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#73 : The Magnificent Mesnak

This is a article I wrote for BBBB.

by Alex Shoumatoff

A long-time contributing editor of Vanity Fair and the editor of DispatchesFromTheVanishingWorld.com, Shoumatoff has been advocating for traditional peoples all over the word for forty years.

     I was deeply affected by Mesnak, the first full-length feature film and fully native production about Canada’s North, and a triumph on many levels, an epic contribution to Quebec cinema and world and ethnic film and a statement that native Canada has come into its own artistically, that sets the bar very high, and is something to be really proud of.  Nana Mesnak, Les Adieux d’un Tortue, its full title, has Sundance and Oscar written all over it (once it is subtitled; the dialogue is entirely in French and Innu), particularly the stunning cinematography, which captures the majesty and magic of the boreal forest  and its seething, thrashing ribbons of river. The  cuts to water straining over amber rock or reflecting the passing  coniferous treetops silhouetted against the sky, are masterful, as is the footage of Mesnak, the ornery, primordial snapping turtle who plays a central choric role in the tragedy. Also prizeworthy is the casting. Each actor inhabits his or her role so convincingly and compellingly,  the dramatic illusion is so effective that I was unconsciously sucked into it, so much so that it took a while to fully return to where I was, Montreal’s Cinema Quartier Latin on a drizzly February evening, and it was only afterwards that it dawned on me that the movie is actually a production of Hamlet, in a different culture, environment, and time.  One critic praises Victor Andres Trelles Turgeon, who plays Dave, the Hamlet figure,  for his total naturalness and goes  as far as to call him one of the best Hamlets ever. I talked to Victor at the Montreal premier. He is from the Peruvian Amazon but doesn’t know what tribe; having grown up in Montreal he has never been there and is longing to go. Which is why he able to get into his character’s quest to discover his biological and ethnic origins. Which starts when his adoptive father in Montreal gives him a letter that has just arrived containing a photo of his biological mother, an Innu woman named Gertrude (Hamlet’s mother’s name) Mackenzie, who is up in the fictitious community of Kinoganish (shot in Uashat and Maliotenam, an Innu reserve in the municipality of Sept Isles, on the north bank of the St. Lawrence). On the back of the snap is written, your mother needs you.

      Dave’s father tells him what little he knows about her, that she had serious drinking problems after the death of his biological father and that she put him up for adoption and it has been years since she has heard from her. His adoptive father says it must be something important and encourages him to go  see her. So Dave drives up to Kinoganish and arrives just as Gertrude is preparing to marry the chief, Claude St. Onge, the Claudius figure played by Marco Collin with just the right hint of torment in his eyes and depravity in his twisted mouth, a sensuous charismatic corrupto with ambition and guile you can see becoming the local alpha male. I’ve interacted with the type on four continents. Claude is not at all happy to see David, and neither is Gertrude, who did not send him her picture. It was Leonard, a blind man who knows the dark secret of his father’s murder.

      Rather than welcome Dave into his big fancy modern house, Claude sends him to pitch his tent at the  the traditional campground on the river and out of town, and there he meets the beautiful Osalik, the Ophelia figure (Eve Ringuette), who is practicing the traditional animism and communing with the nature spirits and reveling in her own ripeness and in the sensual glory of the few weeks in the summer when everything with legs and wings is procreating. They fall quickly in love.  The camera panning up Osalik’s body as she lies naked on a slab by a waterfall is one of the most sensuous nudes I have seen in a movie. I  chatted with Eve at the afterparty as well. She said she was from Sept Isles (from Uashat, actually) and worked in a law office and had never acted before except in high school productions and was chosen out of an audition of 180 young Innu women and that it looked like it was going to be a one-time deal,  the performance of a lifetime because she wasn’t getting any other offers. From other sources I learned she has two kids and that she trained to do police work and that she had trouble expressing her emotions, coming out of herself. And indeed she was a bit reserved, not the sensual earth goddess in the film, so the role was a triumph for her.

