By Malcolm Fraser
It’s a well-known fact, and one often lamented in English Canada, that the Quebec film industry is vastly more successful than that of the ROC (rest of Canada) in producing films that people actually see and enjoy. The reasons for this are many, so many that they are not worth delving into here. For there’s another phenomenon happening in Quebec at the grassroots level that deserves at least as much attention as the latest hockey comedy or coming-of-age art flick.
This is Montreal’s underground film and video scene. In a particularly Québécois twist, the most interesting activity going on in the film scene here isn’t the product of lone, visionary auteurs, but rather of collectively-minded groups. At any given time, you might be able to catch the latest happenings courtesy of big-thinking collective Kino, multimedia pranksters Automatic Vaudeville and Kidnapper Films, socially-minded activists Les Lucioles, art agitators Volatile Works, and quite possibly a few more that may have formed by the time this goes to print.
What is it about Montreal that produces such a variety of cinematic group activity? Far be it from me to stir the embers of inter-city rivalries, but whereas Toronto’s indie music scene has lately discovered the community feeling, in the film world it’s still dog-eat-dog. There’s something about the Mont Real that fosters a collective spirit. Perhaps it’s part of that Quebec “distinct society” vibe that English Canada resents (while secretly envying). Communal and collective societies have a long history here; even Quebec’s biggest bank, Desjardins, isn’t even a bank, but a collectively owned company similar to a credit union.
The ground zero year for this filmic phenom was 1998, when two cinematic groups got their start. They arose independently and unbeknownst to each other, for as is sadly often the case in this town, they happened on either side of the language line.
That year saw the debut of Kino, a francophone film group that subsequently exploded far beyond its humble beginnings. Kino started when Christian Laurence challenged some filmmaker friends to make a short film every month. The resulting films were then screened in unusual locations: an empty office in a high-rise, a neighbourhood bar, an abandoned swimming pool. The number of both filmmakers and participants grew with each screening. When the Cinémathèque Québécoise and the FCMM film festival took notice, and each offered the group a spotlight, its profile got even higher.
Today, Kino is a tightly run organization with 180 members in Montreal, packed screenings in the classy, 400-seat Plaza Theatre, and Dogma 95-like rules for its screenings: “When a director misses his deadline,” explains the collective on its website, “he must suffer the terrible ‘blame,’ a constraint chosen by the spectators, that has to be incorporated in his next video.”
While Kino was setting up its early screenings, a bunch of Anglo pranksters were devising their own film group. Automatic Vaudeville was conceived from the outset as a “film studio” in the classical Hollywood model, “with an assembly line approach to product, a departmental system, a stable of ‘stars,'” explains Vaudevillian Seth W. Owen. To this day, its members retain this conceit without breaking character, and to much humourous effect as the films’ dollar-store budgets stand in stark contrast to the highfaluting rhetoric.
In its earliest days, the Vaudeville screenings were similar to the Kino model: monthly and with an open door policy. However, says Owen, “we found as we went on that the screenings were not fully in keeping with the tone of what was transpiring behind-the-scenes, with the studio mythos we were keen on developing. So we started to more actively ‘design’ the Hi-Class Picture Shows, and make movies specifically tailored for the evenings.”
Though Vaudeville may be less communitarian by design, its screenings and performances are no less so in practice. In what’s either a brilliant form of neo-Brechtian barrier-blurring, or a shameless piece of old-fashioned hucksterism, the AutoVaud troupe cast its films with a large number of Montreal musicians, artists and other scenesters, who then bring along their friends to comprise the bulk of the films’ audience. Like any instance of a tight-knit artistic community, it’s sometimes inspiring, and other times has the disturbing feel of a circle jerk: a room full of people laughing at their own inside jokes.
For better or for worse, the Vaudevillians’ deadpan air of authority, and Warholian promotion of its self-styled celebrities, is the stuff that legendary scenes are made of. And Vaudeveille is doing its part to promote the legend, taking its Hi-Class Picture Show out on the road. When asked if similar scenes are taking place elsewhere, they reply: “What we have found is people producing their own movies and then finding their own, non-traditional screening venues. I think it’s great that there are people out there doing that. What I don’t see so much is our approach to genre, and our program of a whole night of entertainment.” Owen adds: “If we ever found someone doing exactly what it is we do, we would have to murder either them or ourselves, which is an unpleasant prospect. But we’re always heartened to find other fine folks out there who are challenging the basic modes of independent production, groups like One Tiny Whale [The East Van Porn Collective] in Vancouver.”
Meanwhile, Kino’s success as a creative concept is demonstrated by its influence: the group has screened its work all over the world and inspired satellite groups in Paris, Hamburg, Toronto, Wisconsin, and-perhaps most inspirationally-a host of small Quebec towns such as Alma, St-Hyacinthe and Thetford Mines.
The group has managed to succeed while staying true to its motto: “Do well with nothing, do better with little, and do it right now!” (It rings a bit better in French.)
As both the quality and the visibility of the groups’ work continues to grow, time will tell if this approach will spread its influence around the globe, or remain one of those peculiarities that make this town the magical place it is.