind of films that I'm making, where I work with a lot of non-actors. In collaboration with them, we devise ways to create fictions."
When making his debut feature, Fail To Appear, Bourges cast Nathan Roder, a non-actor who was passionate about pursuing the craft. The pair met through Workman Arts, a creative organization supporting artists living with mental health and addiction issues.
Fail To Appear is about a case worker (Deragh Campbell) struggling to support a man (Roder) charged with petty theft through the court system. Bourges already had the story he wanted to tell in mind — but he molded the character in collaboration with Roder in order to find a way to portray mental health issues that the first-time actor was comfortable with.
That, Bourges says, is a tricky balancing act recurring in his mode of filmmaking: making sure the representation is authentic by casting someone living with mental health issues but also not exploiting or exposing their struggle.
The non-actors in Bourges' films, mixed in with pros like Campbell in Fail To Appear or Ibrahim in Concrete Valley, are encouraged to bring a version of themselves to their roles. "We don't stray too, too far from who they are in real life," says Bourges. "I am interested in people on the one hand being who they are, and on the other feeling like they have some kind of agency to be creative and to do something a bit different."
In Concrete Valley, Ibrahim — an actor who, like most of the cast, came to Canada when the war flared up in Syria — stars opposite Douhna, who worked as a documentary filmmaker back home. Douhna plays a doctor who, after his qualifications in Syria don't translate to Canada, tries to be useful by making house calls. He offers medical advice in a way that can be helpful but occasionally veers into self-serving; he's lording his former calling over people to boost his own ego.
The film, which Bourges co-wrote with Teyama Alkamli, is both a gentle character study about a man getting lost when trying to find some way to re-establish himself in the eyes of others, and a nuanced take on the immigrant experience — one born from Bourges' impulse to capture this community and tell the story about a relationship at the beginning of its end. The film observes the strain that can come with becoming a new person adapting to a new environment.
"There's something about your life partner that is very deep and existential and helps define who you are," he says. "There's something very tricky about relationships where you move into an environment, everything makes you change and they change. So obviously there can be some tension."
That's the story Bourges tells evocatively, requiring the audience to step up to the film and observe the tremors in the performances and relationships. In keeping with his natural rhythms, Bourges isn't spelling out narratives and emotional journeys for you. His is a confident and daring approach, one that he waits a couple years before teaching his film students.
"When students come, especially undergrads fresh out of high school, they don't really want to make films like mine," says Bourges. "They don't look at a career as an indie filmmaker who teaches as the thing they want to be. Most want to be Damien Chazelle. And so my job is literally to give them as [many] tools as I can to help them do that."
"I was trained making classical fiction. I love traditional fiction. I love watching it. So it's not a problem for me to teach it. And I try as much as I can to not start with very complicated films."
"I really don't want to create monsters," Bourges jokes, the new father laughing at the idea that a cinematic trend could be born from his impulses. "I'm not trying to create little mini-mes."