Remember ... what?
Wry portrait emerges as Quebecers interpret meaning of the motto 'Je Me Souviens'
Saturday, August 24, 2002
"Je Me Souviens" replaced "La Belle Province" on Quebec license plates in 1978.
Thierry Le Brun took to the streets to record people's explanations of and reactions to the words on the license plate. His documentary debuts today at the Montreal World Film Festival.
It is often said that film festivals provide handy big-screen snapshots of places you'll perhaps never see in real life. But films at the Montreal World Film Festival also sometimes shed new light on life right back home in our own neighbourhood. That's precisely what the charming, thought- provoking A License to Remember: Je Me Souviens does.
Tearing a page from the stylebook of maverick, gadfly film-maker Michael Moore of Roger and Me fame, Montreal director Thierry Le Brun took to the streets of the province with a license plate in hand to ask both famous and ordinary people to try to explain the rather enigmatic motto on the Quebec plates. The National Film Board documentary has its world premiere at the festival today.
Sometimes the 51-minute bilingual film is dead serious, like when Le Brun talks to an angry, impassioned man at a ceremony to mark the 1837 Patriotes rebellion. But often it's light-hearted and the more earnest moments are offset by a series of wryly comic scenes showing people grappling with the meaning of the province's unofficial motto.
The idea for the project came to Le Brun when he first arrived in Quebec nine years ago. Born in the Belgian Congo (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) to Belgian parents, Le Brun's family eventually wound up in British Columbia's Okanagan Valley, where his agronomist father started an apple orchard. After pit stops studying sociology at the University of British Columbia and working with the homeless in Toronto for five years, Le Brun migrated to Montreal for a short break that turned into a permanent move.
Already in his 40s, Le Brun, now 51, enrolled in Concordia's film school because, as he put it in a recent interview at the festival headquarters at the Wyndham Hotel, "I didn't want to be a bitter old man saying 'I should've followed my passion.' "
Like most new arrivals, he was left scratching his head trying to figure out what the license-plate phrase "Je me souviens" really means.
"When I moved to Quebec, I felt uprooted," Le Brun said. "I went through an identity crisis, saying: 'Where do I fit in this world? What future can I have here?' One day, in the throes of this crisis, I remembered the motto 'Je me souviens.' I wondered who this 'je' was and if I could ever belong to that 'je.' "
When he finally hit the streets, camera crew in tow, it immediately became apparent that almost everyone had a passionate view on the famous motto and almost no one agreed on what it was supposed to mean. A taxi driver says he once knew but can't remember and he has to call his dispatcher to be reminded of the standard tour-guide explanation. A lot depends on your cultural background. Talking to natives in Kahnawake, there is a lot of angry talk about how the phrase is just another slice of white people's history.
But for committed nationalists like film-maker Pierre Falardeau, who explored the fallout from the 1837 rebellion in his film 15 Février 1839, and actor Julien Poulin, the motto is a reminder of the history of oppression of French Canadians. Poulin talks movingly about his father, who worked his whole life at Canadian Pacific and was only allowed to express himself in English. For some anglos, the motto is a reminder to the English-speaking community to remember its roots in the province.
The phrase has always been ambiguous. Even its origins are unclear: it first came to prominence when Eugène Taché, the architect of the National Assembly in Quebec City, had it carved into the stonework of the building, under the province's coat of arms, in 1883. The words were taken from a three-line poem: "Je me souviens / que né sous le lys / Je croîs sous la rose." (I remember / that born under the [French] lily / I grow under the [English] rose.)
The film notes that no one is sure who penned the poem. Some, including Taché's descendants, believe that he is the original author. Even the actual words are in doubt: some citations of the poem use "fleuris" - bloom- instead of "croîs." In any case, René Lévesque's Parti Québécois government changed the license-plate motto from "La Belle Province" to "Je Me Souviens" in 1978.
"Embedded in the motto are universal questions about the relation between history, memory, and belonging, about citizenship and nationalism," said Le Brun. "Different people had different interpretations. It's like the famous Rorshach ink blot. They were actually imposing their own views of Quebec on to the motto.
"I saw an opportunity by going to ask people what the motto meant to develop a snapshot of Quebec and it's a snapshot that's not the image you see on the news all the time. It's an image that shows the complexity of Quebec with lots of layers. If you go on Greene Ave. in Westmount, you get very different responses than if you go to Kahnawake or Quebec City. It was fascinating to see how people could live side by side and have such different perceptions and such different memories, but at the same time co-exist peacefully."
Given the public's current fatigue with serious talk about Quebec sovereignty, it is probably a good thing that Je Me Souviens takes a relatively breezy approach to the topic. The NFB has spent the past three decades churning out hard-hitting documentaries about Quebec's difficult relations with the rest of Canada, and thankfully Le Brun's film is not part of that tradition. It is thoughtful but it's also fun.
There is a neat Michael Moore-esque moment where Le Brun is pulled over by a cop for driving without a license plate. With the camera rolling, Le Brun shows the officer that he is carrying the plate with him in the front seat. After receiving a $42 fine, Le Brun asks the officer what he thinks "Je me souviens" means. Not missing a beat, the policeman tells the film-maker the motto means "Remember to keep the license on the back of your car and don't forget to pay the fine."
"Early on, the decision was made to make a light film with a sense of humour," said Le Brun. "The last thing people need is another serious film about Quebec. People in Quebec have a great sense of humour so you don't have to try hard to be funny. I think the timing is good because it shows a different image of Quebec. It takes the focus away from the image that les Québécois are always whining and complaining. I hope the film shows the complexity of Quebec."
It also offers an alternative to the notion that anglo Quebecers only whine and complain about their place here. Near the end of the film, there's a wonderful clip from TV writer/producer and former Daybreak host Jon Kalina that turns some of the usual anglo myths upside-down.
"The great anglo secret is that we love living here," says Kalina. "This is what people don't know. We tell people we don't like living here but we actually love living here.
"Except we have a couple of people we keep in closets and they can only speak English, and we let them out to give interviews to French journalists to drive them crazy or to meet politicians and drive them crazy ... because if we don't have these conflicts, then the place is going to be flooded and we'll lose our good thing."
- A License to Remember: Je Me Souviens screens today at 1 p.m., tomorrow at 1:20 p.m., and Tuesday at 6 p.m., all at Parisien 1. (In the film-fest schedule, it's listed under its French title, Un Certain Souvenir.)
- Brendan Kelly's E-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org