Director Mario Morin’s Sacred Hair shares the story of a young boy’s innocent curiosity lifting him beyond the insidious confines of prejudice and showing how the essence of two diametrically opposed individuals are the same. This wonderful film took home the Best Live Action Oscar-qualifying award at the Cleveland International Film Festival, as well as many more high profile film awards around the world and has been selected for over twenty film festivals.
We had the wonderful opportunity to have a little chat with the French-Canadian born director Mario Morin about his wonderful film.
Cheveux Sacrés is already starting to win several awards. Are you enjoying the response you are receiving and do you feel that people are connecting with the film?
Mario: The response is way beyond what I ever expected. I am very pleased that the film and its messages are resonating so strongly with such a wide range of diverse audiences. I’m very proud that Sacred Hair was so well received in Canada’s Muslim community, winning Best Film, Best Performance for Matt Hébert, and Audience Choice Award at the Mosquers Film Festival in Edmonton in 2018. For me, that was very special. At first, when I was reworking the lines, I felt I was taking a big chance in talking about a culture I didn’t know very much about. But with the help of Najat El Wafy [who plays the character Mounia] who is herself Muslim, I feel we succeeded in representing a reality some Muslims living outside of Arabic countries experience. The Diversity Award we received at the ShortShorts Film Festival in Asia (Tokyo) is equally meaningful, since in Japan they also struggle with segregation and prejudice across nationalities. It restores my faith to see the world opening up to differences and seeing that there’s a richness to be garnered through being deeply interested in and connected with other people and cultures. I am happy that Sacred Hair can play a role in establishing a bridge through dialogue between cultures and differences in general so that we can all co-create a better world.
This is your directional debut, a film that you also wrote. Tell us about your previous experiences that lead you to directing?
Mario: I’ve been acting since the 90’s. During a period where I wasn’t getting many acting gigs, I started to work on films, TV series and commercials as a production assistant and later as a boom operator. I loved being at the heart of film shoots, being part of the crew, part of telling a story. It’s where I learned how a movie set works and acquired most of my directing skills. Doing sound gives you the chance to hear everything…amplified: Directors talking to actors, actors learning their lines – often worried and inspired, while at the same time, as a boom operator, teaching you the need to understand the camera shots and make sure the mic brushes the frame as close as possible. I knew I wasn’t going to be a boom operator forever, but I also knew it was the best spot to be to learn the craft of filmmaking. After that, I decided to start giving workshops with the goal of becoming an ideal acting coach. I developed and taught using my own personal approach on acting, which is oriented toward the globality of a story and how to better serve the audience’s imagination, amalgamating precise tools based on archetypes, moods and choices, stillness and action. After 8 years of coaching, I was ready to direct. It’s been a long road that I think helped prepare me to honor the process of making a film and I feel blessed to be doing what I love.
You worked with young actor Matt Hébert, which did an outstanding job. What were you looking for in the child when you started casting?
Given the role required the actor to wake up very early to start make-up and wardrobe, patience was a must. I was also looking for a capacity to take direction well, and a good mix of being fun and light, along with the ability to switch back readily to a state of focused concentration when it was time. Clearly an ease in learning a lot of text was helpful and finally a minimal resemblance to Mara Joly in the role of the mother. I was more then delighted with the result. Matt is becoming a star and I predict an amazing acting career ahead for him.
Najat Elwafy had a difficult and concise role to play, how did she respond to her character and the importance of what her role projects?
Mario: There are so few Arabic actresses in Montreal that it was a challenge to find one, especially one that had the particular qualities I was looking for. I was about to search in other cities like Toronto when I bumped into a colleague by chance at the grocery store, who told me that he had the solution for me. Two days later, I was sitting in a café with Najat. I was enchanted by her passion. We spent 3 hours together talking about the script. As the Muslim community is so poorly represented and misunderstood, she appreciated the educational angle I had given it and felt it was an important story to tell. We worked the final draft together prior to the shoot and during rehearsals, to make sure it was organic, and that the Muslim aspects were accessible to a wider audience. I’m a very directive director and even though I was sometimes demanding, Najat always responded with grace. I loved working with her and am very happy with her performance. I was blessed to find her.
How did this story come to you, and what does it mean for you to be able to get it out?
