Les oiseux ivres Drunken Birds Festival du Nouveau Cinéma

Les oiseaux ivres turns the humble into the epic

We spoke with the director and co-writer / cinematographer of Canada’s entry for Best International Film at the Oscars.

Willy (Jorge Antonio Guerrero, who you may have seen in Roma) is a young Mexican man who has fallen in love with Marlena (Yoshira Escárrega), the somewhat unwilling young wife of a much older cartel leader. Fearing that their secret love affair could cost them their lives, the two separate, with Marlena fleeing the country, leaving Willy alone and broken-hearted. Willy then learns that Marlena might be hiding out in Montreal, so he flees to Quebec where he gets a job as a seasonal worker on a family farm on the South Shore. The farm is run by Julie (Hélène Florent) and her husband Richard (Claude Legault), who are in the midst of a long and protracted separation based partially on Julie’s infidelity. Willy’s presence on the farm starts to have a ripple effect down to their daughter (Marine Johnson) as he remains single-mindedly focused on finding Marlena.

When I sat down with director Ivan Grbovic and cinematographer/co-writer Sara Mishara (the two are life partners as well as creative ones), Les oiseaux ivres (aka Drunken Birds) had just been announced as Canada’s entry in the Best International Film Oscar race. While that usually means that the movie is in French, Les oiseaux ivres has a whole lot of Spanish in it — a language that Grbovic doesn’t speak.

“We didn’t write the film with that in mind,” he says. “It happened naturally without us really having language in mind. It fell into place pretty naturally. My first film Roméo Onze had a lot of Arabic as well as French. (…) I’ve made ads in German, I’ve made ads with Sara in Italian… At some point, you just workshop the lines with your actors and you just know whether or not it sounds and feels right. I never worried about it too much.”

“The actors really helped us out in that sense,” adds Mishara. “Jorge was very present on set.”

“There were times where Jorge would just say, “I would never say that!” adds Grbovic.

Les oiseaux ivres is somewhat unusual in the landscape of Quebec cinema in that it avoids the extreme naturalism that usually comes with immigrant narratives. It’s not so much a criticism as it is a logical by-product of the size of our industry — immigrant stories are often told, but they’re generally told with non-professional actors and a straightforward, gritty style owing to the low budget offered to most directors

“We wanted to create a fable within the context of the Quebec agricultural world,” says Grbovic. “Reality catches up to it eventually, but we really made the choice to show the beautiful side of the countryside. It’s a beautiful place! I wanted to move away from the rough, dirty, industrial side of it.”

“We didn’t want to criticize our characters,” says Mishara. “If there’s a criticism anywhere in this movie, it’s of the system in which they’ve become sort of stuck. We really wanted to approach each character with a certain level of accuracy. On the other hand, if we had really anchored the film in reality, based on the places we visited for research, there would definitely be this sad, tragic side to it. We put a lot of energy in observing their reality and rebuilding our impression of it — one that wasn’t completely opposite, but one that was closer to a fable. We worked very hard on creating a universe that isn’t entirely opposite, but certainly parallel.”

Les oiseaux ivres is much more of a heightened visual and sensory experience than the aforementioned gritty, lo-fi dramas. It’s packed with shots that have been carefully crafted and generally imbued with a surreal atmosphere that’s a far cry from what we’ve grown accustomed to. 

“We really wanted to make cinema,” says Mishara. “We wanted to take real, humble characters and make them epic.”

“Larger than life!” adds Grbovic. “It drifts between dream and reality. Some things happen that are real but look like a dream; some dreams happen, but they look real. It’s very fluid that way.”

Les oiseaux ivres also takes some pretty wild narrative swings. Suffice to say that where it starts and where it ends are pretty different beasts.

“I mean, you’ve got a white tiger, you’ve got a car on fire, you’re in China,” says Grbovic. “If that doesn’t destabilize you, then I think you’ll be fine with this movie.”

“Personally, I like movies where the director respects me enough to challenge me,” says Mishara. “I don’t want my hand held. It’s a movie that wants to be generous with the audience. We want to give them an experience, but cinema is an art. It doesn’t need to be spoon-fed to be accepted. My hope with this movie is that a movie doesn’t have to be cold, distant and weird to be an interesting arthouse movie. A mainstream audience can deal with more than that. It’s a question of respect towards the audience.” ■

Les oiseaux ivres / Drunken Birds opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, Oct. 15.

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