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January 23, 2012

The Toronto International Film Festival recently celebrated the best Canadian films of 2011 with their annual Canada’s Top Ten program.  In total I saw five of the top ten films, three of them during the festival.   One of those films was Monsieur Lazhar, a complex story covering themes such as coping with death, the immigrant experience, and the inability to express ourselves as a result of language degradation and fear of demonstrating emotion.  The film is Canada’s official Oscar selection for the category of Best Foreign Language Film (it isn’t yet nominated but is part of a short-list of entries… fingers crossed!) and is well deserving of the recognition.

But this post isn’t really about Monsieur Lazhar or Canadian film, it’s about a book.  The book was featured in Monsieur Lazhar and was read by the film’s title character during his quest to learn more about Quebecois culture (he is an Algerian refugee).  And since learning more about Quebec culture is an interest of my own, I couldn’t resist the temptation to track down a copy of the novel.

Dragon Island by Jacques Godbout follows Michel Beauparlent as he attempts to defeat William T. Shaheen Jr., an American businessman whose company is responsible for constructing Controlled Atomic Dumps in pristine, “poetic” environments.  Shaheen’s company has a record of displacing people from their communities, destroying landscapes that connect people to history and to nature, and offering precarious employment in return for self-sufficiency, and dignity.

First published over 35 years ago in 1976, the novel’s themes seem all the more relevant today.  The proposed Keystone XL and Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline projects remind us of the dominance of commerce over the environment, and recent disasters such as the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear meltdown and the BP oil spill serve as sober reminders of the consequences of reckless consumption and blind trust in technology.  While this book’s themes stem from anxiety on the part of post-Quiet Revolution Quebecers about losing their culture, language, land, and identity to outside corporate interests, this book is topical and will resonate with anyone who recognizes that greed and rampant consumerism are leading to a wealth of problems, including environmental destruction, and income inequality.

Interestingly, as I endeavoured to find out more about the book and its author, I ended up serendipitously finding my way back to Monsieur Lazhar.  Jacques Godbout contributed to a 1962 NFB film about the St. Henri neighbourhood in Montreal (a polluted working class neighbourhood described in the film as being surrounded by “the industrial wealth of other men”, demonstrating thematic similarity to Dragon Island).  Hubert Aquin was also a contributor to September 5 at Saint-Henri, and Aquin’s novel Next Episode happened to be another of the books read by Monsieur Lazhar whilst learning about his adoptive culture!  I’ve demonstrated this cycle in the below (hastily-assembled) diagram.

One of the offshoots in the diagram is a “remake” of sorts of September 5 at Saint-Henri called Saint-Henri, the 26th of August, which was filmed in 2010 and shows a gentrifying Saint-Henri; a Saint-Henri where rich live next-door to poor, and where the fate of the poor in the neighbourhood is uncertain.  I have also included in the picture The Tin Flute, a novel by Gabrielle Roy, which portrays a Saint-Henri similar to that displayed in September 5.  While the people of Gabrielle Roy’s novel may have positive attitudes, they do not ultimately control their own destinies.  They struggle to maintain their dignity and look for meaning in religion, the armed forces, degrading relationships, and dangerous work that tears them from their families but in their minds, gives their lives purpose and hope.  That desperation can spur such actions is not surprising, but the portrait Roy paints of a simple, hard-working, well-meaning family and the hardships that befall them through little fault of their own is simultaneously heart-breaking and thought-provoking.

I have read or seen all of these works and love that there are all of these connections among them.  The works themselves each provide a look into a specific time and place and present their own themes and ideas, but taken together they tell an even bigger story about the human condition that transcends boundaries.  The specific becomes the universal.  Our world-view changes.  Art illuminates life.

Maybe this post isn’t about a book, afterall.