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Jeanne Leblanc on Exploring the Silent Complicity of a Tight-Knit Community in “Les Nôtres”

8 min read

Jeanne Leblanc has directed close to ten short films that have screened in international festivals. In 2017, she directed her first feature film, “Isla Blanca.” “Les Nôtres” (“Our Own”) is her second feature.

“Les Nôtres” hits select theaters and VOD June 18.

W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.

JL: “Les Nôtres” tells the story of a Magalie, a teenager who is young, beautiful, and vulnerable. She is at the vertiginous age with the world ahead of her but without a real voice in society. She thinks she knows what she wants and who she is, but when she’s confronted with an unwanted pregnancy, she will need to face herself but also to all the society around her. Her secret will reveal all the cracks in the varnish of her small, tight-knit community.

It’s a movie about the power of the silence.

W&H: What drew you to this story?

JL: My co-writer, Judith Baribeau, and I were originally working on another script based on a true story. It was on the same topic but way darker—because most of the time the reality can be darker than the fiction. This original idea was about how a community can close their eyes when it becomes too hard to tell the truth. How can we abandon the ones that cannot defend themselves to try to save the “group?” And how can this silence finally—slowly—devour the community?

For many reasons we couldn’t finish this script, but we decided to keep what touched us the most: the silent complicity of the society.

The best way to [encapsulate] what our mantra was during all the writing process is this simple quote from Bill Clinton on “60 Minutes” when he spoke out for the first time about his affair with Monica Lewinsky: “I did it because I could.”

W&H: What do you want people to think about after they watch the film?

JL: It’s a film about silence, but the main purpose of this film is to create a space for real conversations after watching it. To start to talk about those subjects with teenagers, and about your own experiences. Be angry if you feel like it and express why.

I really believe that cinema is the perfect medium to push some necessary discussions. We based our script on so much research and I know how it can feel confronting when a story is too close to some reality. The power of denial can be so strong. For that reason, I know that some situations in the movie will invoke emotions and hopefully conversations. And because the film is also a suspense, it may be intriguing and hypnotizing as well as confronting. It could be a total cinematographic engagement.

So if the audience talk after, not just about the film, but about the topic of the film in their own life or experiences, I will be more than happy.

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

JL: Finding the best actors to embrace these challenging characters was a long process. I wanted to find actors who would be able to be dark and luminous at the same time. It’s a film with so many shades of grey and it’s basically on the shoulders of the actors to transmit all the subtleties.

For Magalie, we met more than 40 young actresses. We decided to meet each of them for a conversation and an audition to make sure that they felt safe and they really understood the script and the purpose of the film. Émilie Bierre arrived at the audition with a really unique maturity. I can remember how emotionally charged she was. After two takes, we were all in tears. Her, I, my producers, the casting director. I knew right away we would have a special bond.

Finding the adults was strangely a little bit harder. Those characters are really risky — not all actors were willing to come on auditions. When Paul Doucet arrived with something between love and real torment it was so powerful. He was confident, but at the same time, willing to risk something. During the shooting, he was able to put himself in such a vulnerable position. It was as beautiful as it was terrifying depending on the moment. I will say the exact same for Marianne Farley and Judith Baribeau. And I think that’s what makes their performances that much more disturbing.

W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.

JL: In Quebec, we are 100 percent funded by public funds. We apply at some specific institutions — SODEC, Telefilm Canada, etc. It’s a longer process. For this film, it took us four years to have all the money to get the green light.

W&H: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?

JL: I come from the country. My parents were owners of a small grocery and art was far from our reality, but as far back as I can remember I’ve always loved to tell stories. My mom had some cute nickname like “mémère aux prunes” — totally impossible to translate but you can picture a cute chubby young girl with glasses a little bit clumsy talking all the time — to tease me because I always wanted to interrupt conversation to tell some story.

Then, at college, I focused on art because I didn’t know what I really wanted to do. I had this amazing teacher who was passionate about Asian and French Canadian films. I discovered “The Scent of Green Papaya” during the same period that I saw for “Léolo,” a French Canadian classic, for the first time. I remember how I was fascinated by how you can transmit emotions and sensations that are so universal through intimate stories. I became more and more hungry for films from new horizons.

I have a vivid memory of one in particular, “El espíritu de la colmena” (“The Spirit of the Beehive”), directed by Victor Erice. This captivating portrait of the young Ana haunted me for days. The way Erice created a strong yet so delicate language to make the audience feel, see, and hear the world with Ana’s eyes just amazed me.

Now that I’m thinking about it, there might be a little bit of Erice’s film in the way I try to depict young girl or teenager character like Magalie.

W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?

JL: I started to work in this industry as an assistant director. At my first gig, the 2nd AD told me: “You will always be as good as the information that we will give you.”

When I began to work as a director I still remembered this advice. Because we cannot do a film alone, we need to cherish our collaborators. We need to give them a part of us, a part of our brain and thoughts, if we want to push the film to be as good as it can be.

I cannot remember the worst advice but every time somebody—a producer, a technician, an actor—tells me that “this is not the way it’s done in film industry” I know that I will never trust this person.

W&H: What advice do you have for other women directors?

JL: There are three questions that I always ask myself when I start a new project: What story do I want to tell? How do I want to tell it? Why do I want to tell it?

It can take me months to get to the real answers. It seems easy, but when you get deeper in those questions they can bring you further than you think. When I honestly answer the questions, I know that I get something real. I know that I’m strong in my purpose and strong in my project. Then I know that I can trust my guts, trust my instincts.

When you are strong in your project, it’s easier to face challenges. To confront all the weak arguments — or to confront all mansplaining that you can sometimes encounter. This type of self-confidence based on your own truth is your stronger asset.

W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.

JL: My favorite women directors are Lynne Ramsay and Agnès Varda.

Ramsay because I love the power of her movies and the way she embraces strong stories and complex characters. I always get the impression that filmmaking is a total and complete engagement for her.

Varda because I’m in love with her free spirit and I really want to get old like she did. She is a role model in the way she chose to always stay free, curious. The way she explored art in all of her life and career. Here’s a quote from her that I really embrace: “In my film I always wanted to make people see deeply. I don’t want to show things, but to give people the desire to see.”

Desire—this huge word—but one of the most important things in film.

W&H: How are you adjusting to life during the COVID-19 pandemic? Are you keeping creative, and if so, how?

JL: I found this period really challenging. Before this period, I was really constant in my creative work, but during the COVID-19 pandemic it was more an emotional and creative roller coaster with some really beautiful peaks and some valleys.

This said, for the first time in a long, long time, I’ve accepted this cyclic period. And I learned that it might be closer to my inner self. Like most women, I’m not that linear. I’m more cyclic in my creative work than society wants us to be. And I also learned that the peaks can be most powerful than we thought if we know how to embrace the slow down.

I should say that I would like to keep a part of this learning in my post-pandemic life.

W&H: The film industry has a long history of underrepresenting people of color onscreen and behind the scenes and reinforcing—and creating—negative stereotypes. What actions do you think need to be taken to make Hollywood and/or the doc world more inclusive?

JL: To be humble. Accept that we need to listen other stories and sometimes we need to modify our practice. There are so many ways to tell stories and we’ve applied just one model for so many years that we have been thinking that’s the only way. To really represent other realities means to apply other rules and other models — to work differently sometimes.

It’s not just a question of “quota,” but also a question of work culture.

Check out an exclusive clip and trailer for “Les Nôtres” below. 

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