Canadian filmmaker Clement Virgo has never strayed from his favorite themes: immigration, black history, family. With Brother, his first feature film in 15 years, adapted from the eponymous book, Virgo brings all these subjects to the heart of a modern, poetic and poignant plot.
“I think a dozen different films could have been made with this book. But I chose a very specific route. This route taken by director Clement Virgo has allowed Brother (LP, in French version) to be cited 14 times at the Canadian Screen Awards and to obtain a selection in the annual top 10 of the International Film Festival of Toronto in 2022.
What is the movie about? The story is based on Canadian author David Chariandy’s 2017 novel, and depicts the journey of two brothers of Jamaican descent, Francis and Michael, who grow up in a tough Toronto neighborhood in the 1990s. , the eldest, wants to free himself from a life he did not choose. The other, the more sensitive and vulnerable little brother, walks in his shadow and sees him as his model, while trying to become himself. A tragedy occurs. Their world is falling apart.
“I wanted to make a film about memory,” says Clement Virgo. Installed in front of a wall decorated with film posters, including that of Moonlight, the filmmaker has an imposing presence. Even through our computer screen, while we interview him by videoconference. “We find this idea in the book and I was interested in making a film that would approach grief, as I felt while reading it”, he continues, explaining that he was attracted by reading Chariandy’s book by the connections what he was able to do with his own family and through the exploration of working class life.
So much for the storyline. But the way in which the story of the two brothers is told, by very precise cinematographic processes, is as important as the story itself. The director tried to create a tension, the feeling of a threat which hovers. “I used the lessons of the greatest, like Hitchcock or even Roman Polanski, explains Clement Virgo. With the way the camera moves, with the silences, the sounds. I wanted you to feel that sense of danger. And through it all, the story develops and you realize that not everything is what you imagine. »
While this description might give the impression that Brother is a cold film, with heavy images, a dull atmosphere, it is not.
Without Michael, who we see most often on screen, saying many words, we are close to his psyche from start to finish.
“Often, with stories that involve young black people, you have the impression that it has to be realistic, in the genre of cinema-vérité, almost filmed in the style of a documentary, observes the filmmaker. But I wanted to create a beautiful and elegant world, a contemplative world. I wasn’t interested in doing something raw and visceral, but rather in illustrating the tension behind all this beauty. »
The brothers Francis and Michael are interpreted by the British Aaron Pierre and the Canadian Lamar Johnson, who we saw in particular in The Hate U Give and The Last of Us. Their mother, who plays a major role in the development of the story, is played by Marsha Stephanie Blake (When They See Us). The two main actors carry on their shoulders roles that Clement Virgo wanted to move away from clichés. It is about police violence, systemic racism. But that’s not what Brother says.
“I’m interested in talking about black people’s lives, about black people’s humanity,” he said. But I don’t want to give a sermon, preach to people to teach them a lesson. Rather, I want people who see the film, if they are not black, to experience what it is. About what it’s like when someone like Francis has to move around the world, dealing with how people see him, how he sees himself. »
Clement Virgo’s approach is clear. She has been since her very beginnings, notably with the film Rude, in 1995, presented in the Un certain regard section of the Cannes Film Festival. Already there, he was dealing with the neighborhood life of children of black immigrants in Canada. The themes overlap, from the relationship between two brothers to the importance of music and violence, always latent in Virgo’s cinema, but very real.
His latest film, Poor Boy’s Game, addressed racial tensions, class struggle. Released in 2007, it preceded a long hiatus, during which Clement Virgo devoted himself to television, collaborating on series such as The Get Down, by Baz Lurhman, Empire or Dahmer, and also carrying out projects such as The Book of Negroes , an acclaimed series released in 2015.
Brother is a return to cinema for the director. “Like many people, I wondered during the pandemic what I wanted to do with my time,” he explains. I wanted something extremely personal, that would reflect my values, that would reflect how I try to understand myself and where I come from. I wanted to honor the people who got me where I am. And, above all, to make a film that would celebrate the lives of black people. »