Matters of Fact: Antoine Bourges on “Concrete Valley”

By Lawrence Garcia

For its casting of non-professional actors within a mostly scripted narrative, Antoine Bourges’ latest feature, Concrete Valley, has already been called a docu-fiction “hybrid.” Set in the East Toronto neighbourhood of Thorncliffe Park, an initial landing spot for new Canadian immigrants, the film centres on Rashid (Hussam Douhna), a former physician from Syria, who settles there with his wife, Farah (Amani Ibrahim), and their young son Ammar (Abdullah Nadaf). Apart from Ibrahim, who in the film plays a former actor, everyone who appears in Concrete Valley is an amateur performer. If it’s often difficult to tell this, though, it’s largely because of the film’s distinct conversational rhythms, which are driven by the simple fact of its characters having to speak an unfamiliar language: English. (For its regulation of tone and its willingness to linger in the stilted, awkward silences of conversation, the closest point of comparison I could think of—and it’s not terribly close—was Hal Ashby’s 1979 Being There.) Indeed, if the integration of non-professionals comes off so seamlessly in Concrete Valley, it may be because the presence of language barriers permits Bourges and co-writer Teyama Alkamli to “naturalize” scripted dialogue, so to speak. In the context of the film, the technical imperfections of an amateur’s line readings become indistinguishable from a natural portrayal of mental translation.

The term “hybrid,” in any case, simply repackages what André Bazin in 1948 called the “law of the amalgam,” which designated how a mix of actors and non-professionals could create on set a general atmosphere of authenticity and a minimum of theatrical pretense. This is, in some sense, just filmmaking advice, but its deeper implications fit into the much richer thesis Bazin forwarded in his writings on Italian neorealism. Of Rossellini’s Paisanà (1946), he claimed that the unit of cinematic narrative was not the “shot” but the “fact”: “a fragment of concrete reality in itself multiple and full of ambiguity, whose meaning emerges only after the fact, thanks to other imposed facts between which the mind establishes certain relationships.” The developments of the classical Hollywood film had led viewers at the time to take cinematic narrative and character psychology for granted. The claim, then, was that with the neorealists, one could no longer assume the existence of narrative: one had also to account for its emergence from the “centrifugal properties of images…which make the narrative possible” to begin with. Bazin’s animating conviction is that if we are to speak of cinematic narrative and psychology at all, we can do so only after contending with the image.

I take the time to restate Bazin’s thesis because I believe Bourges’ Concrete Valley has found a novel angle on it. By emphasizing the primacy of the “image fact,” Bazin attacked not just the pervasive notion that narrative could be taken for granted, but also the assumption that its articulation in words was not a problem, that it did not have to answer to ambiguous fragments of reality. By virtue of its setting and subject, Concrete Valley redoubles this issue of articulation. As new immigrants, Rashid and Farah are faced with the arduous task of learning a new language, and, to that end, we see the former attending English classes in Thorncliffe Park. Arguably more difficult, though, is their having to contend with non-verbal cultural barriers, a foreign world of images and unspoken rules which they must likewise learn to navigate. Continually, the characters find themselves in situations whose full import they are unable to read. Confronted with invisible barriers of communication, with strangers whose motivations they cannot quite place, the characters are faced with two options: they can choose to either fall back onto judgment and prejudice, or risk something of themselves and engage with others in a spirit of trust.

Throughout Concrete Valley, Rashid’s attempts to address the lack of hot water in their apartment clearly illustrate this choice. Introduced at the very start of the film and only resolved near the very end, this episodic subplot marks several points where things could go wrong—situations where Rashid, who is forced to engage the help of multiple strangers, can either retreat into prejudice or risk having his trust betrayed. The generous spirit of Concrete Valley is that all these potential failures resolve well, as if rewarding Rashid’s sundry leaps of faith. Crucially, though, these resolutions are always delayed. Only later—sometimes much later—are we (and Rashid) able to make judgments of character or psychology; only later are we able to assemble what we’ve seen into something resembling narrative.

