Québécois writer-director-cinematographer Sophie Deraspe on why she wanted to tackle and update Antigone and wearing many hats on a film set.
Sophie Deraspe’s new film, Antigone, is nothing if not ambitious. Translating Sophocles’ tragedy to present day Montreal, in this film, Antigone’s brother is the victim of police violence, and her act of defiance is not in his burial, but in rescuing her other brother from prison by secretly trading places with him. Antigone (Nahéma Ricci) and her family are permanent residents in Canada, but their lack of citizenship puts them in real danger when her brother gets in trouble with the law; her brother could be deported back to their unnamed African home country, despite the fact that they came to Canada as political refugees. While fate played a large role in Sophocles’ play, in Deraspe’s rendition, the legal system, with its unfair whims that individuals are powerless against, is the modern equivalent.
When Antigone had its world premiere at TIFF in September, it won the prize for best Canadian film, and it was subsequently selected as Canada’s entry for Best International Film at the Oscars. When we discussed the film on our podcast episode on Canadian film at TIFF, Angelo Muredda and I both expressed admiration for the film’s ambition, though mixed feelings about how it carries it off. Still, it’s a fascinating watch, and a new approach to updating classics for a modern audience.
Like Steven Soderbergh and Warwick Thornton, Deraspe is one of a select few directors who serve as their own cinematographer. Like Soderbergh (and Kelly Reichardt), she also edits her films, though she shares editorial duties with a collaborator. Before the film’s Canadian release, I talked with Deraspe about writing, directing, shooting, and editing her own films, why she wanted to adapt Antigone, and more.
Seventh Row (7R): What made you want to adapt Antigone, a Greek tragedy, for a modern setting?
Sophie Deraspe: I read Antigone when I was in my early twenties. That’s many years ago. I just really fell in love with the character. I was struck by her sense of dignity, her intelligence. She goes against the law, but for something that she really believes is the right thing to do. She stays true to herself. Even if it’s a tragedy, it was, to me, very uplifting. At the time, I didn’t know I would make films, but I knew I would do something related to art and go back to this material and bring to it my own signature and a contemporary setting.
7R: What was the process for doing that? Where you simply inspired by the story or were you looking at the play in-depth as you were putting the script for Antigone together?
Sophie Deraspe: The play stayed with me in the corner of my head and my heart for many years. It was sleeping there. One evening, I was reading online and watching YouTube [videos] about a tragedy that happened in Montreal in 2008. It’s called the Villanueva Affair. A 14-year-old young man was gunned down by the Montreal police in a park, and not long after, his older brother who was on the scene was threatened with deportation because of petty crimes. They were permanent residents, and they felt they were at home in this country. This family immigrated as refugees to Canada, and tragedy hits again.
I was reading comments where people were expressing very cruel and racist things about them, not knowing them of course. It felt like, oh my God, people in my country, they have this position, but they don’t know. They are talking about a big tragedy, but they are not connecting with the real people. I was thinking about the mother of those young [people], and I was imagining the sister as being like Antigone because the setting reminded me of the play.
Antigone has two brothers who are dead: one has a royal funeral because he was a hero to the land; and the other, his body is thrown to the vultures because he’s an enemy of the state. In Antigone, what she does is say, the two of them are my brothers, so good for the one who has a royal funeral, but I have the duty to give him [the other brother] a burial, so I will dig some earth and put it on his body. So she goes against the law of the king because she follows a duty that is greater.
So with this case that happened in Montreal, I was thinking, what would a sister do for her brother, and do for dignity and love and what she owes, not only to her brothers but also to her family? The structure of the story became clear very quickly — how to transpose Antigone in our modern time. I had the bones of the story, but to have the meat, it took several years of research and writing. But I knew that I was holding something very strong in how to adapt Antigone for our time.
7R: What kind of research did you end up doing?
Sophie Deraspe: When I started writing, I decided Antigone would help her brother, the one that is left. She would help him escape from prison, but then, she will, of course, have to face justice and being in the juvenile care ward, and ultimately, the figure of the father [in this case, the justice system stands in for the father].
First, I had to know what happens when a minor is arrested and when a minor goes to court. I met with investigators and a lawyer, and I visited courtrooms to listen to how it is handled, and then I went back to writing. I knew what the words were to use and what were the consequences for a minor when a minor goes against the law. The research inspired me also in going further with the script.
7R: In Sophocles’ Antigone, fate is really important, and in the film, fate has become the way Antigone is powerless against the institutions she’s facing.
Sophie Deraspe: Yeah, the story of Antigone is her against authority. Authority, in our world, is first, the police, then, the judge, then, the consequences and punishments, either prison or juvenile care. But ultimately, she has to face the figure of the father whom she doesn’t have anymore. In the case of Antigone, and for immigrants — at least those who don’t have their citizenship yet — you’re so vulnerable that you can be told you have to leave this country. It’s a relationship with the state. It’s such a punishment and unfair; people can face deportation from the country where you have tried to build a new life. I feel it’s very tragic.
