Swans Commentary » swans.com June 16, 2014  



Manon Barbeau Filmmaker


by Peter Byrne





(Swans - June 16, 2014)   The Québécois scenarist and documentary filmmaker Manon Barbeau went to Paris in March 2014. UNESCO had asked her to stage an exhibition. She chose to feature the work of Wapikoni Mobile that she founded ten years before. Units on wheels travel to Aboriginal communities and provide workshops for First Nations youth where they learn to use digital tools. During each visit, specialists train thirty participants. Young people scattered over a vast area have now made hundreds of short films and musical pieces. They are accessible at http://www.wapikoni.ca/films/en and Manon Barbeau's films can be seen on National Film Board of Canada's Web archive.

In an interview with Radio-Canada, Manon was asked to sum up her career. Although she had thirty years of writing and documentary-making behind her, she chose to talk about a film she made in 1998, Les enfants du refus global, ("The children of total refusal"). It was a very personal enquiry into the sons and daughters of the Quebec artists who signed the Refus global manifesto in 1948. The document is now seen as a landmark in Quebec history, a sign of what was to come in 1960 when the province finally began to face up to modernity. Paul-émile Borduas, a painter and teacher, was the driving force behind the manifesto. He was the mentor of the fifteen young practitioners of the arts who signed it with him.

Refus global amounted to an exasperated attack on everything in Quebec society that the artists saw as obstructing the free and full development of individuals. Their immediate concern was non-figurative art. They wanted a place in Quebec culture for abstract painting. They insisted that it was a preeminent way of freeing the individual and opening up the world to him. Their criticism of the status quo, however, went far beyond the arts. They objected to the machine politics that kept Quebecers in the role of obedient children. They also objected to the authoritarian church that treated them like forever guilty adolescents. They refused, once and for all, to be excluded from the manifold possibilities of life, from joy, innocence, and creation.

What makes Manon Barbeau's Les enfants du refus global searingly personal is that one of the signers of the manifesto was her father, the painter Marcel Barbeau. With fifty years' hindsight she set out to enquire how the often tumultuous lives of the signatories affected their children. On a personal level she was concerned with how the choices of her parents affected her. Like all of Manon Barbeau's work the film flows from a simple and direct curiosity that could almost be called womanly.

Some Quebec poets and historians feel that French Canadians were excluded from history up to the 1960s. Manon feared that the children of the 1948 militants for freedom and fulfillment had limited their own children's access to both. Had not these offspring in the shadows also been excluded? Her instinctive desire to know would lead, as the seventy-five minute documentary unfolds, to fundamental questions, questions caught up in the twists and turns of vital personal decisions and not susceptible of easy answers.

Manon's Les Enfants de refus global begins with a photo of her and her brother François. She is three and he is one. Had she been older, she says, she would have "saved" him. It makes us think of her first film, the brief Comptines of 1975. Little girls of seven or eight wake up to springtime in the Montreal streets. Healthy little girls, all spic and span and confident, go through the rituals of sidewalk games. It's a joyful glimpse of possibility. Their energy could certainly have "saved" Manon's brother. But would these April buds bloom? Les Enfants de refus global isn't so sure.

Manon begins with François, putting forth as if it were her prime evidence. For she is half devil's advocate, half wounded daughter in this measuring of heroic 1948 rhetoric against what it wrought. When her parents separated and each went his way to personal fulfillment, exclusion began for their two children. Manon was entrusted to her father's family. François was given in adoption far from Montreal. He would grow up without knowledge of his real family, which he would discover only by chance at seventeen. Manon had a brief contact with him when he was twenty. The film finds him in his forties, a schizophrenic under care. (He has since died.) Manon takes him to an exhibition concerning Refus global. We watch him being filled in on his parents' exploits. Manon's evidence is full of pathos and irony. François is still a child and plunged in the religiosity execrated by his parents in 1948. There will be witnesses for the defense. A signatory, Madeleine Arbour, smiling like the sun, takes what will be their principal line. The message of Refus global was that talents and gifts must not be obstructed. But would she have abandoned her children to develop her potential? Never, she says, thus avoiding the question of which comes first. Marcelle Ferron, another signatory with children, knew the dilemma up close. Separated from her husband, she was fighting him for custody of her three children. She lost the initial legal battle, but did not give up the struggle. Separated from her children she suffered no end but took the path of freedom and went to France. Here the question takes on more density. Ferron eventually won her children back and had a very successful career as an artist. But her tenacity was like a force of nature. You can still feel it pulsating before the camera. She could do both, the fulfillment of her talent and motherhood. But that isn't the question Manon is asking. She wants to know which comes first.

