Foreign Oscars: 'Felix & Meira' Director on Courting Controversy With Hasidic Jew Romancer

Courtesy of San Sebastian Film Festival
'Felix and Meira'

"The more we were doing the movie, the more I was really scared. I'm not a Jew. I'm a goy," says Canadian director Maxime Giroux.

French Canadian director Maxime Giroux's romancer about a Hasidic Jewish wife and mother leaving Montreal's Orthodox community to be with an atheist loner became Canadian films' breakout hit in 2015.

Felix & Meira portrays Meira (Hadas Yaron), who’s married to the very religious Shulem (Luzer Twersky), falling in love with a French-speaking young man (Martin Dubreuil).

Giroux's third feature set against the backdrops of Montreal, Brooklyn and Venice, Italy, won the best Canadian feature film prize at the Toronto Film Festival.

The Hollywood Reporter talked to Giroux about the unlikely relationship at the heart of his film, which Oscilloscope Laboratories earlier released stateside, and whether he's feeling the pressure after Felix & Meira became Canada's submission for the Oscar for best foreign-language film.  

Where did the idea to make a tender romance story between a young Hasidic Jewish woman and an atheist loner come from?

I and my writing partner, Alexandre Laferriere, were living for years in a Montreal neighborhood with a big Hasidic community and we didn't talk to them, know them, and they were our neighbors. We thought, why not do a movie about this community? Then we thought, it will be weird if we do a movie in a community that we're not part of. So we needed a character from our community, a French Quebecois, and we arrived at this guy falling in love with a woman in the (Hasidic) community."
Felix and Meira find themselves in a seemingly impossible affair. Did stirring controversy concern you while making the movie?
The more we were doing the movie, the more I was really scared. I'm not a Jew. I'm a goy. And Judaism is really, really deep and very complex, and I didn't know anything about it. So who was I to do this film? And as I did my research, I realized there's something beautiful about the Hasidic community, and something that doesn't work for me. I had to show that in the movie. At the end, she (Meira) leaves the community. I wanted that because, she felt her religion is too limiting. I had to be careful, as I have the point of view of a goy who doesn't know anything — and is just judging these people.

Casting must have been a challenge, as you needed actors that speak English, French and Yiddish.

I really wanted the Hasidic people in my film to speak the Yiddish they speak in Montreal. But finding good actors who speak Yiddish, especially in Quebec, isn't easy. So we found people who were in the Hasidic community in a past life, and asked them if they wanted to be actors. That's how we met Luzer Twersky. I went to New York a few times and many people said there's this guy who no doubt would like to be in your movie. And I saw him on the web, he had the look and he wanted to do the film when I contacted him.
How did you find Hadas Yaron, who played a young Hasidic Jewish woman in Rama Burshtein's Fill the Void and then in your film?
First I found Melissa Weiss, who plays a friend to Meira and she is from the Hasidic community. Then my producers told me about Hadas Yaron. I said at first, she doesn't speak French or Yiddish. But they asked her to audition via the Internet. And as soon I saw it, I thought she was perfect. I wanted her in the movie. She was the character. She had this child inside of her. I wanted that. But first she had to learn Yiddish with Luzer Twersky. And she learned French in Israel.

What would it mean to you, and to Canada, if Felix & Meira was nominated for an Oscar and even won one?
For me, and for everyone in the world, when people hear the word Oscars, they think of going to the Olympics. You represent your country in the movie Olympics. And for actors like Luzer Twersky and Melissa Weiss, who had the courage to leave their community to be actors, to possibly be at the Oscars will signal it was right to take their liberty and choose another life and be actors.