Mike Fleming

EXCLUSIVE: The Oscar race just got a little more interesting. EuropaCorp has made a U.S. distribution deal with Cohen Media Group for the Luc Besson-directed The Lady, the story of Burmese pro-democracy activist and political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi. Upstart Cohen Media Group plans to release the film for an Oscar-qualifying platform release late this year to capitalize on strong performances by Michelle Yeoh, who plays Suu Kyi, and David Thewlis, who plays her Oxford professor husband Michael Aris. The film will get a wider release in early 2012. Suu Kyi has spent most of the last 20 years under house arrest by the repressive Burmese military-controlled government. Leaders cruelly barred her husband and two sons from visiting her, thinking that it would drive her to leave. Because she knew that once gone she would never be permitted re-entry, Suu Kyi sacrificed everything to stay and become an iconic symbol of democracy and human rights. Her husband and sons bolstered her spirit and campaigned for the Nobel Peace Prize, which she was awarded in 1991. The distribution deals came quickly after the film premiered Monday evening at Roy Thomson Hall, where Besson, Yeoh and Thewlis received a rousing standing ovation. The deal was brokered by EuropaCorp Group CEO Christophe Lambert and Cohen Media Group CEO Charles S. Cohen.

The Lady becomes the second Toronto title to become an instant entry into upcoming awards season, after Fox Searchlight acquired the NC-17 Steve McQueen-directed Shame with plans to campaign for Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan.

After establishing himself as France’s answer to Steven Spielberg directing hits like La Femme Nikita and The Professional and co-writing and producing action films like Taken, Besson has become very selective in the projects he directs. While he has always had a soft spot for strong female protagonists, it has always been in action settings. The Lady is a decided departure and certainly his most personal film to date. Besson made it to refocus the world’s attention on an activist whose continuing plight gets easily forgotten in a turbulent world, even though she won that Nobel Peace Prize and U2′s Bono and The Edge wrote the song Walk On about her sacrifice (which got U2′s album banned in Burma).

“The story had such resonance for me,” Besson told Deadline on Tuesday, still moved by the reaction he received at the film’s gala hours earlier. “We live in a society where we have freedom and forget because we are so used to it. Hers is the ultimate fight for freedom. A military force 200,000 strong fights against one woman, all 55 kilos of her, armed only with words. And they all fear her, while she doesn’t fear anyone. The only way she could be so strong is because of love. She would have never been able to stand through all this without her family. Usually, it’s the man who takes on the world, while the woman gives him life and love, and takes care of the kids. This is one of the first cases where it’s exactly the opposite and it so touched me. It made me want to be that man, who gives all this love to that person and keeps her going. You feel small when you read this script, and it makes you want to be bigger. It made me want to show this story.”

Suu Kyi became a focal point for democratic reforms the moment she returned to Rangoon to visit her ailing mother. She is the daughter of Aung Suu, a hero who  helped Burma to separate from British rule in 1947 only to be assassinated shortly after as he tried to form a democratic government, in a coup that led to hard-line military rule. Upon her return in 1988, Suu Kyi was so appalled by the mass murder of protesting students that she never left. Because of her fame, Besson shot the film as quietly as he could in the Internet age, and he snuck in to Burma because he was determined to use that footage in the movie. “I went there as a tourist, with different teams,” he said. “We went on Google Earth, and had all of Rangoon mapped out and had three teams come in from different countries. We would not say we knew each other, and had what looked like normal tourist cameras, but you could film with them. We shot 15 hours that I used later on, because it was just important for me to have a real piece of Burma.” He was equally discreet when he shot the majority of the film in neighboring Thailand, populating the drama with many Burmese refugees. “We are in the age of the Internet, and there is a scene where Michelle gives this big speech,” Besson said. “I had 3000 people, and I took a megaphone and told them it would be a problem for us if people knew about the film. We’d gone to the trouble to change the names in the script, you see. I asked if they would be kind enough to keep this to themselves, and not take a picture or put anything on the Internet. Normally, that never works. Do you know, there has not been one single thing on the Internet about that day? Not one. They knew it was important and they respected it. Try that in France, and your own brother will put it on the Internet.” Besson said the last few weeks of shooting got tense as rumors began to swirl that he was making a movie about Suu Kyi, but he completed production before things got too hot, smartly scheduling the film’s final weeks in Oxford.

Recently, Suu Kyi was freed, a development that stunned Besson. “I was shocked, didn’t expect it because they always found a reason every two years to keep her under house arrest,” he said. “The same day I shot Michelle waving to people at the door of her home, I got back to the hotel, looked at the TV and saw her waving. I thought someone had stolen the footage I’d just shot, because Michelle looks so much like her. But it was news footage for a story telling us she was free.”

How wide the release is remains to be seen. Besson has had enough kids come up to him to rave about early films like The Professional and La Femme Nikita that he feels confident the film will take on a life of its own, and that is the main reason he made it. He also has high hopes that Suu Kyi will see it.

“Victory for me with this film is for people to watch it, and the second victory is having them then go back home and get on the Internet to try to learn more about her,” he said. “I believe she will see the film, and maybe that’s the only good aspect of piracy. I actually hope the film will be pirated in Burma. In fact, they have my blessing to pirate the movie there, because they’re not allowed to see anything. If that is the only way they are able to see that film, then that will be OK with me.”

Besson is a shrewd businessman, but hours after the premiere when I asked him about distribution plans, he was still focused on his auteur side and wasn’t sure what he’d do. Even then his priority was to get it out this year to capitalize on the performances by Yeoh and Thewlis, who like him worked almost for free because they so loved the Rebecca Frayne script.

“I’m a voter, and I most certainly would vote for them,” Besson told me. “I’ve had trouble separating the business part of this out. I just finishing mixing the film a week ago, and when I first saw it with the Toronto audience, I was glad they were concentrating and that no one moved for two hours and that they responded so well. But I was also thinking I would go back into the editing room tomorrow, and just make a small adjustment here or there. Even though everybody was clapping, now that I’ve seen it with an audience, I’m still working on it, and still in that director mindset. But watching that audience reaction made me feel I was right to do this.” Here is a teaser trailer for The Lady:

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