Happy Face is not an advocacy film. happy Face is a flawed film about flawed people in an imperfect world.
This film is above all a personal story through which I searched for catharsis – a way to free myself from the guilt of having been ashamed of my own mother when, sick with cancer, she lost her “beauty” .
happy Face is also the first part of my “Cancer Trilogy” – a project of three fictional / autobiographical feature films, based on the fears and fantasies resulting from my experiences with this disease. The film chronicles the events surrounding my mother’s death when I was young and revolves around the theme evoked by the words “… enliven your mind instead of your body and you will be immensely rich.” Words she wrote to me just before she died as advice for life.
In the story, Stan, a fanciful 19-year-old boy, is torn between his quest for identity and the burden of having to take care of his dying mother on her own, a beautician who has based her life on her physical beauty. Unable to cope with the situation and the guilt he feels, Stan distorts his face with bandages and takes refuge in a therapy workshop for the disfigured – with the misguided hope of becoming less superficial.
Yes I know! It sounds horrible and callous. Such a premise would never be funded today. In fact, we had a hard time getting funding years ago because some film funders in Canada thought the main character was morally wrong to do such things. They even raised the fact that I was not visibly different and therefore had no right to broach such a subject. But like I said earlier: This was never meant to be an advocacy movie. It was a film about my own failures.
I grew up with a single mom who struggled with breast cancer for many years. When she was younger she had been a beautiful woman working in the cosmetics industry – basing her self-image on her beauty and beauty. In my teenage years, I remember my mother looking at herself in the mirror and touching the large scar that had replaced her left breast. Her hair had grown back, but her chest was gone. She cried, lamenting that she was no longer a woman, that no man wanted her, and that she had lost her femininity. She never went out on a date and never found love again.
In my late teens, the cancer came back – this time in her brain and lungs. After aggressive surgery and treatments, my mom was able to come home and go out into the world. But she has been changed. She was bald, emaciated, emaciated. She no longer cared about dressing properly and putting on makeup. She no longer cared about how others looked. She just wanted to survive. Going out to the grocery store with her in the last year of her life, it was I who noticed how people looked at her, pointed to her, talked about her. I couldn’t stand it. I hurried home, pushing her to walk faster, using lame excuses to hide my discomfort. Even though I took care of my mother’s medical needs, I found every reason to leave the house. I no longer invited friends over to my house. In short, I was ashamed of his appearance, of what people thought. She was “ugly” and that bothered me. It is this autobiographical episode which is at the origin of this project.
I first made this movie for selfish reasons, but by the time we finished filming the movie had become so much more than that.
“I first made this movie for selfish reasons, but by the time we finished filming the movie had become so much more than that.“
Fiction films labeled “diversity and inclusion” usually portray their protagonists either as victims or as beings of higher moral fiber – angels (and they are usually very beautiful members of the oppressed group, if you ask me). We wanted to show our different facial characters as themselves – moron, generous, petty, funny, cruel, kind, bright, stupid. Just like you and me. Just like the rest of humanity! From the first day of rehearsals, I wanted to avoid the gloomy precariousness of the “important subject” of the “advocacy film”. The first thing I asked for was, “What are the worst things people have said to you?” The second thing was, “What are the worst things you say to yourself?” The third question was, “Can we joke on your face?”
The actors spent long hours cataloging all the insults they’d received in their lifetimes, then spitting them out at each other, at the undisfigured actors, at myself, in intense theatrical drills that bordered on therapy – just to get a feel for their reality, the harm the words cause, but also to be able to ignore the camera. To be able to say “screw it on” and let go with your inner demons. Tears flowed. Later that night we were all celebrating in a bar.
When it came time to list all the nasty things we say to ourselves, we quickly realized that what we say to ourselves is often much worse than what someone else could tell us (and often much funnier). . We have noticed that disfigured or not, the violence of what we inflict on ourselves is similar. It was a eureka moment, as we understood that we were all broken inside to one degree or another. That each individual struggle cannot be compared to that of the person next to us. A kind of Zen empathy cemented the cast. We laughed a lot, we laughed, we said stupid things. We forgot the face.
When filming began, the crew were initially too protective of the cast. I remember my cinematographer balked at the way I spoke to actors: frank and straightforward, commenting on how a certain actor should position himself because it was hard to focus on his reconstructed face – his eyes n ‘being not on the same plane of the skull. During filming, the actors and I would sometimes make jokes on their faces, and the movie technicians were shocked. But over the days of filming, the crew realized that the cast loved this kind of interaction. Because it was normal. Because we treated each other as equals, no matter how “different” we were. The rehearsals and filming were a bit like shock therapy for me and the crew. In the end, we came out of better human beings – more understanding, but also freer. Free to make mistakes, free to be yourself while engaging with those who are “different” from us.
I really like the way the painter Paul Klee mixes humor and brutality to ironize on art, society and himself. In my films, I start from my wounds and I magnify them, I extrapolate them to society. Humor and the grotesque are also intimately linked to my practice – the grotesque as a form of protest and liberation of the human; humor as a means of lowering psychological defenses in the face of subjects that challenge the public’s ego. I work so that the spectator feels authorized to probe his weakness, his mediocrity. This work is based on the belief that when we accept this part of ourselves, we tend to accept it in others. It is then that bridges are created between individuals, different cultures and realities. This is why my current work moves away from the standard, formatted narrative of “resilience”. I don’t want to show heroism, but rather weakness, the human clown – and that in a brutal and comical way.
In happy Face, the shame I felt for my teenage mother turned into a movie about disfigured people. It was out of the question to take real actors and make them up. The film was for me a way to change the way I saw other human beings, to share with the audience what I was going through, and also to confront them with their own shame and dislike. The scenario was modified according to the people found in order to integrate the problems they were facing in their own life. Due to this organic semi-documentary approach, the film turned into something completely different from what I had originally imagined. Imperfect, yes, I know its strengths and weaknesses well, but powerful I believe; designed to be a kind of shock therapy session for theater audiences.
As I said before: a faulty movie from a faulty director about a faulty world. But it’s cathartic.
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