Toronto filmmaker and social-rights activist Michelle Latimer has undertaken the challenge of distilling Rawi Hage’s 2008 novel Cockroach (House of Anansi Press) into a 13-minute film. The Underground premieres at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 11, as part of the Short Cuts programme.
Inspired by the “ugly beauty” and visceral nature of Hage’s writing, Latimer’s magical-realist film follows Iranian refugee Araz as he copes with the isolation of his new Canadian home by imagining himself physically transforming into a cockroach. Araz also collects the insects in jars, which he scrambles to hide after witnessing an exterminator’s truck pulling up to his apartment building.
Latimer took licence with Hage’s narrative to suit the visual medium, while still honouring the novel’s themes of alienation, assimilation, and loss of identity. “The novel’s very experiential in that you really feel like you’re entering the mind of the main protagonist,” she says. “I wanted a way to highlight those themes in a short film. If I were making a feature, we’d have more time and there could be more subtlety.”
The protagonist’s Farsi voice-over, which Latimer refers to as “existential dialogue,” is translated directly from Hage’s novel. “It was really important to have the film in another language for the audience to feel that sense of displacement,” she says. “It’s something you’re not used to hearing – and also it’s another way to hit the theme of loss of culture.”
Hage, who was nominated for the Scotiabank Giller Prize for Cockroach, travelled from Vancouver to assist Latimer in promoting the film. While all three of his novels have been optioned (an international co-production of De Niro’s Game is currently in the works), Latimer’s is the first adaptation to to be completed. Hage says he originally agreed to give Latimer rights to Cockroach because of her past work, and also because she is “politically and socially engaged.”
After viewing the film, he has nothing but praise for Latimer and her work, saying, “She kept the spirit of the novel, and managed to be as authentic as possible. This story of exile is concise and beautifully made.”