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Rachid Badouri breaks Quebec's colour barrier

L'Appât ( Bait), the latest cop comedy hitting screens in the Belle province, marks a first for Quebec cinema: It stars a popular stand-up comic who is not a white French Canadian male.

In this James Bond-meets-a-Keystone-cop tale, 34-year-old Quebec comic Rachid Badouri is Mohammed Ventura Choukroune, a buff and arrogant French secret agent forced to infiltrate the Montreal mob with a pudgy, accident-prone local police officer named Prudent Poirier, played by iconic Quebec funnyman Guy A. Lepage.

Badouri is conscious he made film history when L'Appât was released across the province last week, but he refuses to get political about his first feature film role. "I don't want to make a big deal about the fact that I'm Arab," says the Quebec-born son of Moroccan Berber immigrants. "It's true that we don't see lots of ethnic groups in Quebec film, but people write about their world and that's not the experience of most screenwriters here. But it does feels good to see Russians and Ukrainians and Moroccans on the screen."

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On their mad-cap adventure into Montreal's underworld, Ventura - who speaks eight languages - and his uni-lingual Quebec comrades encounter ethnic communities which usually don't get screen time here.

"I live in Montreal and I find that Quebec TV and film doesn't accurately reflect the demographics of this city. With this project we wanted to try to do this," says Lepage, in the Montreal offices Alliance Vivafilm, the film's distributor.

"Rachid was at the top of our list. We wanted an agent of African origin, either from Maghreb or Morocco," adds director Simoneau, who directed the Emmy-award winning Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. "We auditioned him and then we didn't have to go further. This guy is going to go far. I've seen lots of actors, and this guy has it all."

A brilliant mimic, Badouri has made a name for himself on the highly competitive, generally pure laine stand-up comic scene here imitating nearly every ethnic group in the province and the reaction their Francophone host culture has toward them. And Quebeckers love him, likely because his comedy provides welcome relief to the sometimes grim, politically-charged debate over how to accommodate the religion and culture of new immigrants - particularly Muslims - which has been making headlines here for the last few years. Since its debut in 2007, Badouri's first one-man show, Arrête ton cinéma!, has sold over 230,000 tickets.

Badouri, who speaks Arabic, French, English and a bit of Berber, honed his skills as a kid entertaining at his father's frequent barbecues where friends gathered to eat and talk politics. After the guests ate their fill of roast lamb, Badouri would perform. "All through the dinner I would observe and analyze the guests, then I would pick one to imitate," recalls the comic. "Usually it was the loudest and most annoying one, the know-it-all who acted like he invented history. Often they would get mad and leave after my skit. My father was happy, because it was his revenge."

Despite his rising star status, Badouri is well-known in the entertainment business for his humble attitude, and the gratitude he continually expresses toward his parents, who have seen 300 of his 425 live shows, even though they had initially hoped their son would become a white-collar professional. "My father stopped speaking to me for three months when I dropped out of college," says the only boy and youngest of three children.

His first big break came five years ago, when he sent a demo DVD to the Just for Laughs Festival of a few of his now infamous characters - a Haitian cab driver, a Greek man and Michael Jackson (the comic is an incredible dancer). After inviting him to do a live performance audition, Badouri got the invitation all aspiring Quebec comics wait for - to perform at the Just for Laughs Festival in 2005.

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That year Badouri was the Just for Laughs "revelation of the year" and in 2006 he was named Discovery of the Year at the Oliviers comedy awards shows (yes, Quebec has an annual awards gala for comics). In 2009, he received a double platinum award for selling 200,000 tickets to his live comedy show in just 18 months.

Appearing in L'Appât moves the comic one step closer to his ultimate objective: "The real goal is the Oscars. Now I have a calling card."

Special to The Globe and Mail

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