This dynamic, which gives priority to fact over story, extends to the whole of Concrete Valley, which at times gives the uncanny impression of having no narrative at all. For instance, while it may be possible to see the film as presenting a marital drama between Rashid and Farah, this ignores the extent to which their scenes together are broken up by a range of tangential, even perpendicular material. Even this account, which already sees the film’s flow of everyday occurrences in relation to the couple’s marriage, is highly partial. Although Bourges presents most every scene with the emphasis usually granted to plot points, it remains an open question, even at the end, whether any given one can be considered a narrative development. 

For this reason, Concrete Valley moves forward almost by sleight of hand, and it is often difficult to pinpoint precisely where Bourges’ authorial interventions lie. The notable exception comes at the very end, when we see Rashid back in his English class reading out a writing assignment—a story that condenses his entire experience over the past few days, one that pulls from, but is not beholden to, actual events we’ve seen across the film. In this moment, his authorial voice is completely identified with Bourges’, and we experience the story as a closing gesture from both equally. The scene expresses a conviction that runs throughout Bourges’ work—a belief that, insofar as story exists in the cinema, it can only ever come after the fact. 

Cinema Scope: How did you become interested in the Thorncliffe Park neighbourhood?

Antoine Bourges: It started when I was finishing my previous film [Fail to Appear (2017)]. We were shooting at a location where I had to drive past the Don Valley Parkway and Thorncliffe Park. From my car window, I would see these clusters of 15 or 16 high-rise buildings towering over a luscious green forest. I started visiting the neighbourhood and found out that it used to be a racetrack before the 1950s, at which point it was turned into a sort of utopian, modernist experiment, with high-rises built to house big families. The idea was to have workers live far away from the factories, but it ended up creating places that are more isolated and often not well maintained. There’s something interesting about the layout of the neighbourhood, where the high-rises surround this area where children play, with a very large school and a kind of settlement centre which is mainly a place for people to learn English. And because it’s “Arrival City,” a first landing spot, almost everyone is a new immigrant. Language is the centre of the neighbourhood. The idea of learning a new language became one of the starting points for the film.

Scope: This was your first time working with a co-writer, Teyama Alkamli. How did that change how you shaped the film? 

Bourges: Teyama, who’s a Syrian filmmaker, first offered to work with me as someone who could impart some of her cultural background. Once we decided that there would be Syrian performers, it was important to have someone from that community. She would come and help decide how plausible or realistic a given scene or interaction was. Eventually she became a real co-writer, and we’d throw around ideas about a scene, or why someone would behave in a certain way, or how we could enrich a certain character. It became a real exchange of ideas.

Scope: Your previous films involved a lot of improvisation. How much of this film was scripted? 

Bourges: It’s way more scripted than my previous work, even though it had the same sort of proportion of non-professional actors. It was a bit of a gamble to have something more scripted, but one of the exciting things about the film was the decision to mix as many kinds of accents and types of performances as we could, because that’s what the neighbourhood felt like to me when I would spend time there. I wasn’t too sure how it would come together and whether it would be homogeneous, or just eclectic and strange. But it was important to have a range of different approaches to performance.

Scope: The film has very singular conversational rhythms, especially the way that the pauses between lines play out. Where did those come into the process? Did you have those rhythms worked out on the page, or did they mainly come during workshopping and on-set rehearsals?

Bourges: Since the film is about people who have had experiences quite different from mine, it wasn’t possible to imagine things for myself. Having Teyama with me during casting and rehearsal was very useful. Since we were doing this during COVID, we would rehearse in the park and the cast would improvise around a few lines we’d give them. Later we would write down lines and they would have to perform them on set. But improvising is one thing, and getting lines right is another, especially if you’re not an actor. There was a fair amount of time spent on set crafting the whole rhythm of the scene.

Many of the interactions have this beautiful, interesting awkwardness of people who aren’t speaking their own language. They’re using this proxy language to talk about things that are quite matter of fact. It’s always interesting to see how when Farah is back home, speaking in her own language, there’s an entirely different quality to her. There’s a kind of comfort and vulnerability which you can’t sense otherwise; it feels like someone is speaking more from their soul. Something is revealed, and you can see that when it’s placed in contrast with the characters having to use this other language outside of their homes.

