Agence On est là giving marginalized and under-represented talent a powerful voice

After just one year, the Agence On est là talent agency represents hundreds of artists and artisans of every genre. It’s already more than achieved its original goal of providing an impressive continuum of in-depth profiles and, above all, of raising the voice and presence of talent in the performing arts and on big and small screens that would otherwise be marginalized or under-represented.

When actor, author, and director Pallina Michelot joins the call to discuss her pet project, her enthusiasm and commitment continually bubble over, essential qualities that reassure those she seeks to represent with the agency she co-founded with four like-minded believers. “I was born here in Quebec, but developed my career outside the province,” she said. She finally came to realize that the stories she wants to tell are the ones that are local to her. Her motivation lies in the fact that she wants up-and-coming artists like her to be able see themselves in the picture in any kind of production. “And I found that the environment here was not very inclusive,” she said.

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Pallina Michelot - Photo credit: Yvette Cakpo

Even though the challenges related to issues of equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) have been in the Canadian and Quebec mainstream for years, there’s still a long way to go. Radio-Canada published an update on the onscreen presence of visible minorities in 2019. While 11% of all the roles on Quebec television went to ‘diverse’ actors , they were still very far down the ladder when it came to leading roles. The problem here is that this type of diversity is often narrowly confined to a single definition of what it represents.

There really can be no question of representing one type of diversity over another. In fact, it’s all the under-represented and marginalized artists and artisans that On est là speaks up for. You could be white with a disability or marginalized because of your gender identity. Michelot’s idea was to break out of the silos of multiple identities and work together.

Official launch of the agency, in 2022. Video: Samy Ezdi

Fulfilling an urgent need

Before delving deeper into the agency’s story, Michelot insists on establishing the collective nature of the project. and naming  all the equally important co-founders behind its unique mission. The founding quintet brings together a myriad of talent in itself: Innu filmmaker Jani Bellefleur-Kaltush from Natashquan, Iranian Quebec actor and comedian Baharan Baniahmadi, Syrian actor, author, producer, and director Chadi Alhelou, Algerian Canadian filmmaker Bachir Bensaddek, and Michelot as general manager of the non-profit social economy organization whose goal is precisely “to work on the placement, representation, and promotion of a diversity of artists.”

It was On est là’s commitment to highlighting those who don’t get enough screen time that convinced Montreal-based Atikamekw actor Léa Alia Bégin to become a member. “I had cable growing up and I watched a lot of TV, but I never saw anyone that looked like me on the screen. So, I’m really happy that we’re now seeing more Indigenous people in films and on television,” she said. “And the agency is focused on putting more and more of us up on big and small screens.”

There’s another critical factor that makes On est là stand out. The founders really know how the system works so they can professionalize acting and project applications. “We’re very careful here because when people hear the word professionalization, they might think that those we represent are not professional. The truth is we all need mentors throughout our lives, and that’s the role we play with our artists,” Michelot said. Sometimes, an artist will have a project that’s simply amazing, one that could easily make it on TV. “But when we look at the pitch, for example, and see that it doesn’t exactly comply with existing codes, it’s very possible that it might not even get looked at if sent as is.” What the agency does is lend a hand in reviewing contracts and the details that ensure that their protégés fully understand what’s at stake.

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The launch party of Agence On est là in 2022. Photo credit: Yvette Cakpo

Making the right connections

Michelot pointed out that one of the agency’s co-founders, Chadi Alhelou, couldn’t get a handle on the segmentation of networks in Quebec’s cultural milieu. “When he first came here, he thought it was beyond belief,” she said. “Because for him, it was crucial to re-establish networks, especially to break down stereotypes.” Despite being a lifelong practicing Catholic, Chadi found himself systematically cast in roles where he played a Muslim, a religion he knew hardly anything about. Proof positive on how the industry reinforces clichés instead of deconstructing them? That’s where On est là comes in.

Rwandan transdisciplinary artist Malcom Odd from Sherbrooke effectively sums up what he thinks about the agency’s mission on a recent casting search for his next TV series, one set in a restaurant. “I jumped for joy when I saw the actor profiles in the On est là catalogue. The whole cast was there, everyone I had in mind,” the screenwriter andpainter said. “I love the idea that the agency is making a genuine effort not to accentuate stereotypes.” “I thought it was somewhat absurd in our line of work to create another organization that was going to segregate diversities yet again,” Michelot said, while giving the nod that agencies representing particular diversities do exist. “I understand why such agencies are there, but we wanted to fill a void by giving those we represent the right to be all they can be.”

Malcom Odd - Photo credit: Moïse Marcoux-Chabot

A unanimously positive contribution

The artists who spoke to Now & Next about On est là all expressed a similar attitude of gratitude. They were relieved to have finally found a home that welcomes them just as they are.

Multidisciplinary filmmaker and artist Alice Bédard is a good example. “When I said I didn’t want to be confined to one kind of art, they immediately understood,” she said. “It was a no-brainer to choose On est là. When there’s love, admiration, and respect on both sides, there’s no better option when it comes to choosing an agency.”

“When Pallina contacted me, I wasn’t intimidated in the least. She really put me at ease,” Léa Alia Bégin said. When we asked Léa how the agency provided support, her face lit up. “My goodness they did so much for me!” Aside from giving her complimentary tickets to plays in Montreal and invitations to casting calls, they also professionalized her portfolio. “You can see that they really want you to succeed,” she said.

Is there something all artists have in common? Well, one thing is that they don’t feel at home at other talent agencies…too much uniformity and not enough flexibility. That’s why Léa knew she was finally in the right place. “I know they’re going to help me grow...and I love them,” she said.

On est là helped Malcolm Odd put the finishing touches on an important presentation, as well as in supporting him with his contacts. This was crucial in a fast-paced industry where you need to master the codes to get ahead. “I was able to get support for a full month before a major pitch session to one of Quebec’s biggest production companies,” he said.

The production companies are also grateful because On est là makes sure they’re only presented with high-quality projects.

“We’ve come a long way”

Despite being the new kid on the block, On est là’s success is solidly based on an intuitive vision for recognizing that marginalized talent and talent from under-represented groups need to be supported in a balanced way that values individual identity while putting the artist first. For film aficionado Alice Bédard, a good analogy is Moneyball by American director Bennett Miller. “On the surface, it’s a baseball story, but mostly it’s a story about discrimination,” she said, something she’s experienced firsthand as a trans woman actor. In the film, the new coach (played by Brad Pitt) doesn’t see the players based on their age or their physical attributes. All he sees is their potential and talent.

“There are those who’ve enjoyed major careers outside Canada, and they end up here working in other fields,” Michelot said, an opinion she shares with fellow co-founder Bachir Bensaddek. “They’re big stars in their home countries and they could be shining here too, but they’re often overlooked and that’s a loss for everyone,” he said.

According to Malcolm Odd, under-representation of talent in the performing arts and film in general puts artists in a difficult position. On the one hand, their identity is what has blocked their path for so long, or confined them to certain roles or positions, when it’s this very identity that they also want to claim.

"The cultural barriers we face sometimes cause us to be judged as unsuitable, even if we are both competent and relevant in the real world,” he said. “We are then made to feel disconnected, and obliged to conform to the norms of others, as if our own experiences and our lives are not legitimate.” He does acknowledge that people like him and others come from a long way, “but we’re here to stay”. 

Anaïs Elboujdaïni
Anaïs Elboujdaini is a freelance reporter and co-founder of the MENA Film Festival in Vancouver, BC. She worked for Radio-Canada and Noovo Info in Montréal. She covers social and environmental topics.
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