Antigone was Canada’s official entry to the International Film category in the 2020 Oscars and if you’re wondering how Canada could contribute an “international film,” it’s because the language spoken in Antigone is Québécois.
Sophie Deraspe is the writer, director, cinematographer AND co-editor of the film. It’s a modern-day retelling of the Greek myth, focusing on a family of Algerian immigrants in Montreal. The teenage Antigone (Nahéma Ricci) makes an enormous sacrifice for her family and becomes a poster-child for her generation.
It’s great to talk to you about this film, which I first saw at AFI Fest in LA in 2019. It’s been a long time since then!
Yes, so much has happened since. We were cut off from the rest of the world for the last year and that was my last trip, actually.
It must feel good that the film is finally going to come out and people are going to see it though?
Yes, I’m glad, but at the same time I feel that it’s a pity that we don’t get to be in theatres, as we were supposed to be, but that’s our reality now.
So – directing, shooting and editing a film seems like a massive under-taking – was this through necessity or choice? And if it was choice, why did you choose to work in this way?
Well, I started as a director of photography, then I began writing my own stuff and then directing, so it felt natural shooting it after having written it and spent so many years with my characters, picturing it in my head. And maybe it is also because I come from documentary, and in documentary we often wear many hats, we work in such small teams. Also I see filmmaking more as a craft than a business, so being able to have my hands in this, since I know how a camera works, I know about lighting and I love editing as well – it’s another way of writing the story. And for that film, time allowed me to really craft it and put all my energy and my love into the work. I felt like I had the time to work with the actors, who were all non-professional actors (or most of them), so in every little detail and level of production, I felt like I had time to craft it, in order to bring this piece to the world…a few years after making it.
You mentioned there starting out in documentaries and I’m wondering if there’s anything in particular that you brought from the world of documentary into Antigone?
Well I’m always amazed how reality is full of surprises and sometimes is way more imaginative and creative that what we could write! So I prepare a lot, I write for quite some time and I prepare a lot before shooting. But at the same time, I want to stay very open to what reality will bring, I like to be disturbed sometimes. So my writing and the way I’ve conceived the making, from our preparation, will be disrupted in a spontaneous way. I like to bring some surprises to the actors, so their preparation and stability will be disrupted. It’s a way of staying spontaneous and staying in touch with what are the true emotions of the scene.
So when you were working with the non-professional actors, did you have much rehearsal time and how did you get them prepared to embark on the film?
We spent a lot of time together, well a lot with Nahéma Ricci (who plays Antigone), just the two of us and then also with the rest of the family. I wanted them to feel comfortable, I wanted them to trust me and feel that they trusted themselves in their capacity to bring those emotions, letting them out and feeling like they’re in a safe space. We asked for a lot of vulnerability from the actors and I wanted them to be comfortable with that and feel that they were good! Even if I pushed them sometimes and found their limits, I also wanted them to know that I would take care of them.
So, we spent a lot of time together and also they did, among themselves, so they could feel like a family. Since, on the set, I was operating the camera and I had a wonderful crew working with me, but I had to think about lighting, I had to think about so many things. So if once we were on the set, they were already a family and comfortable with each other, it felt like I could put my energy into the other aspects of the filmmaking.
I spent a lot of time with them, rehearsing some scenes, but I wanted to keep the spontaneity. So I didn’t want to rehearse too much, but I wanted to make sure they knew their language, their voice, their body – what they were bringing to the camera or to other actors they were working with. So, that’s what I was experimenting with them.
The colour red is strongly associated with the character of Antigone – in her costuming and in the design of the posters and things, once people start campaigning for her. Why is the colour red so dominant in the film and particularly associated with her character?
It was in the script, but I write as a director of photography, so the colours are important to me and nothing is left to be random. Even though I was talking about spontaneity, at the same time, I want every aspect to speak about this story I wanted to tell. The colour red, of course, it’s very often associated with blood, heart, passion, but also revolution. So it felt like OK – this is Antigone’s colour because she follows her heart, she follows her conception of love and she has to go against the law for that. So she disobeys the written law and follows her own conception of the law. So in that way, she brings a revolution, a way of changing the world she lives in.
Can I ask you about the music – which is very eclectic. You’ve got a mixture of the score, occasional uses of folk music and also more modern music like hip-hop. How did you make decisions about the music, from scene-to-scene?
Yes, I know it’s very eclectic! So, I’m telling a story that was written 2,000 years ago in another continent. So I wanted to express today’s Montreal, a contemporary story, but I wanted the music to bring in the dimension of space and time. So we have folk music from Algeria, where the family is from and we have the rap music that is more of today and the classical music instrumentation of the original score (by Jad Orphée Chami and Jean Massicotte). So, I feel this story with this music has a broad spectrum, in terms of space and time.
I think my favourite aspect, apart from Ricci’s central performance of course, is how you weave social media into the piece. So you have intercut messages and videos from TikTok or SnapChat or wherever. How did you make these? Did you get the teenagers themselves to do it?
Yes, I wanted them, without being associated with a specific application, like TikTok or YouTube, to speak the language of social media – which was my interpretation of the Greek Chorus, vox populi (the voice of the people), the people that comment on the main story. So, yes I asked all the teenagers that were involved in the film, because when I did the casting for Antigone and her siblings, I met with so many creative young people. I hired some of them to work behind the camera to craft those social media parentheses in the film – our contemporary chorus. But of course, it couldn’t go in whatever direction, I had to be a director, but I wasn’t with them all the time. I let them go freely but then bring back the material, we’d watch it together and decide what was going to work, “bring more like this one” and it was very fun to edit.
Antigone will finally be available On Demand in the US from March 9, 2021.
Antigone Full Review from AFI Fest – Click Here