Interview: Pier-Philippe Chevigny Writer/Director/Editor Talks About His Short Film ‘Rebel’

Director Pier-Phillippe Chevigny’s Rebel was inspired by true events. When thousands of illegal immigrants flooded into Canada from the US in 2017,  Quebec’s right-wing groups went on the attack. This live-action short film has been selected for numerous world-class festivals including TIFF, Busan, Regard, Namur, and Vladivostok. It has won numerous awards including the Audience Award at DC Shorts, Best Short Film Award at the Tirana International Film Festival, and the Golden Spike Award for Best Short Film at the Social World Film Festival.

Interview by Anna Harrison

Could you explain the timeline of this movie to me? When did you first get the idea, and how long did it take to get from the idea to filming to distribution?

I started toying with the idea in early 2017 when Quebec was just starting to see a significant rise in right-wing extremism. By August 2017, Quebec was hit with a migrant surge: thousands of refugees started fleeing the US after the Temporary Protected Status was suspended, most of whom came to Quebec by “illegally” crossing the border by foot. I wrote the script to REBEL while those events were unfolding and we applied for funding in the fall of that year. The film was greenlit and shot in the fall of 2018, it was completed in late Spring of 2019, and had its premiere at TIFF in September 2019. So about two years and a half from the first research effort to the world premiere. 

Were there any major script changes from conception to end?

In the original script, the refugees were envisioned as coming from Haiti, as at the time of writing, an overwhelming majority of people crossing the border into Quebec came from that country. When we auditioned actors for the role, since there is not a large community of Haitian actors in Montreal, we opened up the call to people from anywhere. We did group auditions and these two Persian actors, Amir Nakhjavani and Baharan Bani Ahmadi, came together for theirs and were absolutely spectacular. So we rewrote the roles to accommodate them. Other than that, the script is pretty close to the final film.

The film explicitly mentions Trump in its opening. What effects has he had in Canada, in your opinion? Did his rise influence the creation of the film?

Definitely. The main inspiration for REBEL is the 2017 migrant surge, which was directly caused by the Trump administration’s decision to suspend the TPS. REBEL wants to challenge the perception that Canada is devoid of racism, but it also aims to depict the very serious international consequences of American policies. The American Alt-Right movement in general also had a very strong influence on the rise of right-wing extremism in Quebec. Ever since the migrant crisis in 2017, we started seeing these very organized right-wing militia groups in Quebec, similar to the Proud Boys and other such groups in the States, getting a lot of mainstream media attention and becoming more and more active: that was a completely new phenomenon to us, the likes of which we had never seen before. Alexandre Bissonnette, the terrorist from the Quebec City Mosque shootings in 2017 was also a very enthusiastic Trump supporter. So yes, of course… “When America sneezes, Canada catches a cold”.

What made you decide to show the events depicted in the film through the eyes of a child? How did you approach these issues with Édouard-B. Larocque?

In the summer of 2017, there was a big right-wing rally in Quebec City organized by right-wing militia group La Meute. The very next day, one of how national newspapers had for its front page the picture of a very young boy who was waving a flag with La Meute’s logo on it. I thought to myself: that kid has no idea what the politics are being the whole movement, he’s obviously just following his parents. And I thought it’d be interesting to tell a story of right-wing extremism through the eyes of a child who doesn’t understand what it’s really about. Who doesn’t see it as “bad” or “evil”, because he is being raised inside the movement and never gets to question it. And have that kid witness something that triggers his understanding of the movement. Then put the audience in the very same headspace as him, and have them experience that “moment of realization” simultaneously. That’s what REBEL is about, which is why at first, the camera movements and framing are somewhat confusing. There’s no establishing shots, you don’t know where you are, the militia groups are hidden in the background, out-of-focus: just like the character, you’re oblivious to what’s really going on. And then, when the boy starts understanding the situation, it becomes much more edited, you get to look all around you and, finally, you also catch on to what’s really going on in those woods.

Édouard was very young when we auditioned it, he was barely six years old. Of course, he didn’t understand what the politics behind the film were either, but he did connect emotionally with the migrant family’s perspective. Deep down, the film is about empathy, and he understood that. He was surprisingly mature for his age and directing him in those scenes was actually quite easy. I also worked with an excellent acting coach, Ariane Castellanos, whose presence was invaluable.

Oftentimes, it’s easy to paint extreme right-wingers like those in the film as evil, but even though these characters do despicable things, they are empathetic in many ways: love for their children, friendship with each other, etc. Was it difficult to humanize them?

To be honest, that was mostly the result of my research. When I started getting interested in Quebec’s right-wing militia groups, I found out that its members weren’t exactly the neo-nazi skinheads I expected: they were actually normal people, with families and decent jobs. They were family guys and soccer moms, they brought their kids along to demonstrations…  And that’s what made it so frightening: there is nothing surprising about seeing skinheads march against immigration, but when everyday normal people start joining such radical movements, that’s a clear signal to me that something is wrong. I wanted REBEL to show that precisely, with seemingly decent parents doing despicable things such as taking their kids along to a migrant hunt like it’s some kind of family-friendly outing. As absurd and disconnected with reality as these characters seemed when I wrote the script as an anticipation piece three years ago, recent events show that we’re unfortunately not that far off…

What takeaways do you want the audience to walk away with after seeing the film?

I, for one, certainly wanted to raise awareness on the rise of right-wing extremism, which people really didn’t take that seriously when I made the film. But I also wanted to show a glimmer of hope. The ending is meant as a way to say that, while we may not be able to fix those issues right now, I have faith in the next generation’s ability to overcome our problems. 

What’s your favorite snack on set?

I’m usually so focused I forget to eat. Coffee!

Rebel Full Short Film

Rebel is currently available for free on Vimeo

You can also read Anna’s capsule review of Rebel or you can follow more of Anna’s work on Letterboxd and her website

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