Down on the farm
Director Philippe Falardeau and writer Florence Longpré discuss their partnership on Quebecois drama Le temps des framboises (Last Summers of the Raspberries), which explores the migrant experience on a family farm.
As editing continues on the final three episodes of Quebecois drama Le temps des framboises (Last Summers of the Raspberries), director Philippe Falardeau and screenwriter Florence Longpré have a problem.
“This morning I learned I lost two songs – we don’t have the rights to them, so I need to find other songs,” Falardeau tells DQ. “It’s chaos, but chaos has been the keyword on this series since the beginning. At the end of every project, I always say, ‘I think it’s my last film.’”
Featuring a wide array of characters and multiple languages in a story about migrant workers on a farm in Quebec, the 10-part series has proven similarly challenging for writer Longpré, who came to the project after Falardeau pitched her his initial idea.
“It was difficult because the subject is very far from me,” she says. “There was a lot of research to do and real migrant workers were difficult to reach. It was hard to get them to talk to us. They were very shy, they were not sure if it was a movie, a series or why they should talk to me about the issues they work with. It was really hard. But when connections were made and they began to express themselves and their issues, that was very interesting. But it took a long time.”
With a unique blend of comedy and drama, Last Summers of the Raspberries centres on Elizabeth (played by Sandrine Bisson), whose life is turned upside down when her husband dies unexpectedly. In addition to her two teenage sons, she now has to take care of the farm she has inherited, complete with seasonal workers from Latin America and her panic-prone in-laws, with whom she has always had a frosty relationship.
Produced and distributed by Montréal-based Trio Orange, the series was commissioned by streamer Club Illico. It has its world premiere today at the Berlin International Film Festival, where it is among the Berlinale Series official selection.
Falardeau, whose film Monsieur Lazhar was nominated for an Oscar in 2012, has previously presented two films at Berlinale – 2009’s C’est pas moi, je le jure! and 2020 festival opener My Salinger Year. Last Summers of the Raspberries marks his first foray into television, but he says the themes at the heart of the story are comparable to those in his feature films.
“I learned to make films while travelling around the world in the 90s, and this idea of talking about ‘the other,’ as in migrants, has been in Monsieur Lazhar and The Good Lie,” he explains. “When I pitched this idea to Florence, there was no story there. But Florence turned it into something with a lot of ambition. I knew it was a series but I didn’t have any experience and I loved what Florence was doing, so that’s why I pitched it to her.”
Longpré is best known as an actor for her performances in Canadian series Like-Moi, Les Pays d’en Haut (True North) and M’entends-tu? (Can You Hear Me?). More recently, she has written for M’entends-tu? and last year’s comedy drama Audrey est Revenue (Audrey’s Back).
“At first, I was so impressed by Philippe’s work. I was a groupie,” she jokes. “He could have said he wanted to make a story about a pile of shit and I would have said yes. I was very impressed by his work, but we didn’t know each other. So I said yes, and afterwards it was so chaotic in my head. The farm world is very chaotic at the moment and there are a lot of issues there – a lot of suicides, a lot of administration problems. It’s all over the place.”
In the series, Elizabeth inherits the family farm after her husband’s death and must handle her difficult relationship with her in-laws while also dealing with the migrants who come to work there, having previously wanted nothing to do with the business.
“To say she was at a point in her life when she wanted to leave all that would be too simplistic,” the director says. “It goes much further than that. She will need to break the barriers that exist not only between her and her in-laws but also her and the migrant workers. For me, it’s an exploration of the collapse of invisible walls between people who have been living together or around each other for many years.”
It all stems back to his original concept of ‘the other’ and how migrants have become “part of the scenery” in many aspects of modern life.
“We see them, we know they’re there. We know why they’re there. We know they go through a hard time but we don’t know them and they don’t know us. There’s no real connection,” Falardeau continues. “In the drama, they will have to start some sort of relationship if it’s going to work out. That’s what fiction can do and that’s what Florence did brilliantly. The irony of the series is there are a lot of characters and these people are close to each other but don’t really see each other. They talk a lot but they don’t listen to each other. There’s a metaphor for that on many levels because there are four languages – English, French, sign language and Spanish – so it’s really the exploration of a Babel tower.”