     Osalik’s peers in the community are typically wasted lost  members of the North’s young native generations, snorting coke, doing ecstasy and crystal meth, with the money compensating the community for hydro dams or logging or mining concessions. Back in the late nineties, I visited one of these dysfunctional, culturally eviscerated communities, each of whose members got $600 every two weeks whether they got out of bed or not. Most of the people were drunk or stoned or high. It’s like the ghetto, worse than most of the Third Word, in the North, even in such a spectacular, luminous, therapeutic natural setting.

      Osalik has been sleeping with her half-brother (I don’t have his name or that of the solidly-built young man who plays him, but he’s  another great piece of casting). David’s arrival has shaken things up in Kinoganish. Gertrude doesn’t want to marry Claude anymore, but he forces her to go through with it, and when Dave finally connects with her, he finds her in the basement of her house in a drunken stupor and she tells him to go, she doesn’t want to see him now or ever,  and throws a bottle after him.

     Dave’s pilgrimage to his hometown and his long-lost mom has not exactly been an idyll.  There is nothing to keep him in Kinoganish so he packs up and prepares to return to Montreal. Osalik decides to go with him, but Osalik’s half-brother finds out and won’t let her go and when Dave comes to get her he and his stoned buddy beat and stomp him. He grabs the shotgun Osalik was trying to take with her but her half-brother wouldn’t let her, and fires it. The outcome is unclear, but next scene he bursts into the wedding of Claude and his mother, his face a bloody pulp, and aims the shotgun at Claude. Leonard has told him that his father had been the chief and had been a big red power activist and had married his mother, the most beautiful woman in Kinoganish, but Claude, his acolyte and now a sell-out “progressive” involved in a big logging scheme on the reserve, had shot him in a bird-hunting “accident” that was actually no accident. Dave confronts Claude in front of his mom, and when she asks if this is true, he falls to his knees and says nothing. He doesn’t have to. What happens after that is unclear, because in the next scene Osalik, who realizes her half-brother will never let her go, she is trapped, goes into the river and drowns herself, and at the end we see her body floating face-up toward some torrential rapids.

      That’s the plot. Mesnak keeps appearing, snapping, hissing. Leonard tells Dave that his father’s clan totem, his double, is the snapping turtle (who is crying for revenge). Mesnak is also the guardian of the river, the forest, and the Innu homeland, its natural integrity, which is going to be devastated by Claude’s logging scheme. So Mesnak has two reasons to be distraught and to want to see Claude get what’s coming to him and out of the picture. The script and the entire production is a collaboration Yves Sioui Durand, himself a Huron from Wenake,  the director of  Quebec’s first and only indigenous theater troop and the director of the film, and the maverick film-maker Robert Morin (Journal d’un Cooperant, about a pedophilic ngo worker in Africa, etc.), one of Quebec cinema’s heavies, and the novelist Louis Hamelin. So it is distressing and baffling that this milestone movie was panned the next day by La Presse, Voir, and the Gazette. These reviews were appallingly condescending and out to lunch. The Cayapo Indians with whom I spent a month in l975 gave me a nickname, no ket, which means no eyes, because I was so oblivious to what was going on in their rain forest, while they could recognize eighteen different species of bee on the wing and had names for each of them. They demonstrate how far local movie criticism  to go before it catches up with the great things that are happening in Quebec cinema, and the truth of the truism that critics are posturing embittered mediocrities,  wannabee  artistes lacking the courage and the talent to express themselves in the medium they have set themselves up as experts on. La Presse called the film “absurde” and indulged in the sort of verbal masturbation that no other language can compete with French   for. The reviewer, Phillip Renaud, to impress his readers how he is a standard-bearer of haut culture,  had to throw in a few words that probably less than one percent of the people Quebec have ever heard of, like “psychotronique” (a Cold War term for parapsychological or metaphysical, I finally found the fourth dictionary I consulted), and “ethilique,” an abstruse word for drunken to describe the stupor Dave found his mother in (in other words she was passed out).

