Jacques Leduc and Memories of a Different Era

Jacques Leduc

Jacques Leduc

This past weekend I went to some screenings at the annual Rendez-vous du cinéma québecois and caught up with some documentaries I missed last year. The RVCQ offers a dazzling combination of riches: fiction and docs, animation and multi-media experiences, screenings, workshops, panels and round tables. My friend and constant co-worker Martin Duckworth was impressed by a workshop with Montreal filmmaker Jacques Leduc.

Jacques Leduc began working as a cinematographer and director in 1965. His debut as a director was with the short Documentary Chantal en vrac (1965). Leduc followed this with his first feature fiction film two years later, Nominigue… depuis qu’il existe (1967) and then his first feature documentary film Cap d’espoir (1969). For the next two decades in the 70’s and 80’s, Jacques Leduc continued to work films with the NFB. During this time he collaborated on the NFB film Chronique de la vie quotidienne(1978), a series of 8 films. These varied in length from 10 to 82 minutes, in a cinema vérité style of observing the lives of ordinary people. He left in 1990 to become a freelance filmmaker, soon making the film La vie fantôme (1992) that won the Best Canadian Film at the Montreal World Film Festival. Since then he has been collaborating with other filmmakers both as a director and a cinematographer.

Here is what Martin has to say about the workshop:

Rendez-vous with Jacques Leduc was an hour of nostalgia for the end of a golden era (late seventies) when it was possible to get a film programmed at l’ONF with a proposal of a page and a half, and then take a year to make it. A time when there was a collective conscience among Quebec film-makers of a culture to celebrate. A time when the candid-camera style that started with Lonely Boy had reached its peak in the films of Gilles Groulx and Pierre Perrault, leaving room for blending it in with some of the more controlled “cinematic” style then being introduced in Quebec features–dollies, cranes, long takes. A time when documentary film crews could easily blend with crowds, free of the fear and suspicion that has tied documentary crews these days to the laborious task of getting people to sign release forms. The collectively signed films that were shown prior to the discussion (“Chronique de la vie quotidienne”) were born in the tavern where Film Board personnel went for lunch. Jacques Leduc coordinated ideas, crews, locations and editing, and was grateful for the support given by producer Jacques Bobet to a production without a script or completion schedule. One of our most original directors, Robert Morin (Requiem pour un beau sans-coeur (1992),Quiconque meurt, meurt a douleur (1997), Operation Cobra (2001)), credited the series with inspiring him to start up a video cooperative which has been important to many Quebec filmmakers. Fiction director Louis Bélanger (Nightlight (2003), The Timekeeper (2007), Route 132 (2010)) talked of how moved he was by the respect that Leduc obviously had for his characters. And DOP Pierre Letarte who worked for many years at the NFB stressed that it was not the equipment or the shooting style that gave the series its humane quality, but the close relationships that the crew established with the characters.
Robert Morin

Rober Morin

Louis Belanger

Louis Bélanger

Uncovering the hidden history of the Roma in the Holocaust

Ceija Stojka

Going to the Montreal World Film Festival is a hit-and miss kind of affair. One easily has the impression there is no serious programming effort, it seems like anything goes, and screening some of the films gives you a strong impression nothing would ever be turned down. But there are also some excellent films.

At the most recent edition went to see a couple of documentaries which had interesting subject matter but which seemed unfinished. But I also saw one really excellent doc, A People Uncounted, produced by a team of filmmakers which includes several children or grandchildren of Holocaust survivors, most of them Jewish, at Urbinder films.

Shot in eleven countries, it tells the horrific story of the Roma – often known as Gypsies – as little-known victims of the nazi death camps. I found it to be a very compelling and very unusual film, sort of a hybrid between an information-heavy current affairs doc and a very sophisticated beautifully shot film. Another peculiarity about this film is that it was made with – anonymous – private money.

One thing about the film really bothered me, as you’ll find out in my second question to the director Aaron Yeger, who had this to say:

About the style and structure of the film, I agree that it is not conventional. The film does have a dramatic story arch with three acts, however the arch doesn’t follow any particular person or event, but rather the experience of an entire people, the Roma. All the various people who appear in the film collectively represent that experience.

With that in mind, the structure is patterned more after a scripted drama than most documentaries, and it somewhat epic in scope. The first act lays out who the Roma are, both in terms of fact and fiction and shows how they are seen and represented. The second act jumps back in time to the Holocaust to explain by way of both the personal and historical/factual how they were murdered in that genocide. The third act takes us back to the recent past and to the present to explain how the present day situation for the Roma, which is rife with persecution, is a reflection of what happened during the Holocaust. The arch rises and falls with the level of drama and nature of the material, rather than the experience of one person or event in particular.

… We wanted to show what happened to the Romani people during the Holocaust, what’s happening to them in present day, the connection between the two, and what this says about humanity and racism in general. And to make matters more complicated, so little is known about the Roma in general audiences that we also needed to show who they are and what they are not.

So in the end it is a very diverse array of content with a lot of people and a lot of places and topics of exploration, but still with the goal of making the experience as cinematic as possible. It’s a film with one foot in education and the other in cinema and popular culture.

Director Aaron Yeger

Magnus: You go out of your way to be inclusive, to make links between the experience of Jews and Roma, to refer to other experiences of discrimination and genocide… and yet there (as far as I remember) not a single reference to the gays who were also targeted for extermination by the nazis and sent to the death camps. Given the extremely thought-through inclusiveness of the whole film, this cannot be an accident. (I did notice the little line in the end credits about people whose story was covered…)

Part of our goal was to make a film that elevates the Roma from a footnote in Holocaust history to a place of dignity. The point of the film was to focus on the Romani experience in the Holocaust and present day. Having said that, it’s impossible to show their experience in the Holocaust without drawing connections to the Jewish experience. This is partly because most people when they hear “Holocaust” think of the Jewish experience, so it’s pertinent to note the similarities in the style of the various acts of genocide and the Nazi rhetoric (such as that many Nazi policy statements referred to the [final solution of the Jewish and Gypsy question/problem] together in the same sentence.

The other reason is that organically, it came up time and time again in our travels and meeting lots of Roma that many of them feel a kinship and solidarity with Jews in the aftermath of the Holocaust.

We also chose to relate the present day civil rights struggles of the Roma to the African-American civil rights movement in the past, for the purpose of hoping to inspire people today to change things for the better. The similarities are startling. Roma in present day Europe often suffer from school segregation, lack of access to jobs and institutionalized racism, as well as openly pejorative rhetoric in the political and media mainstream. They are stereotyped as criminals who are unwilling to work. And they were slaves in the past, emancipated at approximately the same time as African Americans.

I agree that telling the story of the genocide of gays, as well as many other groups is very important, which is why there is that statement at the end of the film. But we didn’t want to make anyone into a footnote in this film. Gays and other groups murdered also deserve the dignity of a film dedicated to their suffering and I would like to see that film made.

Thanks to Tobi Elliott for her help with the blog.