Mario:The first impulse came in 2016 sparked by the big deal we were making of a Muslim woman wearing a hijab and how easily people were ostracizing everything that had to do with the Arabic culture. I wanted to tell a story that contributed, somehow, to healing the dissidences in the world. That was my initial goal. Then I thought, «What if I wrote about the least likely encounter between two characters that are diametrically opposed in age, culture, religion, gender, background, and make them connect so deeply that they become one». For me, all the frictions, the discords, the wars in the world right now will dissipate the day we decide, as individuals, that we are all in it together, when we see that we truly are all intimately connected. We’ll live in a better world when we become interested in each other’s’ «differences» instead of labelling compulsively what we can’t explain. For me separation is a sexy lie that we’re all seduced by. What you do to me, you do to yourself. What I do to you, I do to myself. In a way, with Sacred Hair, my intention was to inspire everyone to love themselves the way they are, so I inspire myself to love myself the way I am.
How important was shooting the film in French to you? With an aim to go international, did you ever feel like the film would have been better received if it were in English?
Mario:Yes, I think it would likely have been more easily received in English. But I think the choice of telling it in French also adds a very subtle dimension of historical prejudices stemming from the fact that, here in Quebec, we’re a Francophone minority living within an Anglophone majority country. I also wanted to stay close to my roots. But I believe there is a universal language that transcends all spoken languages: The one from the heart. And all the choices we make in life, no matter the culture, come from either fear or love. Language becomes utilitarian in a story about creating human connection. I also picked French because I could be more nuanced with words and images, it being my native language. I’m happy to see that the film’s themes seem to reach all nationalities and cultures well.
Being from Montreal, was this film based on personal experiences of how you feel that people around you deal with foreigners of different cultures?
Mario:I love my city very much. When I come back to Montreal from travelling I’m always reminded what a great city it is…very open minded and warm. Montreal is more multicultural than ever, with the influx of migrants in the last decades. But rarely, in the area where I live, the Mile End, do I see dissidence towards other cultures. The one exception is perhaps towards the Hassidic Jewish community. I do occasionally hear some judgments towards them, which is why I wanted to bring it up in the film. Even if we don’t know or understand them well, they are part of us. Ostracizing them means that we don’t want to see a part of ourselves. We don’t live in the world, the world lives in us.
Let’s switch to French. Montréal est très bien représenté dans ce film, par le Mont-Royal jusqu’au Canadiens. C’es-tu une question de fierté, ou voulais-tu que la culture Montréalaise sois vraiment partie de l’histoire ?
Mario:Les deux. Je tenais à représenter distinctement Montréal. Le sentiments d’appartenance à un territoire, à un pays, à une ville est souvent pourquoi nous aimons nous différencier. J’aime ma ville et, malgré les faussés qui se créent entre les gens de grand centre urbain, l’ouverture à l’autre y est très présente. On le sent. Je trouve ma ville très accueillante pour les autres cultures. De parler des Canadiens de Montréal en parallèle à l’allégeance à une religion et valeurs culturelles me semblait à propos. Pour certains fanatiques sportifs, leurs religions c’est le hockey. Le hockey est notre sport national et cela allait de soi de l’utiliser pour parler d’identité.
Peux-tu nous dire c’est quoi la prochaine étape pour toi ?
Mario:Plusieurs projets. Je fais un retour en tant qu’acteur et donc, envisage décrocher des rôles intéressants d’ici l’été 2019. Je vise tourner un autre court-métrage en juillet prochain. Un style et une facture diamétralement opposés à ceux de Cheveux Sacrés. Le scénario sera tiré de l’adaptation d’une nouvelle dont je dois taire la nature et la provenance pour l’instant. En parallèle, je suis en écriture pour un long-métrage et mijote plusieurs autres projets. Je rencontre des producteurs et place mes pions pour la suite. Ça s’annonce effervescent. Je me trouve privilégié du succès retentissant de Cheveux Sacrés et, bien évidemment, j’envisage profiter des portes que ce premier film m’ouvre. Merci bien pour cette entrevue.
Thank you so much Mario, we know you must have an extremely busy schedule right now. We are honoured and proud to have such a great film from Montréal with Cheveux Sacrés, we really wish you the best of success with the film, and hope to see it featured on Film Shortage one day!