Our 20s are a free-for-all. They’re a period in our lives when we no longer have the structure of school to define us and to keep us on the same track as our peers. Instead, there are suddenly infinite paths to take. Some of us are quick to start families, while others pursue academia; a select few of us even become astronauts and I think most, including all of the aforementioned, flounder to an extent. We deal with self-doubt, the struggle of defining our identity with the paths we choose, falling short of our past expectations, and the always looming temptation of reinventing ourselves.
It’s a sensation shared by many, but difficult to express adequately via short film. That was what we thought until we came across writer and director Monia Chokri’s award winning film “Quelqu’un d’extraordinaire (An Extraordinary Person).” It’s a film that renders the complexities of growing up with such clever humor and compelling characters, that we couldn’t wait to share it with the larger Vimeo community. We are introduced to the protagonist, Sarah: an intelligent, yet struggling graduate student who after an evening of heavy drinking lies about her identity to a stranger whose home she wakes up in. Her alias of choice? Juliette Payette. The same name as the Canadian-born astronaut who has traveled to space twice atop of a mountain of other accolades. As Sarah continues her day and searches for the root of her self prescribed banality (when in comparison to her newly assumed alias, Juliette) she discovers that small, everyday acts of love and kindness can make you just as extraordinary as flying a spaceship out of orbit.
We had the chance to ask Monia some questions about her film, the state of social media and treating focus pullers as actors. Her insight is fascinating, so please read below!
Vimeo: What compelled you to make a film about the concept of extraordinary? You clearly have made something of that caliber with this film but did the idea come from a personal experience dealing with self doubt?
It is always strange to dissert about why, as a writer, I make a film about a particular subject. One of the greatest pieces of advice that I’ve received was from a writer who told me that the worst thing to do when you write a story is to think about what you want to talk about. You have to focus on making a great story.
What I like most about this approach is that I’m discovering myself in the process. That said, I was of course aware that part of the film played with the idea of being “extraordinary.” I love the paradoxical idea around the word “extraordinary.” That it can either mean you’re the best, or that you’re rejected for being an outsider -- you can be both superior or inferior. As a human being, you can be both a hero and an asshole to someone else in the same day. That was pretty much what I understood when I read my script for the first time. The title came out of an instinctive feeling of that first reading. (Oh, and by the way, I’m in a permanent state of self-doubt.)
That’s great advice, and I think most of us feel that way. The film’s protagonist, Sarah, struggles with identity. Both with her ongoing Ph.D. pursuit but also with her own sense of self. What do you think it is about society that gears us to think that if we don’t become Juliette Payettes flying to space we’re not fulfilling our potential?
Well, I guess this is one of the greatest preoccupations for my generation and/or the next one. I think there are many reasons why we constantly feel like shit, even when we succeed. First of all, social media is a major gamechanger in the way we see others and ourselves. Instagram is a good example of brain-pollution. Without even acknowledging it, people take the rules of publicity and apply it to their own life by making up a life that doesn’t really exist. You take a thousand of pictures of yourself in flattering light or of your hands with a boring piece of avocado toast on a vintage plate, you put a filter on it, avoid all the other shit around and post it with a cute comment and a thousand of hashtags. It is not reality, but it gives you the profound idea that everyone is better than you.
The thing with Instagram is that we know that it’s not true. But the human brain is so weird. The more and more we devour pictures, the more and more they grow into our subconscious -- we start to feel that we would be more successful and more loved if we just became this filtered version of ourselves all the time. But that’s impossible. So, because of our low self-esteem generated by our narcissism, we act like everyone else. We go to the local indie coffee shop. We order the overpriced avocado toast on the vintage plate and we take a picture of it. And we become, as Adam Curtis described so well: hyper-normalized.
The more and more we devour pictures, the more and more they grow into our subconscious -- we start to feel that we would be more successful and more loved if we just became this filtered version of ourselves all the time.”