Scope: There’s the great scene when Rashid walks out of his English class and is almost shocked to see Farah talking with someone else. As he later says, it’s like seeing an entirely different person.

Bourges: When you spend a lot of time with someone, you feel like you possess this idea of who they are. It’s almost a proprietary thing. And at least for Rashid, it feels like a betrayal when his wife becomes someone else, even though it has nothing to do with him. When she’s a certain way when she talks to that woman, and a completely different way when she talks to him or other Arabic people, it doesn’t mean that she’s being inauthentic. She’s just being herself in a different variation. But to him it’s a bit of an affront.

Scope: Could you talk about the intimate scene of the couple in bed near the end of the film? It’s the one scene where I thought that maybe both husband and wife were professional actors, because it plays out for much longer than I would’ve expected. How did you go about choreographing or planning that scene?

Bourges: Without getting into the behind-the-scenes details too much, it ended up being like the way we would help a non-professional hit their lines. We set up four or five objectives, one after the other, so we could go from the very beginning to the end of the scene by just switching between specific moments. It took a while to have the performers remember the order of these things, and then to achieve them in a way that was seamless. But we didn’t necessarily know that the scene would run for as long as it did.

Scope: It’s particularly impressive on the actor’s [Hussam Douhna’ss] part. I don’t imagine that most non-professionals would be able to pull off a scene like that. 

Bourges: He’ is a non-actor, and not a performative person at all. But he’s also someone who’s a bit radical and quite daring. I think that scene was exciting for him to just try. But it’s true that most non-professional actors could not pull that off.

Scope: Fail to Appear has a pretty assertive structure, with the hand-off from the Deragh Campbell’s character to the Nathan Roder’s character. Here, there are some clear through-lines with the water-heater subplot and the relationship between the husband and wife, but the structure isn’t quite as up-front. Could you talk about how you organized the film?

Bourges: I started with the idea of making a film about the beginning of the end of a relationship. I knew that I wanted to explore this neighbourhood and the experience of being a new immigrant. I was also interested in language and communication—or rather the difference between language and communication—and someone struggling with one or both. The writing was just about maintaining these three through–lines in the back of my mind, seeing how I could hit each of them, or even hit all three at the same time. The challenge, but also the excitement of writing, was keeping things simple while still playing with the possible combinations.

Scope: Could you talk about the bookends of the film? It begins with Rashid wandering through the woods, and ends with the story he tells in his English class. Those felt like clear authorial gestures.

Bourges: The end was something that came through filming. I don’t often don’t know how I’m going to end a film before I shoot. Here I had some vague ideas, but after we started shooting, it made sense to end in the English class Rashid is in, because it’s a place where he Rashid expresses himself in a way that’s not necessarily honest, but at least quite clear. Even though what he’s expressing in that scene is not necessarily something that happened, I wanted to allow him the pleasure of describing a token moment that he conjures from the things he’s seen over the past few days. We as an audience would not necessarily put things in that order, but the scene was about giving him the final word, letting him reorganize and have control over the narrative of his life.

The beginning of the film, where Rashid is lost in the woods at night, was not supposed to be the beginning of the film. That footage was the only footage that was not in the script. We wanted the film to start with this person being lost in the woods, and it’s referred to throughout, but we didn’t necessarily want to show it. But we shot it just in case, and it eventually became clear that the film needed to start this way. 

Scope: It’s the kind of scene that might play as too metaphorical if it came later in the film. Having it at the beginning gives it this metaphorical charge, while still being this concrete event that’s referred to multiple times.

Bourges: Precisely because it’s at the beginning of the film, a lot of people read it as this abstract prologue, whereas it’s just the beginning of what happens. But I like that it can be read both ways. It does take place in this in-between land, right in the forest where the setting has something a bit magical about it.

Scope: You tend to present space in a very particular way, showing only one dimension of it, then cutting to reveal a whole other dimension. Early in Concrete Valley, we see Farah getting ready for work and drying off her son’s hair, operating as if she’s alone. Only later, when she finally addresses Rashid, do we realize he’s been in the room this whole time. Do you have rules you set up for yourself when you work with a particular space? How do you conceptualize the locations you shoot in?