Longpré and writing partner Suzie Bouchard carried out extensive research for the project and built relationships with real-life migrant workers so they could learn the extent of their experiences in Quebec. What stood out to them was the feeling that these people don’t belong anywhere, not at home owing to the amount of time they are away, nor where they work.
“One worker said to us that he feels like he doesn’t exist anywhere because he’s a stranger in his own family and he’s a stranger here too,” she says. “It’s like he doesn’t exist anywhere. That was so sad to me, and the story explains that. Elizabeth also feels like she doesn’t exist in her own family, and that’s where the connection is.”
“We also felt this sadness with our actors who portray these migrant workers, because these actors don’t work. We don’t have real roles for them here,” Falardeau says. “They want to be actors, they’re good actors, but the offer is simply not there, except to be a background artist or to have one scene where they play someone belonging to a street gang.
“Now, all of a sudden, we offered them real characters and they’re with us for 79 days of shooting, and they feel part of something for the first time in a long time, even though they’ve been here for 25 to 30 years. Some of them were born here. They belong to nowhere because these actors are not Mexican anymore, they’re not from Venezuela, but they don’t belong here either. Their realisation they could be equals was very moving for me.”
Speaking to real migrant workers, the writers were also surprised by the stories of friendship and love they heard about and were keen to ensure those elements of their experience were represented on screen.
“We hear a lot about bad treatment and things like that but there’s a lot of love and connection too,” Longpré says. “I have to say, they find there’s a legacy of slavery. When I heard that, I was like, ‘Oh shit, this is a lot, that they feel like that sometimes.’ But there are some farms where there’s real connection and real friendship and love stories. It’s very weird to describe.”
From the outset, however, the creators were keen to ensure the series didn’t play out like a documentary or news report, so some of those themes and issues are in the background of the main story. A subtle nod to the workers’ subservience is shown when they stay standing on the porch of Elizabeth’s home and don’t go inside.
“We didn’t want to make a horror show. Florence and Suzie were able to portray the big issues but in the background,” Falardeau notes. “This idea of modern slavery is there in the series but never in a dramatic way. It’s just there in small details.”
Despite having largely directed his own scripts when it comes to his feature films, Falardeau was happy to work with Longpré and Bouchard only during the initial brainstorming stage, before leaving them to write the scripts without any further involvement.
“It was just fun to pitch my ideas knowing they could take whatever they wanted,” he says. “Being a writer myself, I knew when to back off. That’s important. I didn’t want to be a consultant. I was a director and they would do whatever they thought was best. Then I was going to take the baton. It’s really a relay race.”
Looking back to the moment he did pick up the baton, Falardeau says it is difficult to remember how he originally envisioned directing the series, as challenges relating to the budget and the schedule soon arose – as did questions about just how he could make a scene featuring 13 people sitting in a room look interesting.
“I don’t think I could have done this 10 years ago,” he says. “I needed all my experience to ask myself, ‘What’s the core of the scene?’ and ‘What’s the point of this here?’ Sometimes I think I misfired, but it produced some interesting results. Sometimes I failed, and I work like that with my own scripts. I try to identify what we want to say with a scene and I stage it accordingly. For sure, I couldn’t have done that 15 years ago with so many characters and small, confined places – and Covid.”
It was only when the writing and directing came together that much of the humour in the series also emerged, particularly as multiple languages feature in the script. Falardeau says that, much of the time, what is happening in the series isn’t funny. Instead, the humour comes from the way it happens.
“Then you are stuck with two conflicting emotions, which makes it very interesting,” he adds. “I’ve directed two other movies that were not my scripts [refugee drama The Good Lie and boxing biopic Chuck] and this is the first time I’ve felt the sum of the parts is greater. It’s become something else, something new. It resembles me but not totally, it resembles Florence but not totally. That is the exciting part. It’s a multi-headed monster that is kind of cute but also scary at the same time.”
It all adds up to a series featuring a unique blend of opposites – from physical comedy to family drama, and between the lives of the central French-Canadian family and the Latin American farm workers.
Yet it’s a show both Falardeau and Longpré believe can resonate with an international audience thanks to the situation facing migrant workers around the world. “The migrant worker phenomenon has been there for 2,000 years,” the filmmaker says. “It’s everywhere. It’s a global phenomenon. Other than that, we all have families and in-laws, so we can relate to that too.”