Specifically about the craft of filmmaking, I wish someone told me earlier that, as a director, I don’t have to know everything. It’s better to say outright you don’t know and ask for help than to push in directions you don’t feel confident about.
As part of our series about “Filmmakers Making A Social Impact” I had the pleasure of interviewing Pier-Philippe Chevigny, a filmmaker from Montreal, Quebec. His films share a common signature, combining sociopolitical subject matter with suspenseful writing and intense, often frantic camerawork. For the past few years, his short films have received international attention, with TALA and VETERANE. He is set to direct his first feature film RICHELIEU in 2021, a project developed at the TIFF Filmmaker Lab and selected both at the prestigious Berlinale Co-Production Market and at the Los Cabos’ GFFF Market. He is also developing the script to ARSENAL, another feature film project which ranked as finalist to SFFILM’s Rainin Grant.
Thank you so much for doing this interview with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit. Can you share your “backstory” that brought you to this career?
I grew up in a modest, uneducated but progressive and politically aware family in an otherwise very conservative rural Quebec town. My father worked as an animal wrangler in film, which introduced me very early on to the industry. I was always a big movie fan, and it seemed like the natural thing to gravitate towards. As a student, I got involved in various social causes, and I kind of realized that my two passions, film and social activism, could meet in my filmmaking career. All the films I have made are inspired by social issues, but also try to tell suspenseful, emotional human story so that as many people as possible can relate.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your filmmaking career?
I actually held the Guinness World Record for the youngest director for a short while. Back when I was twelve, I was given an incredible opportunity to direct a music video for a then very popular Canadian band. That came about from months of emailing back and forth with the band’s singer, whom I knew was a big film buff, discussing our favorite films. He eventually invited me for a drink to meet and chat in person: when I told him I couldn’t because I was only twelve, his jaw dropped to the floor! We eventually did meet and, after consulting the band, he offered me to direct their next music video, which made me, at the time, the youngest person to direct a professional crew. I believe I have been beaten by an 11-year-old Indian boy who directed a feature film a few years afterward!
Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?
I have had the chance to ask a few questions and then shake hands with Abbas Kiarostami shortly before his passing. I was attending the Cannes Film Festival as a student filmmaker and he happened to do a Q&A at the Short Film Corner. Kiarostami’s films really opened my eyes to world cinema, they have been an incredibly important influence on what I do, it’s fairly obvious if you compare my short Rebel to his masterpiece Where is the friend’s home? To think that films made over 40 years ago halfway around the world could resonate so strongly with you really says a lot about the power of cinema. I got to ask a question that’s important to any new filmmaker struggling to find an identity of your own: “How did you define your own voice”? Which in his case is fascinating because if you watch his very first shorts all the way to his final film, you see a very clear continuity in terms of themes and aesthetics. He replied something I kind of expected from him, which was basically that he didn’t plan anything, and that everything just happened by chance… which is probably the major theme in his films! He is a fascinating character and I’m happy I got to interact with him.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
I’m currently preparing to shoot my first feature film. It’s called Richelieu and it’s about Canada’s Temporary Foreign Workers program, which allows employers to hire workforce from abroad. The whole agricultural industry depends on that program as no Canadian wants to do the dirty-underpaid farmhand work, and every year about 30 000 people, mostly from Latin America, come to work in Canada. For years, that program has been hit by allegations of exploitation and abuse. The script was written from a 10-year research process and is inspired by the true-life story of a translator who stood up to defend exploited Guatemalan workers. COVID-permitting, we’ll be going into production by August 2021.
Which people in history inspire you the most? Why?
I guess I could say I’m not a fan of historiography and the way history tends to exaggerate the importance of politicians, monarchs, and warmongers. In Quebec, I find the indigenous nations that were wiped out (including from our history books) to be exceptionally inspiring. The story of the Inuit community of Inukjuak, for instance, who were relocated to the far Canadian arctic and left on their own to die in what was basically a scheme to defend Canadian sovereignty in the north, are real heroes in my view. They show tremendous resilience and I have more respect for that community than for any historical figure for sure.
Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview, how are you using your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share with us the meaningful or exciting social impact causes you are working on right now?
I usually don’t believe films have the power to profoundly impact society. Of course, there are examples in history of films inspiring social and political change, but they are few and far between. As a filmmaker focusing on social issues however, what I most hope for is that my films will spark debates and discussions. That they will raise awareness on issues that tend to get overlooked by journalism. Since my short film Rebel won the Oscar-qualifying award in Tirana, we’ve gotten more and more press attention on the film, and I’m especially proud of that, because we can in turn put the spotlight on the social issues discussed in the film: the 2017 migrant surge and the rise of right-wing extremism in Quebec. People have this preconceived notion that Canada is devoid of racism and hate, but nothing could be farther from the truth: it has a long history of discrimination and racism towards cultural minorities, and for the past 5 years or so we have seen vigilante right-wing militia group forming and attracting thousands of people amongst their rank. I think it’s important to keep them under watch, and I’m glad to be contributing to that effort by generating attention to the issue.
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and take action for this cause? What was that final trigger?
That’s kind of a hard one because I’ve wanted to make films for as long as I can remember, but perhaps, one moment where it clicked is during college. I’ve discovered a film called L’Acadie l’Acadie?!?, a documentary by legendary Quebec filmmakers Pierre Perrault & Michel Brault. It’s a 1968 film about a french-minority student fight for bilingualism in loyalist New Brunswick. It’s really a document of racial discrimination in Canada and it remains my favorite film to this day. I guess that’s probably the moment where I decided I was going to focus on social issues, because that film showed me how efficient film could be in social change.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
Are there three things that individuals, society or the government can do to support you in this effort?
I don’t have much to say on those two topics because they don’t really apply… It’s hard to gauge the impact of a short film and I wouldn’t want to exaggerate the film’s importance in the grand scheme of things.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
-I wish someone would have told me how long and hard the development of a film project would be. We’re talking years and years of waiting on funding agencies to greenlight a feature… you have to be ready for the long haul!
-Specifically about the craft of filmmaking, I wish someone told me earlier that, as a director, I don’t have to know everything. It’s better to say outright you don’t know and ask for help than to push in directions you don’t feel confident about.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
Do it for yourself! To be honest, I do films about social issues for very selfish reasons: it’s just the subject matter that interests me. I would read and research those issues regardless of my filmmaking career, I just happen to get to share the bulk of my research in a film format.
We are very blessed that many other Social Impact Heroes read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would like to collaborate with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂
For generations, we have been taught, mostly through Hollywood cinema, that heroes could only be male. Yet when I look out and see who are the real heroes nowadays, who the most important leaders and actors of social change in the world right now, they are all women. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Autumn Peltier, Dalila Awada, Emma Gonzalez, Catherine Dorion, Greta Thunberg, Malala Yousafzai, Greta Thunberg… People who speak out for the greater good, who speak out to defend their communities sometimes putting their own lives at risk… If that’s not heroism, I don’t know what is. I’d love to work with any of them!
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Not a life lesson quote per say, it’s more about the craft of filmmaking, but it’s one that has influenced my artistic process a lot. It’s by Robert Bresson, in Notes sur le cinématographe. I’m roughly translating: Express the wind by showing the ripples of the water’s surface. Filmmaking is about the power of suggestions and the most abstract ideas can be expressed visually if you look for the effects rather than the causes. Every time I get ready to make a new film, I keep that quote in mind.
How can our readers follow you online?
This was great, thank you so much for sharing your story and doing this with us. We wish you continued success!
Thanks for having me!