Bourges: It’s often easier for me to write once I know the layout of the space. Sometimes it’s a matter of revealing things in a way that gets into the subjective world of these characters, rather than taking a detached, objective view of the setting. It was important to visually convey the characters’ feelings of uncertainty about this stage in their lives. There are lots of filmmakers that have this clarity in showing space. The mystery in their films comes from another place, and I do love that. But for this film, it was important to be very selective in revealing certain spaces.

Scope: Like Fail to Appear, Concrete Valley was shot by Nikolay Michaylov. Was there a conscious change in your visual approach to this film as compared to that earlier one?

Bourges: The films are always guided by their settings. The main visual element here was the dichotomy between the buildings and the forests and the greenery. But we also knew that we wanted to be closer to the characters than in my previous films, both in terms of physical distance and the type of lenses that we used. There was something about these characters that was mysterious, but that we couldn’t quite get close to. And even if we got really close to them, there would still be some mystery that would remain.

Scope: Watching the film, I almost felt this sort of invisible line forming in each space. And the tension often derived from the question of whether the characters would reach out across this line.

Bourges: Sometimes the choice has a purely narrative motivation. In the scene you mentioned, because this is a couple who doesn’t communicate, it’s interesting to see someone who looks like they’re completely alone. It becomes a matter of maintaining people in separate frames.

Scope: Leaving aside the relationship between the husband and wife, the most noticeable thing about the script is that all the expected conflicts fail to materialize. There are multiple points at which things could go wrong, and only later do we realize that they don’t. The film has a pretty generous spirit in that way, as if rewarding the characters’ trust. Did you consciously want that sort of optimism?

Bourges: Maybe it’s just how I see things. I’m always interested in situations where there’s no clear antagonist. People are generally trying to help each other, but there might still be an issue. The challenge is finding a conflict in a situation where everyone is trying to make it work, in places that may not be the most obvious ones.

Scope: These days, any film that has non-professionals tends to be called a “hybrid” film. I don’t find the label very useful, but I’m curious what you make of it as a filmmaker and, as a film professor.

Bourges: It’s complicated, because I never actually think about fiction or documentary when I start making a film. My choices are always guided by necessity and just asking, “Who can I cast?” And I always look for actors—when I can’t find them, then I start looking for non-actors. East Hastings Pharmacy ([2012)] was shot on a set that was a replica of a pharmacy, but we did look for a real pharmacy to shoot in, so I don’t have a kind of dogmatic preference. To me, filmmaking is about representation. You find the tools to represent something. By saying that, I realize I’m probably more of a fiction filmmaker, because the representation itself is more important than the seal of the real. I personally think this is a fiction film, but the label is extremely slippery.

Scope: When thinking about this fiction or documentary question, I sometimes go back to how people have theorizsed the difference between theatere and film. Tarkovsky, for instance, emphasized the uniqueness of a filmic event, in contrast to the theatre, which necessitates a stronger recognition of character types and genres. And this has to do with the different order of representation that is possible in the cinema versus theatre. Because of how you can present people in the cinema, showing their facial twitches in close-up, their physical specificity, you’re not as attached to types. Which is why he, like a lot of other filmmakers, emphasizes this element of “truth,” how you can almost capture a fragment of reality. Pialat, in his way, does this in his films.

Bourges: Pialat is actually a huge influence. What I love is how he’ll have characters act one way in a certain scene and then completely differently in another. And it never feels like it’s bad acting or that there’s something that doesn’t work—it always just seems like the same person. That’s something that I was quite conscious of doing with the performers on in this film. I wanted to have people reveal different sides of themselves to create a multifaceted portrait. Not by having them evolve in a character arc, but just by having them in different situations, talking to different people who have a different accent and who might reveal a different way of behaving.

Scope: Pialat is often quite aggressive in playing up these discontinuities, which makes us realize the extent to which we assemble the character, the person presented to us on screen. We see drastically different sides of them, but just by recognizing them across different situations we can put them together, so to speak.

Bourges: And it reminds us of how we are all actors in this respect, just people performing in different ways all the time. 

lgarcia@cinema-scope.com Garcia Lawrence