Montreal International Documentary Festival

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Becoming Oneself - Nov 19 to Nov 25

Interview - Nicolas Renaud

Interview with Nicolas Renaud, director of Métamorphoses presented in the thematic section Becoming Oneself available from November 19 to 25.

How did you end up working with Olivia Lya Thomassie, who shares her story in the film? How did you meet her?

I met Olivia on a shoot for an anti-discrimination campaign. She’s active in the struggle against anti-Indigenous racism through the Native Montreal organization. I was deeply moved when I heard about the circumstances of how she came to Montreal as a child. She’s also an artist, in several media – beading, video, photography and, recently, theatre and television acting. She has a clear vision of what parts of her story can and can’t be represented. So we were able to have a good dialogue on the idea of making a portrait of her.

How did the film become focused on a dialogue between Olivia and her friend? What did that bring to the filmmaking process?

The respective experiences of Nancy Saunders and Olivia amplify and shed light on each other, as mixed-heritage Inuit women living in the city. As for direction, the simple device of a conversation between two people provided a counterpoint to the more visually oriented, silent sequences centred around Olivia’s inner life.

Did you realize at the outset how important Olivia’s new tattoo in memory of her mother would be in the film? How did that development take on such a prominent symbolic role over the course of the creative process, to the point of being referenced in the film’s title?

It was the starting point. She showed me the print by Inuk artist Mary Paningajak that she wanted to turn into a tattoo. Olivia saw her mother in it. She said she could sense a new phase in her way of living with the past. With a symbol of that change etched in her skin, it became possible to envision a short film where things come into existence and then change, literally through the transformation of Olivia’s body.

Olivia’s father was Québécois and her mother Inuk. You have Québécois and Indigenous roots, from the Huron-Wendat First Nation. How did your hybrid identity contribute to your desire to make a film on the topic? How did Olivia’s testimonial resonate with your own experience?

In general, my experience is very far removed from hers. First, I was touched by her ability to overcome, with so much strength and lucidity, experiences that many of us, myself included, would surely not be able to endure without struggling with more destructive and paralyzing damage as adults. But when it comes to hybrid identity and mixed ancestry, from our very first conversation her perspective on those issues really spoke to me. I am interested in the subject of identity in general, so while wanting to make a fairly straightforward portrait of a person and make the entire process about her, I also learned something about myself. It seems that having mixed ancestry shines a brighter light on the question of identity, because it triggers an ongoing process of self-definition, which is not fixed or fully formed at the outset – it’s marked by breaks and reconnections.
Because the Wendat Nation has become highly mixed and underwent a kind of cultural erosion in the 19th and 20th centuries, there’s an extrapolation of individual experiences into a collective phenomenon. Something is diluted, and at the same time something resists. It can then take a lifetime, connecting to the thread that remains unbroken through mixing. But it isn’t a choice, it seems. Instincts and circumstances come to clarify which relationships have meaning. One is led to find ways of thinking and feeling that ring true, encounters with certain people that become significant, and deep inner connections with a given territory. In a nutshell: where, with whom and with what worldview do we feel at home? The Indigenous world or, in our case, Quebec society? The answer changes with time. Sometimes there’s balance, sometimes conflict, sometimes alternation between two identities, one of which takes precedence depending on the context.
I feel close to certain other things, like Olivia’s impulse to film animals and talk to them, or her need to make ideas and emotions tangible through rituals, relationships and symbols. There are also other motives in the background. I was struck by the controversies in Quebec’s film and theatre communities around the representation of Indigenous people. We saw strong mobilization in defence of works created through an ignorant, exploitative process. We saw that the colonialist mindset endures. These things all provide strong motivation to tell stories about the Indigenous experience, and they also inspire us to care about reciprocity in the creative process. On that point, one detail in the film really hit me right away: when Olivia was preparing to get her tattoo, she asked the artist for permission to use her image.

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