Friday, October 29, 2010

Jephté Bastien: 'Sortie 67' Not a Film On Street Gangs

Canadian director Jephté Bastien talks about why he wanted to do Sortie 67, his first film.

Jephté Bastien doesn't believe that his film Sortie 67, which will come in Quebec's theatres on November 5, has to "improve" the image of Montrealers of Haitian heritage who mostly live in the district of St-Michel and North-Montreal. According to him, "the film's story is about an individual instead of a whole ethnic group". Moreover, Bastien said that he sees it that way, because he wants to avoid "abusive generalizations".

Having worked as a video editor and also in the music industry, Jephté Bastien makes his directorial debut with the independent film Sortie 67, which a reference to a bus line that passes through St-Michel and North Montreal. The film follows Ronald (Henri Pardo), a young biracial man who's been involved in a street gang in the Montrealer district of St-Michel ever since his adolescence. Now that he has a daughter and that his wife is ashamed of him, Ronald strives to get out of criminality. Bastien sat down with The Cultural Post to talk about the importance of making a film in the vein of Sortie 67.

The Cultural Post: Why did you choose to make a film on street gangs in Montreal?

Jephté Bastien: In my opinion, Sortie 67 isn't about street gangs even though the leading character is involved in one. It's rather a film centred on an individual who tries hard to get out of this dark world because of what happens in his family. Moreover, I wanted to show a human being - not a monster - living in a world of violence.

Did Freddy Villanueva's death at the hand of a policeman in a park of North Montreal during the summer 2008 give you the envy to write Sortie 67?

The first draft of Sortie 67's script dates back to 2008 before Freddy Villanueva's death. Moreover, no one chooses the circumstances in which his/her film project comes to life. I wrote the script of the film right after I had learnt about my sixteen-year-old nephew's death. He was involved in a confrontation between street gangs.

Authenticity seems to be your motto when making this film. How did you make sure that the details in the film look close to reality as much as possible?

During my research, I talked to former and current members of street gangs. When I wrote the dialogues, the challenge was to combine French, English and Creole, because the youth in the street gangs constantly switch languages when they talk. As for the filming period, I wasn't afraid to be on location in St-Michel and North Montreal despite what many think about these two districts of Montreal. Even if I had the budget to recreate these two districts in a studio, I would rather be on location. As a movie director, I'm trying to depict what I see through my eyes.

In the film, one of the characters say that in Canada, it's impossible to succeed in life if we're a black. Is such a mentality still alive in the 21rst century even though we hear about successful blacks like Canadian boxer Jean Pascal or the American president, Barack Obama?

Obama's election might be a good thing. Nevertheless, he's not a black; he has mixed blood. Those who believe that this event has put an end to racism against blacks in North America are wrong. In Quebec, many blacks believe that without a Quebecker accent, you will be a failure. For those who have the Quebecker accent, just like a few characters in the film, some of them are not even sure if they'll succeed. On a personal note, I feel like a Quebecker whenever I'm outside of Quebec.

What will non-blacks learn about black people from Quebec as a whole after they had seen Sortie 67?

I relied on two things to build the characters, who are mostly blacks. The first one is this idea some people have about American blacks, because I once lived and worked in the USA. The second one is my understanding of what it means to be black and of Haitian heritage in Quebec. All in all, this film is an alternative to the image of blacks that is given to us by the media.

Yet, American journalist John Howard Griffin (who is white) passed himself off as a black in order to understand the psychological effect of racial segregation on blacks and to write his bestselling diary Black Like Me in the 1950s. If we fast-forward to 2010, are you saying that a Canadian journalist wouldn't understand blacks even though he darkens his skin?

With such an approach, you might become an observer. However, one won't understand everything, because there are things that we, whether we like it or not, can't grasp. For instance, even though I know Asians, I will never know what it truly means to be an Asian. Even though I'm able to imitate the Quebecker accent, I wouldn't do film centred on a Québécois. In short, even though your writing is fraught with good intentions, your vision of other people is unconsciously distorted.

Just by looking at Sortie 67's poster, we see that it's not distributed by one of the four biggest Quebecker distributors: Alliance Vivafilm, Remstar, Les Films Séville and Métropole Films. Does it mean that your film will get a limited release in Quebec just like The Trotsky and Serveuses demandées, two films about Quebeckers from ethnic minorities?

I don't fear a limited release in Quebec for Sortie 67. I don't want to sound political, but if the film doesn't breach the doors of movie theatres outside of Montreal, their owners must have their own reasons. However, I know that the public will respond to the film. First of all, whether a Quebecker viewer is from Montreal or not, he/she already knows that the film deals with a hot topic: the criminality among some Montrealers of Haitian heritage. Secondly, I dropped my prejudice regarding people's indifference to black Canadians when Sortie 67 received fundings from Téléfilm Canada and the SODEC (note: respectively the cinematographic funding agency of Canada and Quebec). I was surprised to see that my film was selected by both agencies as one of the few independent films that will be funded.

Many Québécois complain that Quebecker from ethnic minorities boycott French Quebecker cinema, because the market share of Quebecker films in Montreal is only 7% according to the latest study of the Observatoire de la culture et de la communication du Québec (OCCQ). Will your film change that tendency?

If it does, it would come to me as a surprise. When it comes to showing ethnic diversity on screen, there are students in a classroom who either sit at the front or at the back. Quebec's cinema, unlike that of the rest of Canada and the USA, is that student at the back despite some small progress. The debate about Quebec's cinema whiteness isn't young. Given that most of Quebec's films are filmed in Montreal, I don't understand why Montreal looks like a city without ethnic diversity most of the time. If Quebec's ethnic diversity was shown on screen more often, I'm sure our films would be more popular than they currently are. Unfortunately, Quebeckers from ethnic minorities are responsible for the lack of ethnic diversity on screen. They expect the Québécois to tell their own stories without thinking that the Québécois have a distorted idea about them. All in all, we're not going to get out of the woods anytime soon, but I'm sure Quebec's cinema can pull itself together.

-Interview by Anh Khoi Do

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