In case you haven’t been keeping up with Quebec movie news (or haven’t been around Brendan Kelly for the past two weeks), there’s been a bit of a media dust-up over comments made by director Jacob Tierney to La Presse’s Nicolas Bérubé, complaining that Quebec cinema is too francophone and too white:
«La société québécoise est extrêmement tournée sur elle-même, dit Tierney. Notre art et notre culture ne présentent que des Blancs francophones. Les anglophones et les immigrants sont ignorés. Ils n’ont aucune place dans le rêve québécois. C’est honteux.»
Since Tierney, who’s behind that new movie The Trotsky, decided to touch on that Two Solitudes button, you can imagine there was a lot of reaction (they’re even talking about it on those social media things). And most of the reaction takes one of three predictable sides:
- Agreeing with Tierney: Quebec cinema is too white, too francophone, and needs to better reflect its multicultural reality – and those who battle Tierney’s arguments are intolerant
- Lashing out at Tierney, putting together a list of black Quebec actors (Normand Brathwaite, Gregory Charles, Boucar Diouf and Dany Laferrière will feature prominently in such lists) and Quebec films that have languages other than French (those lists tend to include Bon Cop Bad Cop, their makers apparently unaware that the box-office smash was made by Tierney’s father), and saying that because there are black people or anglos in Quebec cinema Tierney must be wrong and hate Quebec
- Defend the whiteness and Frenchness of Quebec cinema, because Quebec is a small island in a sea of English, because Canadian films don’t feature francophones and because Quebec culture needs to assert itself
The problem with each of these responses is that it takes a black or white view on an issue that is hardly so clear-cut, and only serves to further divide the two solitudes.
Reality isn’t quite so simple.
Argue now, think later
I’m not a film buff, nor am I an expert in Quebec culture. In fact, I’m probably the most uncultured person I know. The last anglo film I saw in an actual movie theatre was, I think, Star Trek. The last franco film? Dans une galaxie près de chez vous 2. This means I haven’t seen J’ai tué ma mère or Avatar or De père en flic or The Hurt Locker or Polytechnique or any of the Twilight movies or … well, you get the picture. I want to see them eventually (well, not the Twilight movies), but I don’t have much free time and it’s rare I’ll find something so interesting I’ll want to pay $12 to watch it in a theatre rather than wait a couple of years and see it on cable.
Anyway, so I’m no expert, and I have no figures to point to in my analysis. If you want an expert’s opinion, I’d read this piece by Marc Cassivi, who takes a detached view of the matter.
But reading the comments, particularly at Cyberpresse but also elsewhere, it’s as if we’re still battling for the Plains of Abraham, only this time the army on both sides is comprised of Internet trolls.
Some people have suggested that Tierney doesn’t know what he’s talking about because, like all anglophones, he’s never actually seen a Quebec-made movie and hates French – both suggestions are preposterous. Some have said he’s a hypocrite for taking advantage of tax credits and other government financial incentives for creating home-grown movies, as if taking money from the government (which every filmmaker does here) somehow removes him of his right to criticize Quebec cinema. Many have accused him of outright Quebec-bashing.
And there are those who argue that Quebec films shouldn’t be more multicultural or include more anglophones, because those people are not true Quebecers.
Speaking strictly from the perspective of an uncultured consumer, I think Tierney has a point. There are a lot of white faces out there, even when you include Brathwaite, Charles, Diouf and others. And while there are examples of bits of English in Quebec cinema, it’s not at the kind of level one would find during a normal day in Montreal.
The other day, I watched Bon Cop Bad Cop on TV. It was on an English-language Canadian movie channel, so the French bits were subtitled (when Patrick Huard says “En tout cas, y’a un bon coup de patin!” - a pun that doesn’t translate into English – you see the value in knowing the language instead of relying on those subtitles). Seeing people interact in two languages at the same time – even switching between the two in mid-sentence – just seems so rare these days on screen, even though it happens so often in real life.
I’ll let one of the Cyberpresse commenters explain:
Le problème, c’est qu’il n’y a jamais de mélange. Les deux solitudes comme on dit. La télé francophone d’un côté, la télé anglophone de l’autre. Et jamais on invite un anglophone dans une émission sur la télé francophone, et inversement. C’est pareil dans le cinéma. En plus de ça, les gens sont allergiques aux sous-titres dans les films, il faut dire qu’on ne leur donne pas trop le choix, vu la programmation 100% doublé de la plupart des cinémas, quel que soit le film.
Even with the huge numbers of bilingual people in Montreal, Quebec and places near Quebec borders, there’s a resistance to bilingualism in our culture. Television, radio, newspapers, even most websites have to choose one or the other. Anything said or written in the other language has to be subtitled, dubbed or translated so that the audience can understand. There are no bilingual television stations or cable channels (besides CPAC), no bilingual radio stations (at least no commercial ones), and only a single bilingual newspaper.
Some angry online commenters will say that the problem isn’t Quebec, it’s the Rest of Canada that doesn’t feature francophones. In fact, it’s both. Which is odd because Bon Cop Bad Cop was one of the highest-grossing films in both Canadian and Quebec history (even though it was much more popular in Quebec than in the rest of Canada). You’d think both sides would catch on to that and start taking advantage of the power of language unity.
One movie in production seems to be. Funkytown also stars Patrick Huard, and is slated for release in December:
… but he’s also wrong
Where Tierney is off the mark is in making it seem (whether intentionally or not) that this is all Quebec’s fault. The tone of the criticism has forced people to become defensive about the Quebec film industry instead of giving his two cents some thought.
It’s funny because this industry needs so little defence. It’s incredible how successful home-grown cinema is here, particularly when compared to English Canada. A modest showing in Quebec would be considered a mega hit if it made the same amount at the box office in English Canada.
Some of the other points Tierney brings up also don’t convince me. I don’t think Quebec is too concerned with the past or with its own majority culture (these themes are strong here, but shouldn’t they be?). I don’t think cinema here is racist. I don’t think the Jutras are unrepresentative of Quebec society, which outside of Montreal is very francophone and very white. And while I think there’s room for more multiculturalism and more languages in Quebec cinema, I don’t say so with nearly the same accusatory style as Tierney’s comments.
And there are a lot of things he’s missing, too. For one thing, Tierney seems to be arguing that Quebec cinema isn’t Montreal-centric enough, which might cause those living in small towns to laugh out loud. Quebec culture is far too Montreal-centric, even if about half of Quebecers live within 50km of the city’s centre. The clique du Plateau should be replaced with more of a focus on Gaspé, Trois-Rivières, Baie-Comeau, Alma, Nunavik, Kahnawake and, yes, the West Island.
If that happens, Canadian cinema would be embarrassed, not having nearly the same kind of regional diversity as Quebec cinema would have.
But unlike some online commenters, I don’t believe that the failures of others should give us justification to drag our feet. It’s time for more Tierneys to enter the scene and create a cultural landscape that everyone in Quebec can feel they’re a part of.
UPDATE (Aug. 9): Though a few weeks late to the table, the Gazette’s Don Macpherson shares some thoughts about Tierney’s comments and how anglo Quebecers are still not considered true Quebecers.