Photo by P.J. Dufort

How a Montreal crime and Greek tragedy inspired Sophie Deraspe’s new film

An interview with the filmmaker about her contemporary take on Antigone.

Most of us are, I think, vaguely familiar with the Antigone story, even if we think we aren’t. Like most Greek tragedies, it has taken hold of modern storytelling whether we’re aware of it or not.

In Sophie Deraspse’s modern-day adaptation of Sophocles’s play, Antigone (Nahéma Ricci) is a teenager who came to Quebec with her sister, two brothers and grandmother from an unnamed, war-torn Middle Eastern country after the death of her parents. When her beloved brother Étéocle (Hakim Brahimi) is killed by police for “resisting arrest” during a dice game in a park, Antigone’s world is forever altered. Her more rebellious and hot-headed brother Polynice (Rawad El-Zein) is jailed for attacking the cops who killed his brother, which in turn fragilizes the health of her grandmother. Faced with losing both of her brothers, Antigone decides to sacrifice herself for what she feels is the greater good.

“If you remove the names, it’s a contemporary story that stands alone,” says Deraspe, when asked why the Ancient Greek names remain in a film that is otherwise entirely updated to the present day. “The audience doesn’t need to be familiar with Antigone. I wanted to keep the names because I wanted to keep that association. On one hand, it takes guts to make that decision, but on the other hand, there’s a humility to saying, ‘There are great stories that have been told before and have since been told over and over, but I’m humble enough to know that if I tell it myself, it’s not entirely my story.’ It’s about welcoming all of the things that came before into the story I’m telling.”

I bring up the fact that Shakespearean adaptations do this all the time and we never question it; yet, it seems, this is a question that has come up consistently over the film’s festival run.

Antigone is extremely popular in the theatre: theatre schools teach it, all the great theatres put it on. They might do it in the traditional way or adapt it, but they’ll do that endlessly. I’ve seen so many versions of it since I started writing this script, but cinema very rarely touches it. I think the reason why it’s so scarce is perhaps that cinema calls for a certain level of naturalism. Antigone as it’s written in the play — the way she dialogues with the king — is probably something that filmmakers didn’t really feel were appealing in an updated version. (…) The Jean Anouilh version is much more accessible because the language is much closer to ours. I read Anouilh before I read Sophocles, and it really did help me unlock it.

“I’m very conscious of all the choices in which there is a mirror between modern society and the original play, or even other adaptations like the ones by Anouilh or Brecht,” she continues. “I’m also very conscious of where I take liberties. I wasn’t holding up the original work as something untouchable or sacred.”

The modern updates situate the film in a poor, mainly immigrant area of Montreal where prospects are low to nonexistent for most people, let alone orphans with such traumatic pasts. In bringing the story to 2019, Deraspe integrated elements of news stories — most specifically that of Fredy Villanueva, the Montreal North teenager who was killed by police for resisting arrest in 2008.

“I had Antigone in the corner of my mind and my heart ever since I read it, at a time where I didn’t even know I’d become a filmmaker,” says Deraspe. “I had an inkling I’d work in art, somehow, and when I read it, I knew I’d want to revisit it at some point. It touched upon something — even though it’s a tragedy —  it touched upon something very powerful. It galvanized me. I was so happy to see that a man could write a story like that thousands of years ago. There was something reassuring about that, considering the place of masculine heroes in art history. Something about it vivified me. I wasn’t really actively thinking about how I’d adapt it until a few years after the death of Fredy Villanueva. His brother Dany remained in the news, the case remained in the news for years what with all the debate about whether or not the police were justified in their actions. 

“At some point, I was reading about it and seeing how people were reacting to it,” she continues. “Comments would go to hateful, racist and cruel reactions to support for the family and compassion for the tragedy. It came to me in a flash, really: these two brothers, one of which is a victim and the other a pariah. It’s a set-up that lines up with a contemporary version of Antigone and her relationship with her two brothers and how she lines up with them. It came to me very rapidly: what if Antigone was a sister? What would she do? For her, it doesn’t matter that one is a hero and the other is a pariah — they’re both her brothers. She has a moral duty. She has to support them, or support the one that needs it.” ■

Antigone opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, Nov. 8.

See our interview with the star of Antigone, Nahéma Ricci, here.