Renée Borduas shows more of the uncertainty the question deserves. Is it well put? Can there be a simple answer? The daughter of the prince of Quebec disorder, Paul-émile, seems a child still despite her grey hair. She is all nuance. Thanks to Refusal global her father lost his teaching job and left home for an international career. That and a separation from his wife meant he was completely lost for his children. Renée, fifty years later, still seems in shock or at least in mourning. She is too much in awe of her father to answer Manon's question. To blame him for disappearing would be to negate his accomplishments, make them secondary to her deprivation. She is too unassuming for that and prefers to believe in the manifesto's message. She feels that parents can't be blamed for their children's unhappy lives and that every child ought to find his own way.

Passing over Janine, a second Borduas child who like François Barbeau was under psychiatric lock and key, we pass on to Renée's brother Paul in the Dominican Republic. He is a congenial beachcomber type with the philosophical surface calm that suits the role. Like Renée he is still awed by his father whom he admires and feels he sees objectively. Boyhood memories resurrect a stern, fair-minded but coolly detached paternal figure. Paul's comments on the father-son connection across human history tell us little about him and his father. Nor do they tell us why he lives toothless in a Dominican Republic slum. The likable Paul isn't one to let himself go to emotion. When Manon reading with him a letter of her mother's can't hold back her tears, he hurries her over the bump. He's intent on philosophic distance whereas she is engaged in a quest for her mother. "I want to understand" was Manon's motive in filming. Paul would rather not lift the lid.

Jean-Paul Riopelle was another signatory that Manon was able to meet. The first Canadian painter to receive international recognition was in his late seventies and would die in 2002. It was a meeting and not a conversation because Riopelle, in the last stages of alcoholism and stony melancholy, found pleasure only in declaring his nihilism. The world was valueless, life of no interest. Riopelle's septuagenarian head could have been staring us down from a garbage can in Samuel Beckett's Endgame. To ask him about his wife and kids of forty years back would have been like asking the occupant of a coffin if his legs were cramped. The "wild Canadian" who had enlivened soirées on the Left Bank watched the Saint Lawrence from the Isle-aux-Grues and waited for his thirst to peak. This mostly wordless confrontation was central to Manon's enquiry. Parental responsibility was one position and the unhampered development the artist another. But neither mattered to Canada's most famous painter. He denied the good news announced in 1948. Artistic creation was not personal salvation. Artists might quell their existential anxiety by believing that making art till their last breath was the way to heaven. Riopelle's silence said that nobody was saved.

His wife Françoise also signed Refus global. The couple had two daughters. Sylvie, mother of four who sought an anchor in motherhood, tells Manon that her parents move between Canada and France made her feel she belonged nowhere. Their divorce left her anxious forever. Her sister Yseut has become a scholar of her father's work. When asked what was best about her youth, she said it allowed her to meet some extraordinary people. But she refused to say what was worst about those years as if such avowals -- precisely what Manon wanted to know -- were better passed over in silence.

Katherine Mousseau, the daughter of signatory Jean-Paul and actress Dyne Musso was even less supportive of Manon's contention. She said she loved life, enjoyed it, and sailed high and dry over the bohemian torrent she was born to. Borduas's lucubrations were only the beginning for her. Suicides, divorce, upheavals, rejections -- she believed she floated above and beyond them. Maybe, she said, some of it hurt her, but she didn't think so. Katherine is a professional actress. Was she playing a role here?

Les Enfants de refus global is of course more than a passionate enquiry. It is art, though of a different kind from what Borduas had in mind in 1948. He was under the spell of Surrealism. His painting would gradually take another direction, but his view of art would not change. It was an explosion in the subconscious that the artist would find a way of expressing. Manon's film challenges this view of art. The beauty of Philippe Lavalette's camera work isn't explosive. It provides a steady objectivity as from an outsider asked to arbitrate a family dispute. Manon's script, hot and cold by turns, provides an alternative to the Surrealist aesthetic that has had such staying power in Quebec.

The emotional tremor running through Les Enfants de refus global comes not so much from Manon's enquiry into consequences, as from a search for her absent mother. The discovery of Suzanne Meloche's letters and a painting of hers makes for drama. When Manon is shown leafing through her mother's manuscript of poems she has in her hands the key to what tore up her and her brother's life. The title, Aurores fulminantes (literally, explosive dawns), says it all. Upwellings from the depths of consciousness were what had to be respected before all else. They brought a new life that was the only one worth living. Neither poetry nor art in general had governed her mother's decision to abandon her, but a very particular conception of poetry and art that imposed its own imperative of conduct.

