A standing-room-only audience filled the auditorium of the Grand Bibliotheque (Great Library) in Montreal on July 30 for the world premiere of filmmaker Pierre Bastien’s new feature-length documentary, Paroles Amerikoises ("Ameriquois" Lyrics). The screening kicked off the 23rd First Peoples Festival, which takes place through August 5 at various venues in downtown Montreal and at Kahnawake, the nearby Mohawk territory across the St. Lawrence River.
Bastien’s film is about a unique gathering of Native and non Native writers — poets, essayists and novelists — who were invited to meet by Innu poet Rita Mestokosho at Ekuanitshit (“where things run aground”), an Innu community of just over 500 people. The film shifts between views of the Romaine River and its surrounding landscape and the writers, who inhabit the same vast geographical, economic and cultural territory, talking in an attempt to find a common ground based on “Ameriquois” identity.
The writers met over five days on the Romaine River. “It was a very deep encounter on the Romaine River, which is a very emblematic river," Henri Welch, communications coordinator for the First Peoples Festival, explained. "Hydro Quebec [the publicly-owned electricity generating company] decided to build a dam on the river and naturally it was against the will of some of the indigenous communities and also some of the white people, who said we have no use for such a dam. The Romaine River is one of the best rivers we have in Quebec and it’s a tragedy to build a dam there." Furthermore, Welsh said, Quebec, with its abundance of relatively inexpensive hydro-electricity, doesn’t need more electricity. "The only reason to build it is just to sell the extra electricity to the Yankees!" he said. "So the film is really important because it’s the story about [the dam], and it connects the Native and non-Native imaginations, and it was a crucial moment when people came together and expressed their thoughts and expressed many issues within their cultural range. It’s very, very beautiful."
Bastien, who is of Huron ancestry, said the group of aboriginal and Quebec writers formed around six years ago with the French language as the common organizing element. He was invited to join the group not as a filmmaker but as an artist whose opinions the group sought. “I brought my camera with me and I soon found myself immersed in the filmmaking process more than giving my opinion on things,” Bastien said. “I started filming and then I became this roaming eye, this seeing-all eye behind every one and [I was] listening and watching and looking more than talking.” As a filmmaker for more than 25 years, Bastien easily slipped into that role and made himself invisible. “I didn’t want the camera to be the star; I wanted it to be just like another person there. I tried to capture the spirit of the moment. Sometimes it’s like a bit of magic but you don’t always get that result.”
Paroles Amerikoises is Bastien’s fifth feature film. The film is currently in French only but Bastien said he hopes that the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN) will offer to translate it into English. Meanwhile, the film will go on French television in a shorter version because, Bastien said, "they never buy a 75 minute film." From there, Bastien said, it would go on the indie film circuit to universities and film festivals.
Bastien succeeded greatly in being unobtrusive. The film captures the writers — Rita Mestokosho, Joséphine Bacon, Louis Hamelin, Jean Désy, Yves Sioui-Durand, Jean Morisset, Guy Sioui-Durand, and others — speaking in the most heartfelt way, unaffected by the presence of the camera. Among the most moving scenes is one in which the poet, filmmaker, and songwriter Josephine Bacon (Innu), talks about an elder who dreamed of returning to his territory: As he drummed he talked about a beautiful white-haired person that he longed for — the young people present thought he was talking about his wife, but he was really talking about his hunting territory in the wintertime when the land was covered in snow.
"[Bacon] is probably the wisest, most spiritual person in the group,” Bastien said. “She’s like a mother to us all and she plays a very important role in the culture here, in all cultures, she’s a very important artist figure.”
While the film documents the physical meeting on the Romaine River, it is as much about the meeting of minds in which the Native and non-Native writers talk about both geographical and cultural territories and the way to share them. “It’s about the power of artists on the territories and how, in Quebec, over 400 years, the population has become a uniquely Metis kind of people," Bastien said. "Like [one of the writers] says in the film, ‘Our father was river and our mother was an Indian girl.” The statement references — poetically — how the pattern of French settlement in “New France” differed from English settlement in “New England.” The earliest French settlers were mostly single men who came as indentured laborers, and married Native women, which accounts for the enduring belief that a vast percentage of “white” Quebecers have Native ancestry. “Yes, they did marry Native women otherwise the white people would not have survived,” Bastien said. “So the mixing of the cultures — not so much of the blood but of the cultures — is a way to peace.”
The First Peoples Festival will continue through August 5 with more films, including the Canadian premiere of Winter in the Blood, an adaptation of the Blackfeet writer James Welch’s novel, starring Chaske Spencer. Most events including concerts at Festival Plaza are free. For more, see the full calendar of First Peoples’ Festival activities.