Saints and sinners
Pierre Falardeau on Bouchard, Michaud and other assorted Quebec patriots
Hour - 28.1.01
As a piece of filmmaking, firebrand director Pierre Falardeau's 15 Février, 1839 could be easily swept aside as a rather stolid example of agitprop. An unabashed work of martyrology, the movie essentially sanctifies a group of Quebec Patriotes, including Marie-Thomas Chevalier De Lormier (played by Luc Picard), sentenced to hang by the British, with the gallows standing in for the cross. But hot on the heels of Bouchard's resignation, 15 février speaks loudly to the political conflicts both at the heart of the PQ party and in Quebec society at large. Dramatizing the fight between moderates and extremists, recalling the roots of the independence movement, it goes off like a bomb. Hour sat down to talk with Falardeau on Monday, just hours before the film was given its first public screening at the Imperial.
Hour - Do you think your film is more about history or more about the present?
Falardeau - For me history is always present. You learn from history. If I read on the history of Spartacus, it tells me about today. But it is true that we always look to history from our own point of view.
Hour - Should we look at the movie and think you are condemning moderates, not hard-liners?
Falardeau - It's funny, I don't like this term "hard-liner." In French they use "pur et dur" [pure and hard]. I don't feel hard. I'm not pur et dur. I'm just a normal man. Hard-liner - what does it mean? Who are the moderates? Jean Charest? Jean Chrétien? Stéphane Dion?
Hour - Lucien Bouchard?
Falardeau - Yeah, I think he was a moderate.
Hour - The film seems to not only suggest that it's important to remember the past, but also the sacrifices that were necessary for independence.
Falardeau - Yes, it's true. When I was reading the [Jan 20] article in The Gazette [about the film], the writer made me understand something that I hadn't before. After the [Patriote] rebellion they passed the Union Act, with Confederation following that. Now I understand that Confederation came out of the repression of 1837. Canada was built on that. Maybe I'm wrong, but I want people to prove that I'm wrong.
Hour - Do you think that the situation presented in the film speaks to today's situation? More pointedly, how is the repression the Patriotes suffered still felt today?
Falardeau - How do I see that today? For me, if you don't look at history you don't understand anything. If you don't know where McGill University comes from, you don't understand anything. Peter McGill was a bastard. He organized the British volunteers who burned our houses, raped our women. The same thing for Mr John Molson.
What is Canada? In my country we suffered British colonialism and Canadian neo-colonialism. For me Canada is just an extension of that. It's like Zimbabwe, when they gave independence for Ian Smith [and the whites] and fuck the niggers.
The problem is that Quebec is a country that was conquered by force. In 1840, it was annexed by force. After that, we are a minority. You can be well treated or badly treated or justly treated but you're always a minority. They give you a bit when you yell. The thing is not that you're well exploited or badly exploited - oppression is oppression.
Hour - Your depiction of the English in the film is pretty merciless.
Falardeau - When you see a film on the Shoah, do you ask yourself if the director is treating the Germans badly?
Hour - So you're comparing the Patriotes with the Holocaust?
Falardeau - No. But every time I make a film, people say, "Bad anglophones." But when you see films from any other part of the world, you never ask this question. I wrote the same story but set it in Poland. The people were Polish, hanged by Russians. Nobody raised an eyebrow.
Hour - You end the film with a quote from Che Guevara, but it doesn't seem like the Patriotes were exactly revolutionary. They were ethnic nationalists; that doesn't equal revolutionary nationalism. Guevara was an internationalist. Separatism in Quebec has become an ethnic thing, too.
Falardeau - Let's be serious. The Patriotes were open to the world. People always think that it was a closed society. Papineau was reading books. They knew what was happening in South America. They were not alone in the world.
Same thing now. This ethnic thing is only in your head - it's what our enemies use.
Hour - That's not exactly true. Many English people from the left voted "yes" in the 1980 referendum, people who no longer support the independence movement.
Falardeau - If they don't understand, I don't give a shit. During the war in Algeria, the left did the same thing; they didn't understand, except for a few guys from the communist party who joined the FLN. The left, they never understand. They don't want to understand.
Sometimes in Montreal I see anglo-Canadians from the left. They are for all liberation movements in the world, but here it stops. They're for the liberation of Tibet, of East Timor, everywhere. The blue whales. Everything, but here, oop! They block. They say it's ethnic.
Hour - Maybe these people don't see how the colonial system still marks Quebec. You can see its effects in Kahnawake, the Cree Nation, but in modern-day Quebec society?