Crucial is Manon's conversation with her father Marcel Barbeau. That it takes place while he works on one of his splendid paintings is fitting. His art is one thing and his family -- here a questioning Manon -- is another. Is this a further exclusion? In her way, more a listener than an interrogator, Manon wants to know how he and her mother could have abandoned her and her brother to others. What were their feelings then and now? She appears unconvinced by his explanation of the difference between spiritual and physical fathers. Marcel says Borduas fathered him spiritually while he, Marcel, was only the physical father of Manon and François. His daughter will remark sourly that Borduas was then her spiritual grandfather.

What Marcel Barbeau repeated came directly from Refus global of fifty years before. Talents had to be developed no matter what the process did to bystanders. When Manon asks the painful question of her father why he could not have looked after François, his answer was stark. He too had been ill and in any case should he have ruined his life by taking on the burden of his -- only physical-- son's? Manon reflects afterward that there was more to Marcel's answer than that. He was simplifying and the dismantling of his marriage and family had left a grievous wound.

Manon devoted an entire documentary to her father in 2000, Barbeau, libre comme l'art. Once more she lets her subject speak. She listens. The film, again a collaboration with the cinematographer Philippe Lavalette, astonishes by its refusal to stand still. As in all good art films, the painting, the work, is central. We get a deluge of it, but never as in a gallery. The canvases play games with us, coming and going, teasing us as if to demonstrate the artist's belief that his art is magical. There is a lightness in his touch and explanations that the film echoes, and so is shaped by its subject. Barbeau makes art because he likes doing so. He can't stop. He is exercising his freedom and that is enough for him. The film shows him at it, which was the perfect approach to this particular artist.

But then he is also Manon's father. He is full of life but not the easiest being to share one's own life with. There are moments of quicksilver temper that bring this out. Only intimacy would permit a director to underline it without pointing a finger of disproval at the subject. If Barbeau is a self-centered male, with tyrannical possibilities, he also has the creative spark that illuminates daily living. His partner, a beautiful woman, says she "seconds" him in his career and is shown as a busy handmaid. One wonders what a woman of Manon's generation and accomplishments thinks of that. But then any father-daughter connection has to be about different generations.

Manon Barbeau surveyed exclusion another time in L'armée de l'ombre, 1999, which centers on a clutch of punks in Quebec City. She tried to uncover the wounded children beneath the bravado negations and simulated violence. Despite their funny-paper armory, what the fraught young males reveal is their pathetic fragility. Manon is like an off-screen mother anxious for her brood. She keeps her physical presence out of the film except for an occasional whispered question from behind the camera. She lets the punks have their say and listens to them. They have the floor, "la parole." They dramatize the suicides in their milieu. They bring together their reluctance to conform, their prison time, debts, fines and general adolescent disarray into one strident curse on the world as it is. When one of them extolls ancient Egypt's civilization, the viewer can only shudder for their uncertain grip on reality. Manon, the director, doesn't play chess with the Quebec City punks. Rather she plays their game, which is to make their personal predicaments into entertainment. They become visible, have at least a temporary life, by dressing up weirdly and making the tourists gasp. Apprentice exhibitionists, they are for the police only a routine annoyance like an unleashed dog. The directors of photography, Michel La Veaux and Philippe Lavalette, have a feast. The strange getups, flood of colors and out-of-step antics are made for the camera.

The format of L'armée de l'ombre leaves it up to the viewer to answer the punks back. One feels for the kids and marvels at their existence in the margins of the developed world. Doubtless the social services should be prodded into action. Should our sympathy extend further? Could it not be better invested elsewhere? For instance in the half a million children near starvation camped out just now in the Middle East. They are too weak to dress up, play rock guitar, and annoy the authorities.

Maybe Manon also came to think she should go farther afield. Subsequently her eye for the excluded settled on the youth of Canada's Native People. They had only an invisible existence for what the punks called "our civilization," not even inhabiting its margins but a great nowhere that we were only too happy to know nothing about. Manon wrote a script with fifteen Atikamekw youth from Wemotaci, a First Nation reserve in the Maurice region of Quebec. She envisaged a feature-length film called La fin du mépris. One of her helpers was a twenty-year-old woman named Wapikoni Awashish. She was an activist in her community where exclusion from Canadian life had resulted in serious problems with alcohol, drugs and self-destruction. Wapikoni's sudden death in 2002 moved Manon to found Wapikoni Mobile. She saw it as "a place of assembly, intervention, and audiovisual and musical creation for First Nations youth." For a decade now working with the Assembly of First Nations and the National Film Board of Canada, Wapikoni Mobile has striven to include Aboriginal communities in what we too, not without arrogance, call our civilization.


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published June 16, 2014