Meticulously crafted “Richelieu” unearths iniquities rooted in Canada’s Temporary Foreign Workers program

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      By Maggie McPhee

      Pier-Phillipe Chevigny initially conceived his first feature film, Richelieu, as a documentary.

      Sixty thousand foreign workers cycle through his home province of Quebec every year, yet their stories remain underreported. Precarity defines their experience—repressed wages, weeks without a break, untreated injuries, around the clock surveillance, and visas tied to employment. No one has come forward due to the risks involved.

      “Even though they’ve been exploited and abused, most of them are still working,” Chevigny explains. “They don’t want to be identified.”  

      So, he turned research into fiction to protect that anonymity. He travelled to Guatemala and couch surfed at a dozen workers’ homes.

      “It was a safe space for them so they could tell the story they wanted to tell,” he says. “The script became a collage of everything.” His leading actress Ariane Castellano facilitated translation. She shares many traits with her character, including her name, her job, and her half-Guatemalan heritage.

      From those testimonies, Chevigny crafted a narrative based at a corn processing plant in the Richelieu Valley. Ariane, mired in debt, takes on a job as an interpreter between the Guatemalan labourers and Quebecois personnel. She discovers she’s not merely a translator, but the mouthpiece for a system designed to dehumanize. She must contend with her indignation and her desperate financial situation.

      Ariane straddles the divide between language and experience, between exploiter and exploited.

      “I think a lot about narrative sovereignty,” says Chevigny. “I can’t just take whatever story and tell it.”

      Ariane also acts as an intermediary for a Canadian audience. We relate to her ignorance and learn alongside her, sharing in her astonishment and anguish. 

      “My filmmaking is based around social issues,” says Chevigny, “but at the same time, I’m really interested in emotion and making you have a visceral experience.”

      His intellectual side shares a genealogy with the Dardenne brothers’ social-realist work, and his gut instincts originate straight from the bowels of horror. Chevigny constructs a climate of agony using a visual style he’s perfected over 12 short films. Cinematographer Gabriel Brault Tardiff’s handheld, over-the-shoulder camera stalks Ariane. A 2:3 aspect ratio contains her in claustrophobia. Most scenes consist of one long take, locking viewers into the action in real time.

      “I like the immersive aspect of that language because you feel like you’re actually living the events in synchronicity with the characters,” Chevigny says. “You feel involved in what happens.”

      Working with limited days on set and a series of complex single takes, Chevigny poured himself into preparation. He measured every location and built the set using previsualization software: a method for animating each scene before shooting.

      “It looks like the Sims video game, but I’ve got the whole film like that,” he says with a laugh. “I rewatched it recently, and we did exactly what I’d done, shot by shot.”

      It’s a level of care Chevigny instills as much in his craft as in his storytelling. Instead of demonizing his worst characters, the young director shows how capitalism bears on individuals, fixing them into positions where they have no choice but to exploit one another—eroding the possibility for solidarity to occur.

      “In real life, nobody’s ever just a villain; there are layers and shades of grey,” he says. But still, “there needed to be someone who’s guilty in this story, because in reality people are fucking guilty.” 

      Chevigny nevertheless carves out space for meaningful connections to flourish. Ariane befriends a number of the men from Guatemala and forms a particular bond with Manuel, played by Nelson Coronado in a breakthrough performance. The labyrinthine brutalities of our globalized food system play out in the balance of their relationship.

      “If there’s at least a glimmer of hope,” muses Chevigny, “then maybe there’s a solution.”

      Richelieu screens at the Vancouver International Film Festival September 29 and 30.