      Duran was criticized by all three for not bridging the gap between theatre (Meznak was originally a play) and cinema (I think he did much better than such classic film adaptations as “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf” or “On the Waterfront;” as I say, the movie was so powerful that it didn’t even occur to me that it was  based on Hamlet until I started thinking about it, and the drama was so gripping and real that I didn’t detect any evidence of it being an adaptation– a double adaptation, actually. I had just seen another epic ethnic movie, Water, in which the heroine, a child widow  who grows up in an ashram for Brahmin widows  to be a beautiful young woman and falls in love with the son of the ashram’s adminstrator, who has just returned from law school, which is taboo, their love is doomed, so she drowns herself. Meznak is the Amerindian Water. The Francophone critics both used the word “maladroit” to describe the performances and thus trash the director. But none of the actors except Victor, who has several t.v. and movie roles to his credit, were professionals. The Gazette’s Brendan Kelly called it “an awkward piece of film-making” and “a heavy-handed approach to the issue of corruption” (is this what the movie is about, Mr. Kelly?). The only performance that was guilty of a little over-emoting was Katia Rock’s Gertrude. But Rock is a singer of some prominence in the Quebec music scene, and all the actors except Victor know the reality of life up north; they have lived it, so despite or perhaps because of their lack of thespian polish, their performances have an authenticity lacking in say, a big-budget Hollywood production like “Black Robes,” but powerfully present in, say, El Norte.

      None of our three local critics got the multilayered symbolism of the mesnak  (another is that the North American continent, the harmonious world of the native people that was raped by the Europeans, is known as Turtle Island) or even mentioned it. Another equally out to lunch reviewer for Quebec City’s Le Soleil complained that “the symbolism of the snapping turtle is overexploited to the point of being aggravating”– at least he is aware that there is a snapping turtle in the movie– it’s only the title of the film–  and that the Mesnak has some relevance to the action. While Voir’s critic groused that we all know about the drugs, violence, and incest in these native communities up north, why do we have to be subjected to another portrayal of them ? Because these problems are not going to go away when you turn off the t.v., the trauma of native Canadian’s savage treatment is cross-generational and lasts longer than the original victims’, and this is the first time it is being portrayed by those who actually have it.  Kelly dismisses the movie with incredible condescension : “It would give me great pleasure to tell you that Mesnak is one fine film. Unfortunately it isn’t. It’s an awkward piece of film-making that doesn’t work on any level.” This is so off the mark and patently not true that it makes you wonder did Mr. Kelly and his colleagues at La Presse, Voir, and Le Soleil– their synposes are so shoddy–  even see the movie ? Have any of them ever visited one of these depressed northern communities ? What’s going on here ? Is it laziness ? What kept them from getting it ? You really have to have your head way up your ass to produce such lazy, self-important garbage. One equally appalled member of Montreal’s movie community fumes ,“A review of something obviously so important, with collaborators like Morin, Messier, and Hamelin, is not something you just knock off in a few minutes for tomorrow’s edition. Having the creme of Quebec’s artistic community’s work reviewed by the creme of its intellectual mediocrity is ludicrous.” But it doesn’t detract from the fact that high art, high drama, has arrived from the aboriginal North, and that there are many more stories up there that are begging to  be told. It took a reviewer across the pond  in Edinburgh, Jennie Kermode of Eye to Eye, to do justice to this masterpiece. “An ambitious transposition like that could easily have been a disaster,” she wrote. “Mesnak not only gets away with it but delivers something that feels as though it ought always to have been told this way.”

      Durand, who had a terrible struggle raising the funding for it, and the Innu, after all they have been through, deserve better.

Mesnak : five stars

The Four Musketers of Presse, Voir, the Gazette, et le Soleil :

1/4 of a star, if that. I hereby jointly award them the first annual

“Au Dela du Maladroit” Prize.