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Québec Has a Film Industry? Mais Oui!

June 30, 2010

Students from Natalie Debray's course; from left, back row: Carrie Dulisse, Eileen Schoener, Irina Safaryan, Bryden McGrath, and Ashika Chand (front)

by Natalie Debray

Natalie Debray is a lecturer in the Department of Communication at the University of Washington.

Although the Québec film, Barbarians Invasions, won an Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 2004, few Americans have seen it. In fact, many are unaware that a thriving film industry exists north of the border in the 6 million strong francophone province of Québec.

When given the opportunity to develop a special topics course I did not have to look far for inspiration. Creating COM 495 (Film, Culture, and Society) was a risky proposition. In the class description I left out the fact that all films we would view would be in French—and from Québec. Most students have very little knowledge of Canada and even less of the French-speaking province of Québec. Since the class is not listed as a film class or a language class per se, it would have scared off quite a number of students.

“I sure am glad I stuck around because this class turned out to be a real gem in my university experience.” —(comment from COM 495 message board)

As it turns out there were a few skeptical faces in the crowd on the first day of class this quarter. “But, I don’t speak French’! “A foreign film?” I am confident that quite a few of the 41 students in the class wanted out after week one. But I urged them to stay and embark on this journey—reassured them that they would be fine. And they were better than fine. Their enthusiasm and passion for the topic blossomed over the ten week course and surpassed even my own lofty expectations.

This class introduced the students to Québec and its unique, critically acclaimed, and prolific film industry. Along the way they learned even more about themselves. As a contextual course we focused on what makes Québec society distinct by examining the themes inherent in Québec film that shed light on our understanding of the people, history, and culture.

Each Monday a different topical area was discussed through lecture and readings including French and English language issues, aboriginal peoples, the decline of religion, and the sovereignty movement. On Wednesdays we watched a film which explored these various issues. After each viewing the students had to post a 2-3 page reflection on the course message board and comment on at least two of their classmate’s postings.

This exercise was intimidating at first due to its public nature. However, with each passing week the students opened up a little bit more and began looking forward to the opinions and musings of their colleagues. At times spirited debates ensued revealing the subjective nature of the film viewing experience. It was truly exciting to witness the learning, growth and camaraderie taking place in this forum.

“I feel like I got on a ride that seemed like a good time from afar, but I wasn’t really sure, and by the end I had become more aware of my peers, of myself, and, of course, of the history of Québec and its incomparable cinematic contributions. We were all smashed up against one another, and, frankly, I didn’t mind it.”—Josh Williams

Our first film, Le Chat dans le Sac (1964) is an artistic and probing look at a nascent Québec in the throes of the Quiet Revolution. Shot in black and white, this film gave insight into 1960s Montreal and for many in the class was the first foreign film experience! Some had difficulty watching this film without comparing it to the fast-paced Hollywood fare to which we are accustomed.

Students honed their film analysis skills over the course of the quarter becoming less ethnocentric with each passing week. We moved through the decades watching films by renowned directors, Denys Arcand, Robert Lepage, and Claude Jutra. A highlight of the course was watching the hockey biopic Maurice Richard: the Rocket (2005). Although a film showcasing the talents of one of the greatest hockey players of all time, it also revealed the linguistic discrimination faced by many French Canadians better than any textbook or lecture could. Coincidentally we watched this film on the same day that the Montreal Canadiens played in the NHL finals. The excitement was palpable on the message board as the students robustly cheered on their newly adopted team!

“I knew very little about Canada prior to taking this course, and it has been amazing to learn and appreciate reflections of Québec history and identity through the medium of film. I developed greater critical thinking skills and understanding for not just Canadian films, but the cultural expression through films overall.”—Kate Clements

Although the course focused on Québec as a case study, many of the topics including minority culture, post-colonialism, and globalization can be broadly applied. For their final project student teams explored a national film industry and presented their findings to the class. Some of the industries showcase included the films of India (Bollywood), Nollywood (Nigeria), Hong Kong and (English) Canada. The diverse projects showcased the student’s ability to critically analyze and discuss foreign films in their unique historical and cultural context.

Students came away from this course not only more aware of their neighbors to the north, but also newly minted foreign film aficionados, keenly interested in learning about other cultures. So, while for many Hollywood reigns supreme in the global marketplace, the students in COM 495 learned that a rival is in their own backyard.

Student Comments:

Students in Natalie Debray's class; from left, Cammy Yu, Elizabeth Simmons, Nadia Gunduc, Josh Lackey, Rowdy Sargent
Students in Natalie Debray’s class; from left, Cammy Yu, Elizabeth Simmons, Nadia Gunduc, Josh Lackey, Rowdy Sargent

“Now I have the satisfaction of knowing a bit about the history and culture of this diverse region of Canada and I have already been able to apply this knowledge outside of class in different social settings. I have to admit that I am now whole heartedly intrigued with Québec and hope to someday visit and see for myself the culture of the Québécois.”

“I have learned so much by being open and putting myself in another culture’s shoes. What a gift!”

“I have come out of this class as a changed person. It is not only in the way I now watch movies, identifying themes and such, but also in the way I see people. There is so much to be learned from other cultures or backgrounds that having an open eye and mind to different experiences, ways of life, and beliefs/opinions are now a part of me like a gift or blessing that I am truly grateful for.”

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