Falardeau - It's funny because sometimes I agree with you. I know the PQ is not a revolutionary movement. I'm not crazy. During the '60s and '70s a part of this liberation movement was much more to the left. Finally, it's swung, not to the right, but the centre-right. But even if I don't agree with them, I will still fight for independence. If I believe in class struggle, will I change my mind because I think the unions are fucked up?
Hour - What do you think about Michaud? Was what he said just a misunderstanding?
Falardeau - The thing with Michaud is that they took one sentence here, another there and said, "Ah! He's a racist. He negates the Holocaust." He never said that. I know how journalists work. After that, he's finished. When I see that it comes from B'Nai Brith, I say, "Who is B'Nai Brith? Oh, it's Libman, from the Equality Party." Fuck him.
One day B'Nai Brith attacked me, saying I was an antisemite because there's a Jewish banker in Elvis Gratton. A journalist from La Presse asked me what I thought of that. I said, "Fuck! In Elvis Gratton, we laugh at French Canadians for two hours. Around the table, there's a Jewish banker, a French banker, a black banker, a Latin-American." It's a joke. B'Nai Brith presents itself as a human-rights organization. I laugh when I hear that. I'll take them seriously when they denounce human rights in occupied Palestine.
There are certain words - like "racist," "facist" - that you don't just toss around.
Hour - But both sides are guilty of that kind of name calling.
Falardeau - Yes, but I don't call my enemies fascists or extreme rightist.
Hour - But you have said that Chrétien was anti-democratic.
Falardeau - That's true. When a country decides that a vote of 50 per cent plus 1 is not the rule anymore, what is it? It's like that everywhere in the world. So what is it? It's anti-democratic? Since the FLQ crisis in '70, the nationalist movement played the democratic game. And now you refuse democracy.
The story of the Patriotes is exactly the same. People played the game of the pseudo-democracy that the British installed in 1791. They played that game, and finally they were tired of the game, and they said, "Now it's finished." Boom.
REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE
A response to the politics of Pierre Falardeau's 15 Fevrier, 1839
By M-J Milloy
As clear as the last shot of five hanged men against a Montreal winter sky, this film is an act of provocation.
As an uncertain leader gives up command of the listing ship of independence, Pierre Falardeau has delivered a movie clearly aimed at putting the strong wind of history behind the sails.
Falardeau - who told us that he wanted this film to "target the hearts and minds" of Quebecers - sets De Lorimier and Hildelang as examples for today. They are free of the vacillations and indecisions that plagues today's separatist movement, with the clear and present brutality of the English occupation in front of them. They have no fear that their lives and their deaths are in service to the rightful liberation of their people.
To do this, though, Falardeau has to evacuate almost all historical context from the film and use only black and white to paint the portrait of the noble French and oppressive English. Though many of the Patriote leaders were Irish and English liberals, they're true blue and white in the film, except for Hindelang, a Protestant Swiss. In 1837, the French clergy were the strongest opponents of the Patriotes, but the French priest in the film strongly supports les Patriotes, even though he's once said to be "not like those bastard bishops." The English guards are uniformly dumb clods, while the Patriotes are earnest philosophers.
Most importantly, the Patriotes were hardly liberty-seeking revolutionaries, despite the final cries of the condemned on the gallows. Patriote leader Joseph Papineau saw the decolonization of Quebec as the most necessary means of returning Quebec to its preconquest, feudal, agricultural roots, cleansed of the influence of English merchants, ruled by the common law and the Catholic clergy.
In that sense, Papineau is less Che Guevara - a quote from the icon of rebellious undergrads ends the flick - and more Pol Pot, the nationalist Khmer Rouge leader who, as justification for the killing fields, set the clocks to "year zero" to purge Cambodia of foreign influences and return to the mythical glory of the Angkor empire.
Falardeau insists the repression of the Patriotes forms one of the building blocks of Canada, and the colonization of Quebec. He's right, as surely as theft of native land paved the way for Confederation. But Falardeau, when asked directly, could offer no evidence of that occupation in the here and now, could point out no specific reasons for anyone to follow the footsteps of his heroes De Lorimier and Hildebrand. This is because there are none.
So this is where we are. One of the most eloquent spokesmen for the independence of Quebec can only find as his most stirring argument an episode from the past, distorted to his ends. That shows that a new national tree will never grow in soil sown with humiliation. His film is not an explanation of the wrongs of today as much as a blind affirmation in the dream of how things should be tomorrow. To do that, he has replaced history with propaganda, and truth with martyrology. And so it goes.