Canada's Oscar Contender 'Antigone' Offers Modern Take on Classic Greek Tragedy

Antigone - TIFF - Publicity - H 2019
Courtesy of TIFF

Sophie Deraspe's coming-of-age drama indicts North America's current refugee and immigrant experience.

Canada's everyone-is-welcome immigration policy got worldwide attention in 2015 when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau personally greeted Syrian refugees at a Toronto airport.

But Antigone, Canadian director Sophie Deraspe's modern take on Sophocles' classic Greek tragedy, effectively indicts Quebec's refugee policies as unjust and heartless. "My Antigone is for our times and the problems we have and a young woman who feels her family bonds are stronger than laws written by men, and so she follows her heart and her own values," Deraspe tells THR.

Her refugee family drama has been tapped as Canada's official submission for the best international feature category to the 92nd Academy Awards.

In the French-language pic, Antigone — a 16 year-old Algerian Canadian girl played by Nahema Ricci — defies Canada's judicial and penal systems when one of her brothers is wrongfully gunned down during a drug arrest and another is put behind bars.

Motivated by family duty (her parents had been murdered in Algeria), Antigone sees a legal vice tighten around her as she becomes a folk hero to local youth protesters for her brash disobedience and incorruptibility.

"The fact that this film happens in Montreal and that this family is from Algeria is not that important, as this story could just as easily happen in Atlanta or Nigeria," Deraspe says. She hopes her film's universal theme of compassion and empathy for refugee newcomers heralds wide global distribution.

Antigone has earned the best Canadian feature prize at the Toronto Film Festival, where it had a world premiere, and a recent standing ovation at the Rome Film Festival. "The film's lead and I were sitting in the middle of the [Rome] theater and were so close to the people and their emotional reaction and how we need heroes, even if we all can't be Antigone," Deraspe says.

Finding Ricci to play the mythical Antigone and fellow actors to become her Algerian Canadian family required the director to sort through 850 applications. She auditioned around 150 actresses for the titular role. Eventually Ricci stood out in the camera's eye as Deraspe did her own cinematography.

"After seeing her a couple times, I just felt the camera loves her, and there was something sacred coming out of her onscreen and I would take the risk because she has something unique," the director explains.

Deraspe's best Canadian feature win at the Toronto Film Festival was followed by interest from Los Angeles producers to direct their scripts. And the Antigone director could yet get to Los Angeles soon enough should her film receive a coveted best international film nomination for the Academy Awards on Feb. 9, 2020.

"The values in my film, I'm ready to support them. So if I can be the one that brings the [Canadian] flag to the Oscars, I'll do it. I'm ready to do it," Deraspe tells THR.

Antigone will be released in Quebec on Nov. 6. WaZabi Films is handling international sales.