Culture & Conversation

Once upon a time in Verdun

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Where I’m From, by Montreal documentarist Claude Demers, stitches together street scenes of Verdun, gorgeous aerial shots of the Southwest from the St. Lawrence River and fascinating young characters to tell a story about a man trying to reconcile who he is with where he comes from.

This meticulously insightful documentary follows the lives of two boys, Bastien and Cédric, both of whom represent dual qualities of director-narrator Demers himself. The quiet and inquisitive Bastien was abandoned by his parents early on. He now lives with a guardian who struggles to help him deal with epilepsy and ADD. Class clown Cédric roams the street on his skateboard and brags to his best friend about throwing stink bombs during lessons. The very mention of his absent father is met with an epithet and a shrug. The adults in Bastien and Cédric’s world are headless voices, like in the Charlie Brown cartoons; sometimes a hand on a waist, sometimes folded arms on the dinner table.

These boys have timeless pastimes; riding bikes at full speed through puddles; sitting transfixed to slabs of flashing pixels; chugging bottles of sugary drinks competitively over formica tabletops. We get the sense that what has been will continue to be.

Other people add character to the neighborhood. There are the old men who sit in the 50-year-old Dunkin’ Donut, that perennial mainstay of Wellington Street, telling stories of nightclub dancers from days of yore. Other men meet by the riverside to hunt for ducks with contraptions straight out of Duck Dynasty. If there are themes of class distinction or changing landscapes, it is only incidental.

In one jarring scene, Demers sits down with a woman bedridden by a total loss of mobility. She talks about a Swiss company that arranges assisted suicides. If life is but a walking shadow, hers lost its shoes a few miles back. She talks about life and death with the stark, cold greyness that covers Verdun on a cloudy day. Demers asks if she is afraid of death. She answers without hesitation: “Were you afraid to be born?”

Therein lies the heart of this documentary, because, we find out, the narrator’s days in utero were tumultuous, and near fatal. Where he comes from is a dark place both biologically and historically; and so are the beginnings of these characters which fascinate him. He can’t conceive of the existence of God because it is impossible that God has no beginning; Demers’ own existence is predicated on the tragedies in which he was born. What is anything if you can’t trace where it’s from?

But still, the towers go up in Verdun, and workers in hardhats file out of glass elevators 20 awe-inspiring storeys high. The twilight hours in Dunkin’ Donuts are still alive with the chatter of men and women who have no place else to go. Still the church that rue de l’Eglise was built around fills with the sounds of worship, of singing and mourning. Along the curb, graffiti artists do their work on a red brick apartment, only to see it obliterated with an industrial strength hose a few days later. What has been, will always be, but beginnings are what get you there.

Where I’m From (D’ou je viens) is showing in French at Excentris Cinema to January 8.

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Jessica Wei is a culture writer and travel editor based in Montreal.


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