Marcel Simard: A tragic loss for Quebec cinema

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Quebec film director and producer Marcel Simard.

The article below is a tribute to Marcel Simard, a central figure in Quebec cinema who is barely known in English Canada. Last Saturday, Marcel committed suicide after a long depression. His death is a terrible loss to cinema throughout Canada because, as his friend Marquise Lepage says in the extraordinary piece below, he made provocative films often about the people society prefers not to see.

Marcel was both a director and a producer. He mentored many Quebec filmmakers and with the money he made from his major commercial success, Love Moi, he established Virage, a production company that was an invaluable resource for young, progressive filmmakers. He was also my friend and the husband of one of my closest friends, Monique Simard, a union and feminist activist and now the director of the National Film Board in Quebec.

I learned a lot from Marcel about the oppression of the Quebecois. He came from a large, poor family and remembered well the many insults a unilingual francophone experienced on the streets of Montreal in his youth. Marcel was a great filmmaker and a wonderful man. I hope some of you will get to know him a little by reading this article. The issues raised apply equally to film across Canada.


-- Judy Rebick



Marcel Simard, 1945-2010 -- I'm in mourning... and angry!

My friend Marcel Simard, director, scriptwriter, producer, husband, father and grandfather is no longer with us. His lifeless body was found Saturday morning in his car. He didn't die in a car accident, or of a heart attack -- he voluntarily ended his own life.

In choosing to bow out this way, he obliges us -- as he did so often in his work -- to face up to realities that society prefers to sweep under the rug. His tragic death directly confronts major taboos: first suicide and depression, still too often viewed as a shameful disease! His death also lifts the veil shrouding a subject that has become almost more untouchable, funding of audiovisual work in Quebec.

Marcel Simard was my friend for almost 25 years. After leaving university, it is with him that I first gained experience in film production at Les Productions du Lundi Matin and directed my first long feature Marie s'en va-t-en ville. We became friends working together and -- a rare thing -- our friendship withstood the 1,001 tensions it takes to make and produce films.

Audacious

A sociologist by training, Marcel was a man with a keen social conscience. He was a committed artist and producer. It was with him, and Les Productions Virages, which he founded, that I was able to make difficult documentaries like Des marelles et des petites filles, as well as Des billes des ballons et des garçons about the treatment and working conditions of children around the world. More recently, it was again with Virage that I directed Martha qui vient du froid about the deportation of Quebec Inuit to the arctic in 1950.

Marcel was daring, and often, he won risky gambles by successfully producing films that no one else would dare make. His temerity and determination are legendary, as is his great humanity and empathy for ordinary people.

When Simard enlisted his compassion in the service of his director's talent, this provided poignant films of great beauty -- like Toujours à part des autres or Love-moi, as well as other unclassifiable works that never received the recognition they deserved.

In the films he created, as in those he produced, Marcel sought out strong content and subjects asking questions, ahead of prospects of financial gain.

A luminous personality

Personally, when I finished watching a film Marcel made or produced, I would always leave moved, more educated or open to a situation than beforehand. And isn't this the most beautiful quality of a work: its capacity to transform us a bit, and sometimes even, to make us better people?

It was with him, and later with his partner Monique Simard, who also joined the company, that a number of young filmmakers made their first works. Also, with what we know of many producers' reluctance to fund female directors, another remarkable fact is that les Productions Virage was among the production companies that produced the greatest number of films directed by women in Quebec.

This wonderful mix of boldness, humanism and creativity made Marcel Simard a person who was at once radiant and very humble. If these amazing qualities gained him the sympathy of a number of people, they also sometimes cost him dearly.

Responsible

In a context where the rules of the game have become very difficult for audiovisual production in Quebec, the precariousness of a number of independent production companies has become evident. This is especially so for genres that Marcel always defended -- documentary and auteur films.

For certain people, filing for bankruptcy [ed. note Productions Virage filed for bankruptcy last week] would be a mere formality, since producers are used to juggling millions and peoples' lives. This was not the case for Marcel, who was from a working-class background and who always felt personally responsible. Although few people knew it, he'd put all his money from the sale of his house in Outremont into his production company last year, and a few days before he ended his life, managed to eke out the funds to reimburse -- out of honour and solidarity -- all the individual creditors, including independent filmmakers.

There are many things that one could accuse Marcel of, as I grieve today, but it would certainly not be for disrespecting those with whom he worked, nor for not trying with all his might to make it so that auteur cinema regain its rightful place.

In what we pompously call the cinematographic industry here, the great majority of audiovisual productions are financed by institutions and different government bodies, and NEVER GENERATE PROFITS TO LINE THE STATE COFFERS.

Despite this fact, in the past few years, "commercial" film has been privileged ad nauseam (it doesn't bring in money, but it looks good!). And this, at the expense of auteur cinema and documentary films that have always made our reputation here (and that often cause, despite their miniscule budgets, some beautiful surprises at the box office, like the recent J'ai tué ma mere).

In anger

So, I'm furious about a system that seems to have forgotten what's important -- for all of society -- access to a wide range of quality cultural works. I'm angry to see an "industry" funded by all its citizens -- and whose raison d'être is precisely our cultural difference -- copying American culture.

I'm angry to find that a big part of the film community underestimate the pertinence of films and TV programs that are immense cultural assets and that often lead the way in genres that only later achieve popular success.

I'm angry to find that creators from here are increasingly held hostage to the dictates of broadcaster schedules, ratings and their works' commercial potential.

I'm angry that we could have let a production house crumble, especially one as important to the audiovisual landscape here as Productions Virage.

I'm angry that we are closing our eyes to the human dramas hidden behind unjust and unjustifiable politics. Yes, my friend Marcel put his heart in everything he undertook. His recent financial troubles, exacerbated by his oversensitive nature put him on edge, made him lose sleep, then his health and finally his life! What a waste!

Marcel, I am angry, but also and above all terribly sad. Today, I cried with your wife, your children and their friends. But very soon, I will roll up my sleeves, and finish the beautiful film that we were supposed to make together. Ironically, the theme is the great beyond... I imagine that wherever you are, you can still help and inspire me as you so often have.

Very soon, I will clean up my hankies and continue the fight for those who don't have a voice in matters, or who -- like you -- were silenced far too soon.

Marquise Lepage is a filmmaker from Quebec. This article first appeared in Le Devoir, and has been translated by Meg Hewings and Maria Stuart.

 

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