What is the Quebecois identity?
Canadian actor Roy Dupuis (La Femme Nikita, The Barbarian Invasions) seeks to answer that identity in L’Empreinte (aka Subtitles), a documentary about the history of Quebec and what has influenced its culture. Being the last feature film showed at the Yellowknife International Film Festival (YKIFF), the festival ends neither in a bang nor a whimper but an “hmmm.” Yellowknife has a strong French Canadian culture who worked with Western Arctic Moving Pictures to promote French Canadian films. Before each French Canadian film, they played three promos. The first was a music video with a bunch of locals dancing around, with childlike props and a clown nose. The second is a promo for French programs in Yellowknife in which the camera follows a blue rope to one program after another. The final one is a brief commercial in which a rich family celebrates Christmas and only says titles of Quebec movies including Lawrence Anyways and Rebelle.
The film begins in around the shorelines of Tadoussac, Quebec. Those who study either Quebec’s history or history of trade will tell you this was an important trading centre for indigenous people of the shores of the St. Lawrence River. While strolling these shores, Dupuis starts a conversation with historian Denis Delage about a chaplain who developed a fascination with the native people and wanted his people to connect with them.
Unlike most documentaries that use lots of visual sensation and emotional manipulation, directors Carole Poliquin and Yvan Dubuc looks at this subject with a journalistic approach. Throughout the film, Dupuis has one to one conversations with historians, journalists and locals about what they perceive as being Quebecois. Poliquin and Dubuc avoid visual tricks and sensationalism and put their full trust in the opinions of these people. It turns out that’s all they need as each one delivers an interesting theory of how Quebec stands out even within the country, whether it’s a Canadian Tire manager receiving letters of apology from shoplifters to gay newlyweds discussing equality in Quebec.
What the film seems to argue the most is how Aboriginal culture has influenced the best of Quebec. Delage claims that the European settlers learned to blend in with Aboriginal cultures in order to survive. Even the chaplain suggested settlers have sex with aboriginal women so their culture becomes one. The film also argues the round table at general assemblies was influence by seating’s at aboriginal gatherings. Most of all, it argues Quebec absorbed aboriginal principles. In the end, the film mourns when the French settlers betrayed the aboriginal people, whom the film feels are owed a debt of gratitude.
It should be noted the program published the film’s synopsis in French. WAMP head Jeremy Emerson said they were only given a French synopsis. I tried to look for an English synopsis, but I can’t even find it on imdb. There were only French Canadian websites. It seems the filmmakers made the film only for French Canadians and you can kind of feel it. Unless the viewer’s already interested in Quebec’s history, the film doesn’t really try to hook the audience into the search for Quebecois identity. Plus, it doesn’t really fill the audience in on Quebec’s history, surprisingly leaving out such elements as the reign of the Catholic Church and American corporations and the Quiet revolution that brought it down. Not helping was the emcee and the Q & A with a co-director being done in French.
That feels like a wasted opportunity to gather a wider audience. I’m not saying the film should pander to a mainstream audience, but it should take into consideration the potential audience members who have little knowledge of Quebec’s history or culture. Take for example a film I saw in TIFF called The Flickering Truth. It centered on a group of Afghans who fought to protect their films from the Taliban and their work to restore them for a new generation. I had no idea of the history of Afghan films going into this and less of Afghan history. But the film does a great job filling us in on both, while still keeping the audience interested. Most of all, it made us feel the passion these people feel for movies and the sense of urgency to protect their cinematic history.
And that’s where I see potential in L’Empreinte. Even if the audiences aren’t really interested in Dupuis’ journey, we can still connect to his need on an emotional level. It connects the audience to the beliefs and the passions of Dupuis and the people he meets, which hooks the audience going in. This is where the potential. Just add a little information to fill in the outsider and I see this film scoring a wider audience.
 Coincidently, these films were also shown in YKIFF.