7R: You serve as your own cinematographer. The colours in the film are really striking. How did you approach the aesthetic for Antigone? What do you get out of being your own cinematographer? How does that make it easier or different for you?
Sophie Deraspe: I started as a cinematographer, mostly in documentaries, so holding the camera and listening to the characters — while also being aware of the mic and thinking about everything at the same time — it’s a skill that I [have] developed over the years. It’s just natural for me. I think my mind and my body are trained for that.
I see [cinematography] as a choreography with the actors. I dance with them, and sometimes, even while we are shooting, I speak with them and continue shooting so we don’t have to cut. It’s something very fluid and natural.
When I write a scene, I see how I’m going to shoot it, but it changes when I do rehearsals with the actors. But when I write it, I have an idea of shooting and editing. I translated the ancient Greek chorus as the social media we have in our lives today. The social media in the film is something I experienced in my previous film, The Amina Profile [(2015)], which is a story of love and revolution that’s all happening online. It’s a documentary, but it was important to find the proper language so I wouldn’t be shooting people in front of the computer or fingers on the phone.
I wear a lot of hats on this film: writing, directing, shooting, [and] I even [acted as] co-editor. I think I did the casting of my crew just as well as I did the casting of the actors. I wanted people that are very committed and have an artistic vision.
I prepare a lot prior to shooting. You were mentioning the colours of the films. It’s something very important. I picked the locations, and then I have the colours I wanted to use. I wanted this film to be young and full of youth, so it has a lot of movements, a lot of colours. Once we step into institutions like the court or juvenile care ward, then it is not colours; it’s more neutral because it’s the authority that speaks. When we go back to protests, it’s colours. It was well prepared.
7R: To some degree, the film is very heightened: the colours are so rich, and there are even scenes where it feels like it’s not a naturalistic drama, but high emotions, high tension. How did you think about that balance between making us connect with her and giving it this Greek tragedy heightened emotion?
Sophie Deraspe: Antigone is a character greater than nature. She’s a hero. She’s a myth. But I wanted to set the story of Antigone and her family in a social realism kind of fim. At the same time, as a documentary filmmaker, I feel reality is so amazing and even if we were to write something, we wouldn’t have the imagination, or be told you are going too far now, because reality is over the top, too.
I wanted the audience to connect with Antigone as they would with a normal character and forget about the fact that she bears an ancient Greek name. You don’t have to have read the play before you see the film. If you do, you get another layer, but if you don’t, it stands on its own. But you’re right. I wanted to keep the ancient Greeks because I did not want to lose the link with Sophocles.
I think it says something about our shared humanity that such a story with a young female character [who is] so intelligent was written more than 2000 years ago. It felt good to me when I first read Antigone; I thought strong female characters are not just something of today. I wanted to keep this link, a story that could happen in our world. And it is a story that happens in our world: like Greta Thunberg, there are young female characters in our contemporary world fighting when they feel the system is unfair or not doing what it should for the people. Some [young women] have the courage to step aside from their normal life and just fight for what they think is the right thing to do.
7R: Can you tell me about your lead actress Nahéma Ricci and what your process was for working with her?
Sophie Deraspe: I found the actress playing Antigone via an open casting. She applied, just like more than 800 people, but I was looking not only for her, but all her siblings, her two brothers and a sister. At the same time, I thought why not find the other young women who are in a juvenile centre with her? I found all the young people who are in the protests or dancing or part of the demonstration. It felt like I met a lot of what is the youth today, and among all those people, she was there.
She’s quite a unique actress. She has a great future in front of her. Not only does the camera love her, but she’s very talented, and she worked hard. The two of us worked to bring this character to something naturalistic. At the same time, Antigone is a hero, and we have to believe in her being this regular young woman who has to step into such big shoes in order to protect her family and her dignity — the big shoes of a hero. We’ll hear from her in the future.
7R: You mentioned rehearsals. What kind of rehearsals did you do for the film?
Sophie Deraspe: Since they are not trained actors, they have to know about their instrument, which is their body, their voice, their gaze. At first, I wanted to set a space where they would trust me and trust themselves, to step into their characters, try things, and not feel like they are judged. It was first getting to know each other, and then working with the other siblings so it would really feel we are with a family with their imperfections, but a lot of love, too. It was spending time together, eating together, doing the scenes and some improvisation. But really, feel[ing] comfortable was my main goal.
7R: How much time did you spend rehearsing?
Sophie Deraspe: Depends. Of course I saw Nahéma more. We had many months prior to shooting. I wanted to do it this way, and I was backed by the producers in the casting process, even before we had all the financing. They knew it was important to me and the film. It was so much work, but I feel it was so worth it.
With Nahéma, we met every week for many months. and sometimes with the others, but a lot of times, the two of us. When I invited other famous professional Quebec actors to do a test, she was with me; she was the one doing the lines. She was Antigone even when we were auditioning other characters.