More seriously, Instagram is just a syndrome of what I think is the most dangerous thing right now. That knowledge, learning, effort, and time are way less valorized than they used to be. Why would someone dream to go university to study philosophy or sociology and develop new theories, only to spend a tremendous amount of money and have no one read their work except a few other crazy students?
No one is motivated to work when the most influential and powerful people such as the Kardashians or the President of the United States have either no diploma or no idea about anything except how much they have in their bank account. When you watch television archives from the eighties or seventies, you can easily find an hour and a half debate on national television between Michel Foucault and Noam Chomsky. Today, with our digitalized lifestyle, the average attention is eight seconds. Unfortunately, it is impossible to share a complex theory in eight seconds, even in five minutes. Trust me, I love to be entertained and we don’t need to constantly have philosophers on television, but once in awhile in the ocean of reality TV shows, it would be a good thing to use the critical side of our minds.
On the topic of comparing oneself via social media, Sarah states, “I don’t think I’m better than you, I just don’t understand how we can still be so far from where we wanted to be.” Is growing older a coming to terms with the idea of falling short of expectations? Or, is Sarah’s character a cautionary tale of wasted potential?
Well for me, when Sarah says that, she means it. But she is referring more to herself than to the others. She’s obviously not where she was expecting herself to be when she was twenty, but the problem is, she does not know what she wants to be anymore. Instead of blaming herself though, she has a tendency to put the fault on everyone else. I love to create main characters who have a lot of faults, it makes them very human.
I remember my producer, Nancy, and I being very concerned before shooting that people would find Sarah unsympathetic. Instead of that though, people seemed to take the side of Sarah and to identify themselves with her. I guess there are more people that are not where they wanted to be than we had originally thought?
For me it’s important to not make style or create effect just because it’s nice or beautiful. I want all the effects to be related to the emotions of the characters.”
I want to talk about the unique shooting and editing style in the film. There are many playful decisions from jump cuts, snap zooms to the number of close up shots. Why did you decide to use these techniques?
Since I’m an actor, I don’t considered myself as a good technician. I’m way better at directing actors. Because I wasn’t sure how to communicate my ideas well to the technical crew, I decided to direct them as if they were actors. All the camera movements or the zoom work is directly linked to the emotion of the character. The last scene is a good example of that. Sarah is exhausted and her mind is blurred. When you’re very exhausted you can physically lose focus in your eyes and have trouble standing etc. So I decided to direct my cinematographer, Josee Deshaies, and my focus puller, Eric Godbout, as if they were Sarah. During the shot I would say stuff like, “Ok, now you remember the fight tonight, you feel very tired, you’re having trouble focusing and you lose ground.” So Eric himself became an actor. But instead of having his body to express it, he used his focus puller as an instrument of emotion. For me it’s important to not make style or create effect just because it’s nice or beautiful. I want all the effects to be related to the emotions of the characters.
While editing, I work in the same way. For instance, in the beginning of the movie, Sarah wakes up in an environment that she doesn’t recall, probably still drunk. Instead of lifting her head once in the bed, the editing makes her do it three times. I thought, with my incredibly talented editor, Xavier Dolan, that the viewer would feel her pain by the repetition of the action.
I love jump cuts so much -- they give energy to the editing. When an actor is in the middle of a sentence and you edit it going back to the same word, you give the feeling that the character has become nervous or the situation has become more and more chaotic. Also, that gives me the opportunity to get the best of every second from the actor.
That’s really cool to hear. I think all those approaches were incredibly successful. So Monia, what’s next for you? Any new projects that we can look forward to?
I recently acted in a wonderful first movie called A Taste of Ink. The premiere was in San Sebastian and the release is on January 25th in France. This year I’ll also be in a film called Les Affamés by a great actor/director Robin Aubert. I also just finished writing my first feature Brother’s Wife. Nancy Grant from Metafilms will produce it and we hope to start shooting at the end of Summer 2017.
Sounds like you’ve been busy. Well, we can’t wait to check them out. Thanks again for sharing ‘An Extraordinary Person’ on Vimeo!
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