Director Mario Morin’s debut short film, Sacred Hair, shares the story of a fortuitous life-changing encounter between a young sick boy and a Muslim woman in a Montreal park.
Close-up Culture’s James Prestridge spoke to Mario about the film following its Best Live Action Oscar-qualifying award win at the Cleveland International Film Festival.
Q: I was just reading an article in The Guardian about the incoming provincial government in Québec potentially outlawing religious symbols – including the hijab – by any public employees. Is news like this the reason you wanted to make ‘Sacred Hair’?
A: Actually, there was a lot of talk in the media about reasonable accommodation of other religions and secularism in Canada prior to the discussion on the prohibition of religious symbols. Talk mostly surrounded the hijab and niqab, and I felt the media were making a major case about it.
I decided to use that symbol to talk about difference. I wanted to give some perspective and context to the expression of different cultures in our societies by using a religion that the majority seem currently inclined to ostracise. The hijab was an excuse to tell a story about how we judge others without really knowing them and how we make assumptions so easily.
Q: Why did you want to address this story largely through the eyes of a curious young child?
A: I wanted to inspire people to get back to a state of pure innocence, so they can get back to being interested in others that seem “different”. For me, the pure curiosity of a child is itself a lesson for “grown-ups”. Children see similarities not differences. When kids don’t understand, they question. A child hasn’t yet learned to categorise and apply labels.
I hope people who watch Sacred Hair recognise their own tendency to quickly judge what they don’t know and see that they gain by overcoming their prejudices and biases. By letting the child that we were and will always be lead, I believe we can succeed in recreating the communion that we all desire.
Q: I was particularly interested in the mother character (played by Mara Joly). Was she reflective of a certain kind of attitude or behaviour you have observed?
A: Yes. Though my neighbourhood is largely multicultural, where it’s common to see various ethnicities and hear many languages, where LGBTs display their colours without much discriminatory regard, there is a high concentration of Hassidic Jews, and they can evoke a certain ambivalence.
I’ve observed how they were judged by neighbours, and sometimes by myself because I simply didn’t understand on what their customs were based or the foundation of their belief system. My openness has changed since then and I interact more naturally with them. I now consider their religious allegiance legitimate. Like most of us, they have chosen what they know best to give meaning to their lives.
Q: Young Matt Hébert is a joy to watch in this film. Can you talk about casting him and getting him ready for the role?
A: Casting was a challenging process. Out of the 10 young actors I chose for the audition, only 8 showed up and none of them were open to shaving their head for the role. It was funny to see just how sacred their hair was. They all instantly answered “no way!” to the first audition question: “So you’re ok with shaving your whole head for the role?”
I had to do a second audition where I kept only 3 actors. After witnessing such complicity between Matt and Adam, I decided to add a scene – the one behind the tree. It was a joy to work with Matt. From the very beginning, his intelligence, sensitivity and curiosity about the context of the story seduced me. Enthusiastic and well prepared, he took direction easily, and even though the conditions on set were not ideal (early start – before dawn, windy, cold), he never complained and gave his all.
Q: How did Matt and Najat El Wafy get along during the filming?
A: Amazingly! Najat is an experienced actress and loves kids, so that helped a lot. Given the shoot days were very cold, our crew, especially Anne-Rose Sylvestre, the costume designer, made sure they were both covered between takes and that made a big difference in helping retain the energy and mood of the set.
Matt was so happy to be participating in the telling of this story that he was effortlessly connected to all members of the crew. It was only 7 °C but the warmth came from within, from the privilege we felt at telling such a meaningful story.
Q: What response have you received to the film so far?
It’s been absolutely amazing! Sacred Hair has won over 10 Awards and been selected in more than 24 festivals worldwide. For instance, I was invited to receive a special Diversity Award in Japan – a prize for which I was very moved.
So far the success of Sacred Hair, my first film, is way beyond what we expected. We won best short film in both the Cleveland and Edmonton film festivals, which are both Academy Award pre-selected. So now, we can’t wait to find out if we make the shortlist.
Q: As you mentioned, this is your first film. How have you found the transition from acting into directing? Do you plan on doing more work behind the camera?
A: The transition was made seamlessly because of my career path in the industry. I was an actor since ’97, then in parallel became a film technician and an acting coach. All that time spent on film, TV, and commercial sets, listening and watching directors work, gave me the opportunity to develop my own creative and directing vision.
Q: Lastly, do you have any upcoming projects you can tell us about?
A: Several projects are in progress right now including another short film. But given the unpredictable nature of film financing in Canada making nothing a sure bet. It’s a little bit early to share details of these projects that are still in initial developmental stages.