Alex Rice fondly remembers her first impression of Quebec director Denys Arcand. She was living in Los Angeles at the time as a starving artist waiting tables to make ends meet. It was 2004 and she and her colleagues were watching the Oscars from a pizzeria.
The director had just taken home the award for best foreign language film and best original screenplay for his film The Barbarian Invasions.
Now, nearly 20 years later, she’s finally earned the opportunity to work with the director himself, representing her own nation in his most recent film, Testament.
“Growing up, I remember hearing his name and seeing the posters. I knew he was from Montreal. I said ‘Hey, that guy’s from Montreal, and he’s making movies and winning an Oscar. And I’m just from Kahnawake – I had to come all the way to Los Angeles to try and get in this business, and he’s doing it right from Montreal,” Rice told a cinema full of reporters Monday following the first unrevealing of the film. “That stuck in my mind.”
The Kanehsata’kehró:non took on the role of Kanien Montour in the film, which featured scenes shot right in Kahnawake. One scene includes a shot from the town rink, where local teens are spotted playing lacrosse.
Rice told The Eastern Door it was an experience unlike any other in her acting career thus far. She even got to speak Kanien’kéha for the role.
“I was really impressed that the character was from Kahnawake. That she had a name that would come from Kahnawake,” she said. “There was authenticity. I’ve been doing this a long time and I started about 25 years ago, and we didn’t have a lot of roles for Native people. And a lot of times they weren’t very well researched. They were given made-up names – silly stereotypical kinds of names so that people watching would know that they were Native.
“I just felt like I could trust him, and this is a person that doesn’t just want to use me as a prop. He really wants to see who I am and who we are. It touched my heart.”
The satire follows the story of 70-year-old Jean-Michel Bouchard. Alienated from the norms of the modern world, he struggles as he comes to the realization that he has nothing in common with the younger generations around him.
His peace at his seniors’ residence is soon disturbed when a group of protestors decides to show up one morning, demanding the destruction of a painting displayed inside depicting a meeting between Jacques Cartier and the original inhabitants of the lands – an insensitive depiction according to the group, made up of white allies. In an attempt to understand their perspective, Jean-Michel later connects with Rice’s character, who comes to look at the painting and attempt a negotiation with the youth.
For Rice, the film underscores the tensions between younger and older generations. “People are starting to question history,” she said. People are questioning the things they were raised with and told. I think that’s what those protesters represent.”
The director said Jean-Michel, played by Rémy Girard, is essentially his alter-ego.
“He’s living what I’m living in this society, in my own milieu. Interrogations are rife in our time. He expresses my own dismay at the complexity of life,” the director told a cinema full of critics Monday.
He said the controversy over the painting at the centre of the film’s plot was inspired by actual protests staged outside the Museum of Natural History in New York. In response to the outcry, a three-dimensional diorama depicting a Dutch colonizer’s meeting with First Nations people there was updated in 2018 to add labels pointing out its numerous inaccuracies.
“It’s not my intention to protest against that, but rather to point out that we are perhaps heading towards a world where we are going to correct art in its entirety. “What about the Sistine Chapel? Why is God an elderly white man? It could be an African woman, or a Japanese boy. If we start going down this path, where will we end up?” Arcand said. “What’s next, correcting Shakespeare?”
“I often ask myself: ‘Who exactly are these protesters?’” the director added, questioning whether or not they should speak on other peoples’ behalf.
Other parts of Jean-Michel’s character are taken right from Arcand’s youth. As a young lacrosse player he would often come down to Kahnawake for competitions, the director said.
“I had a Mohawk girlfriend when I was 21. She taught me everything that’s in the film – I just transcribed,” Arcand joked.
The film will screen at Cineplex theatres starting October 5.