Montreal director Benoit Pilon says he’s been blown away by the enthusiastic response to his quiet film “The Necessities of Life,” about an Inuit hunter torn from his family and community by an outbreak of tuberculosis in the 1950s.
After a slew of accolades, he’s bracing himself for what could be his most significant yet: making the short list for an Academy Award.
“It’s just completely overwhelming,” Pilon says of the possibility he could head to Hollywood come Oscar time for the film, known in French as “Ce qu’il faut pour vivre”.
“I was not expecting that, it’s just great. It’s really hard to describe how you feel, sometimes I have this feeling that I’m looking at all this happening, like in a film, to someone else.”
Pilon’s first feature, shot in French and Inuktitut, is on a short list of nine movies vying for the Oscars’ foreign-language film award. The list will be whittled down to five nominees on Thursday.
The moving period piece examines a little-known time in Canadian history when the government gathered up more than 1,500 Inuit in the 1940s and ’50s in a bid to eradicate a tuberculosis outbreak.
Men, women and children were torn from their families and sent to sanatoriums in the south, leaving a legacy of bitterness that lingers to this day.
Pilon says he was captivated by screenwriter Bernard Emond’s fictional tale of Tivii, an Inuit hunter played by Natar Ungalaaq of “Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner,” who falls into deep despair once separated from his family, culture and language.
Tivii’s will to live only emerges when he meets a young Inuit boy who has been transferred to his hospital, and it’s their immediate bond that regenerates his spirit and restores his withering pride.
“This (is a) very simple, yet profound way of telling the story,” says Pilon, largely known for helming documentaries.
“The themes, the relationship between Natar and the young boy, the fact that being allowed to give back his culture to this young kid would somehow be the thing that would bring him back to life…I thought that was a strong thing.”
Other films in the running include French director Laurent Cantet’s “The Class,” named the Palme d’Or winner at last May’s Cannes festival, and Israeli filmmaker Ari Folman’s “Waltz With Bashir,” which took the foreign-language prize at the Golden Globes.
It’s also up against Austria’s “Revanche,” Germany’s “The Baader Meinhof Complex,” Japan’s “Departures,” Mexico’s “Tear This Heart Out,” Sweden’s “Everlasting Moments” and Turkey’s “3 Monkeys.”
Pilon’s $4-million film rose to prominence at last summer’s Montreal World Film Festival, where it won the audience-choice award and the grand jury prize. Just this past weekend, Pilon said it picked up another accolade at the Palm Springs Film Festival when Ungalaaq won an acting prize.
Chances it will find more fans look promising – Pilon says “Necessities of Life” will hit English Canada next month. Meanwhile, Arianna Bocco of the alternative film channel IFC says they plan to put “Necessities of Life” on its video-on-demand service in the United States.
Pilon says he never imagined the film would travel so far.
“We’ll see on Thursday if it goes further but already to be a part of this list of nine films it’s just great,” he said of the Oscars.
The splashy awards gala is something Pilon’s watched since he was “a young man dreaming of making films,” he added.
“You would watch the Oscar night and you have a tear of emotion when you see some people getting their prizes and not even thinking that one day it would be possible to be there. You don’t even think about it. I never thought about that. And then suddenly, it’s pretty close.”
The Oscars are presented on Feb. 22.