Benoit Desjardins: “This film is a hymn of freedom!..”
“Welcome Yankee“, a short movie about the story of a Chechen family, was released in Quebec, Canada in November 2012, by the young and inspiring filmmaker Benoit Desjardins. So far, the film has already won three awards in Greece, Turkey, and United States. Our team conducted a special interview with Mr. Desjardins.
Who is Benoit Desjardins?
Benoit Desjardins is an anthropologist and filmmaker. He lives and works in his hometown of Montreal. He graduated from the Cinematography Program at the University of Montreal, and founded “The Perceptions Productions” in 2006. Since then, he has produced and directed several short films, including the History of Fishing (2008) and Chewing Gum (2010). He has participated in various international film festivals with those movies and he has won several awards. Benoit Desjardins is currently working on the production of a trilogy on the theme of emigration; the first one is called “Welcome Yankee” and it tells the story of a Chechen couple fleeing the war and seeking asylum.
Marsho: How do you describe your movie “Welcome Yankee”?
Benoit Desjardins: My film is a hymn of freedom and equality of people. Every person on earth should have the right to define themselves through democratic routes. Still, too many minorities are subject to the power of a majority, the control often comes as the result of recent or distant war which was brought by the human animal. It is inconceivable that in the 21st century, man can still get what he wants by force. On behalf of whom and what? We all come into the world on equal ground, at least we should, because nobody chooses the time nor the place of his arrival. Welcome Yankee is also a film about freedom when sharing a wealth of being a citizen of a homeland.
Marsho: Did you know Chechens before your project?
Benoit Desjardins: Before initiating this project, I knew very little about the Chechens and their history. I had heard of the recent wars, but I had never met with any Chechens. From a cinematic point of view, I found it striking to stage refugees who physically resemble North Americans in order to strengthen identification with the character and bring reflection on our responsibility as citizens of a host land. Beyond the physical resemblance (Caucasian), there was also a geographical (Northern territory), geopolitics (changing minority within a majority in a country influence) and historical (with the quest for independence of Quebec) similarity. Indeed, the history of Quebec to the British conquest of New France in 1759, reminded me of the Chechen conflict in the last decade. 250 years later, Quebec is still not independent, but the wealth of work in a democratic state allows freedom to aspire and grow nonetheless peacefully in our language and culture while having political participation active nationally.
Marsho: How did you decide to make a film about Chechens?
Benoit Desjardins: Throughout meetings and the information gathered, I was touched by the Chechen cause and I decided to anchor the story in a real conflict. However, I do not want this element of the film stressed in a thick line. I wanted the film to be a hymn of freedom, as the message has universal significance for all refugees around the world and not only for the Chechens.
Marsho: Did you consult with any Chechens before the project or were there any Chechens on your team?
Benoit Desjardins: I started my research in France and conducted several interviews with Chechen refugees who agreed to tell me their story. I gathered enough information to write a feature film. However, as a young filmmaker I could not realize such a project. In addition, funding for the production of short films had already begun.
Once in Montreal, I meet Birlyant Ramzaeva and her two daughters in exile. This meeting was crucial in many ways. Birlyant and her daughter Aset very involved in the different stages of production, even in the smallest details. We reworked the scenario once again. They proceeded to the translation of the dialogues from French into Chechen language. They subsequently worked closely with actors Noémie Godin-Vigneau and Danny Gilmore on the learning of Chechen language, as a result their proficiency on dialogues are impeccable. A month before filming, we started to the training sessions. Several sounds and tones of the Chechen language being completely absent from the French language, language learning has presented a challenge for the actors. Thus, for the sake of authenticity, Aset and Birlyant accompanied us throughout the filming and postproduction until we have made the final corrections of language. It was essential that the pronunciation of the Chechen must be perfect and the actors were a total commitment to achieving this goal. Aset and Birlyant also worked closely with the art direction and costumes. They allowed us to transform an apartment in downtown Montreal to a Chechen house in campaign, providing us with carpets and other decorative elements required. In attention to detail, the earrings worn by Noémie Godin-Vigneau in the film, are belong to “Amant”, grandmother of Birlyant, which also inspired the name of the character of Naomi. And the music of Birlyant accompanied me throughout the directing and editing of the film, by the depth of and accuracy of her emotion. Without the music and without their guidance and support, the film would not be what it is today.
Marsho: We know that “Yankee” is a term which defines Americans, but your film is about a Chechen couple, so why did you choose to use the “Welcome Yankee” name?
Benoit Desjardins: First, there is a direct link to the cap worn by Aslan, a main character in the film. Upon arrival at the port, Canadian authorities speak about him as the Yankee. However, Aslan lives in light years of baseball and the New York Yankees. The meaning behind this is that we often very quickly affix a label to those we do not know, we keep prejudices without figuring it out, without knowing, especially when it comes to describing immigrants that we see too often as invaders. The definition of the word in the song of Richard Desjardins “Yankee” that accompanies the end credits of the film is also in this direction. According to him, the word’s origin come from the Native Americans and Yankee means “invader”. Native Americans of the American East Coast used it to designate English colonists who landed in America. Finally, there is a nod to the fact that the logos and consumer products easily travel across the world, regardless of borders, while for individuals it is quite something else.
Marsho: Do you have any messages for our readers?
Benoit Desjardins: I would like you invite to subscribe to our Facebook page and to visit our website http://www.welcomeyankee.com to follow its world tour. On the other hand, a webcasting of the film with Chechen subtitles is scheduled for 2014.
*Interview was first published by the monthly Chechen magazine “Marsho“, translated by Waynakh Online and edited by Michael Capobianco.