Pier-Philippe Chevigny Richelieu Quebec film movie 2023

Richelieu is a harrowing portrait of labour abuses in Quebec’s Temporary Foreign Workers program

An interview with director Pier-Philippe Chevigny about his debut feature, a fictional film based on the harsh reality of temporary foreign workers in Quebec.

In researching his latest film, Richelieu, Pier-Philippe Chevigny had to travel to Guatemala. The film follows Ariane (Ariane Castellanos), a Québécoise deep in debt, who takes a job at a factory as a translator working with temporary foreign workers from Central America. Ariane struggles to maintain her distance from the reality of the workers’ terrible working conditions and treatment. “I started talking to people and wondered why there were no documentaries about the Temporary Foreign Workers program, says Chevigny. “I started my work in 2013 after hearing allegations of abuse, and nothing was being done to call out the exploitation. People didn’t want to talk to me on the record because they were afraid, so I started thinking about it as a fiction film instead, so that way, I could protect their anonymity.”

Most people wouldn’t speak to him while working or living in Quebec. That’s why he went south. “The research process was me couchsurfing in Guatemala because the workers didn’t really want to meet with me in Quebec. First of all, they’re working incredible hours. They have no free time. Second of all, they have surveillance cameras in the house and didn’t want to speak to a journalist or someone who might blow things open. So I went there, and it was like a safe space for them.” 

Richelieu depicts a wide range of abuses not permitted by the labour code or conditions in grey areas of the law. Workers are asked to work around the clock, without days off, and are paid well below the minimum wage. They’re surveilled outside of their working hours and continually threatened with the being sent home. Workplace injuries are brushed aside or outright ignored. The hostile environment preys upon vulnerable people with little understanding of their rights, further alienated by not sharing a common language.

As seen through the eyes of Ariane, the film is a harrowing labour issues drama that underlines enormous tension and suspense that occasionally bursts into violence. The film balances the grim scenario with the liveliness and passion of the characters, who burst with humour, intelligence and complexity. It’s a movie that borrows from genre filmmaking while also rooting the experiences in lived experiences to capture a sense of reality. 

Through their research in Guatemala, as Chevigny was also accompanied by Ariane Castellanos, who also acted as a collaborator and translator, “they took all the testimonies and the script became a collage of all those things together. We ensured they couldn’t be recognized, changing their names and places they work.” 

The role was written with Castellanos in mind. She had auditioned for one of Chevigny’s short films and “blew me away,” says the director. “She never really had a significant role, but I knew she could handle being a lead character in a film. Then I learned she has half-Guatamalan, and I started writing with her in mind,” says Chevigny. She was involved in the whole research process and helped shape the film.

Marc-André Grondin filled in the role of the factory boss, “I wanted to avoid the evil boss stereotype,” says Chevigny. “In my research, they weren’t necessarily nice guys or charismatic, but you had to have someone who’s a star. It was our way to avoid (the audience) hating him from the get-go.” 

Casting the roles for the Guatemalan workers was more complex, especially as Chevigny wanted to hire actors from Guatemala. They worked with Guatemalan filmmaker Jayro Bustamante (he directed La Llorona, 2019), who held auditions for the team. “The problem was, the film was made during COVID. We wanted as many people from Guatemala as possible, but only one made it because they couldn’t get their visas on time. We had to recast last minute. The actor they cast to play Manuel, who suffers a harrowing workplace injury in the film, was initially supposed to be an actor they found in Guatemala, but when he was unable to come, they found Nelson Coronado — who lives in Quebec. “He’s actually Guatemalan and has lived there almost his whole life, he’s only lived in (Quebec) for six or seven years. And he’s really, really good,” says Chevigny. 

Stylistically, the film employs a claustrophobic aspect ratio. “The whole idea was to create an immersive experience. I want you to feel like you’re living there in real time by Ariane’s side. The tight framing and the aspect ratio were going to frame people’s faces the whole time,” says Chevigny. “In Cinemascope, if you frame (a face), it’s in the middle, and you have a lot of empty space. It’s not pleasing, but also it makes you feel further away from the characters. People also don’t realize, but most shots are one-takes, especially after the 15-minute mark.”

The aesthetic choice informed a political one. “I wanted the audience to question their sense of responsibility,” says Chevigny. “This is the story of someone who is an outsider. She doesn’t have a horse in the race, but she realizes there’s exploitation and that she’s also complicit. That echoes our complicity in that system because, as consumers, we buy relatively cheap groceries, inflation notwithstanding. But the reason groceries are accessible is because someone down the line is being exploited. We’re complicit in that. So, what are we going to do? Are we going to be like Ariane, who stands up and says this has to stop, and I won’t be a part of the system anymore? Or will we remain in our comfort zone, like she could have done?”

Richelieu Quebec film movie 2023 Pier-Philippe Chevigny

Chevigny hopes the film raises awareness. “The problem with the Temporary Foreign Worker program is that the visa is connected with the employer. If they lose their job, their visa expires and they must leave. The employer can kick them out anytime and does not have to justify their decisions.” Activists, he says, argue that a simple change that allows workers to leave their job or move to another company would cut down significantly on the abuse. “Some people worry it would open the door to permanent residency,” he says, “but they want to go back. They come here knowing they’re going back home.” 

Richelieu is inspired by filmmaking practices of the past that blur the line between fiction and documentary. He mentions cinéma direct and filmmakers like Pierre Perreault and Michel Brault. “L’Acadie, L’Acadie was probably the first politically explicit film I saw growing up,” says Chevigny. “The Dardennes brothers, of course,” he says. “That’s what my film probably looks the most like. Then Kiarostami, Haneke. And a lot of genre films — horror inspired me a lot.” 

Richelieu feels part of a more significant labour movement sweeping the world. It’s a movie about the need to empower workers, how corporate interests value their profits over people, and how they are utterly devoid of reality. The film is a gripping thriller but also a desperate plea for change. It deals with complex issues intelligently and forces the audience to reflect on difficult moral questions about how our society is structured. ■

Richelieu (directed by Pier-Philippe Chevigny)

Richelieu opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, Sept 1 (and is screening with English subs at Cinéma du Parc).

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