All photos courtesy of Hot Docs

Mystic River: Félix Dufour-Laperrière’s Archipelago

An animated odyssey through imagined islands

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11 mins read

“I watch you closely, the landscape traversing you,” says a disembodied voice in Félix Dufour-Laperrière’s Archipelago. “I can see a river, its islands, but nothing of you. Tu n’existes pas.”

The man repeats the latter phrase to a female counterpart. The animated woman considers his words, raises her hand, and traces her lifelines against the coastline of Saint Lawrence River, which appears in verité-style documentary footage. She shuts her eyes and counters, “Not true. If I don’t seem to be much, I exist in the details. Not knowing me, you underestimate me.”

Director Félix Dufour-Laperrière. Photo by Fabrice Gaëtan

The images yield to a black canvas as Norman McLaren-ish animated sounds and dynamic text illuminate the frame. “We’ll speak of what can be. Let’s go!” The woman and the lively animation suggest a journey into uncharted waters. Archipelago traverses episodic movements—islands that shape a larger picture—as the two characters debate the landscape and its lore to understand their place in the world. By exploring the vast terrain and mythology of Quebec, Archipelago delivers a forceful assertion of existence.

The film, which screens at Hot Docs after debuting at the International Film Festival Rotterdam, travels through bodies of water and islands in a deft mix of animated styles. The collage reflects territories both real and imagined as Archipelago navigates the murky waters of history.

Dufour-Laperrière’s third feature film follows the animated drama Ville Neuve (2018), which depicts a small fishing village considering the 1995 Quebec referendum, and the verité documentary Transatlantique (2014), which observes a month-long crossing of a cargo ship on the Atlantic Ocean. The director’s oeuvre seems oddly linked to bodies of water. He says it’s merely coincidental.

“It is at first an unconscious continuity,” explains Dufour-Laperrière. “The river is omnipresent in Quebec. It crosses the plains and the fields. It defines the whole territory.” The flowing water in Archipelago nevertheless resonates independently. “These strong and massive waters are both a limit and an opening,” he explains. “They’re a limit because you can cross them and you can live by yourself, but a river is also an opening to something bigger.”

As the river creates a seemingly vast space that expands towards the ocean, Dufour-Laperrière sees its openness as paradoxical to the borders it creates. “The territory we inhabit and belong to is at the same time real and concrete and therefore limited, but also personal, intimate and imaginary, and therefore borderless,” he observes. “Archipelago is a take on that fertile paradox—at the same time concrete and real with historical issues and intentions, but also imaginary, intimate, and dreamed.”

Whereas Ville Neuve evokes a specific milieu by realizing its story within a consistent minimalist aesthetic, Archipelago favours a mixed approach. This conceit allows different temporalities, terrains, and realities to co-exist. Archipelago is a collaboration with a dozen animators who interpreted visually its meditation on landscape and memory. Dufour-Laperrière says that Archipelago was tightly scripted, yet invited a free-flowing production.

Dufour-Laperrière suggests that breaking the seemingly rational order of animation suits Archipelago’s spirit. “Collective subjectivities mix and an encounter makes the territory of the river its reality. That encounter actually happened within the making of the film itself.” The director explains that collaborators received reference points, a script excerpt, and some images, but were free to filter the story through their own aesthetics and experiences. Archipelago doesn’t restrict its varied techniques to distinct sequences or scenes, but mixes them freely throughout to create a meditative yearning.

The animation riffs on history as the speakers shape memories to make sense of the past, present, and future. For example, one sequence sees the woman speak of the former Ville Jacques-Cartier, now part of Longueuil, as an island. The man corrects her, noting that it is merely part of an island. She counters and calls it an “imagined island” due to the rebellions that rose around the marshland. A mixture of animation styles evokes her narrative of Dr. Jacques Ferron, who offered his medical services altruistically and wrote about the working class, and writer Pierre Vallières, the FLQ intellectual who provocatively likened Quebecois’ struggles to Black oppression, as a convergence of rebellion and restlessness. The images fluidly converge into the animated waters, which engulf the community, dissolving borders while creating news ones.

Archipelago’s homages are further evident in nods to Chris Marker and Gilles Groulx, as it echoes the essayistic rhythms of films like Sans Soleil and 24 heures ou plus. Similarly, sequences invite comparison to Norman McLaren, Ryan Larkin, and other NFB artists whose palettes are part of Quebec’s cultural fabric. Archipelago’s animation also honours international perspectives, which situate the Quebecois cultural milieu as an island within a larger field.

 

The heterogeneous nature of the doc mixes with its other chief component: the archives. As Archipelago explores territories both concrete and abstract, the mixture of animation and archival imagery creates a dialogue between fact and fiction. For example, a 1942 newsreel spotlights the vibrant energy of Montreal by contrasting the flourishing metropolis with slower examples of urban life. The narrator champions Montreal as “the second largest French-speaking city in the universe” and the “Paris of the New World.” As the newsreel contrasts images of Montreal with shots of rural communities — farms and churches — Archipelago interacts with the archives by layering animated characters, symbols, and text atop the footage. Much of this footage then repeats as poet Joséphine Bacon recites verse in Innuaimun (without subtitles) to summon the history that archives omit.

“Quebec’s history is paradoxical,” says Dufour-Laperrière. “Its colonial past with political tensions defines my paradoxical relationship with the archives: you can break them; they’re false. They’re theatre or an interpretation of reality.” The director says the 1942 newsreel exemplifies Archipelago’s ability to reconfigure recorded history. “It was made in a specific moment in time that was very conservative; Duplessis was ruling the province,” observes Dufour-Laperrière. “I enter the archive, break it, and let other realities, other possibilities, and other subjectivities open that archive.”

Archipelago’s likeness of Quebec as an island, or series or islands, suggests the concept of the two solitudes as the province evolves as a nation within a nation, wrestling with a complicated past and future. Dufour-Laperrière says the question of whether Quebec becomes more or less like an island remains slippery. “The tensions are still there,” he observes. “Not just the tension between Quebec and Canada, but the image of ourselves within Canada without being independent is a tension that is evolving. It has to answer to the challenges of today.”

Dufour-Laperrière echoes Archipelago by adding that no island can remain fixed. “I don’t think it’s a particularly good moment for Quebec politics,” he reflects. “It’s dangerous for any society to live in the status quo, especially one like Quebec that has specific challenges.” Archipelago challenges the status quo by forging a path as a poetic, self-reflexive documentary. Dufour-Laperrière’s portrait of Quebec demands comparison to Guy Maddin’s docu-fantasia My Winnipeg with its intimately personal rumination of place and memory. Like Maddin’s film, moreover, it plays liberally with stories, histories, and realities to convey how any attempt to mythologize a land inevitably fictionalizes it.

“I don’t want to make manifestos,” says the director. “Cinema is a space of inexactitude where you bring sounds and images together and where you put ideas, feelings and people together. A manifesto is a will to be exact and to get the truth. Cinema operates in a different field. Archipelago goes into the roots what makes a political desire, a political energy, and a political will.” The film creates the first ripples and invites audiences to turn them into waves.

Archipelago screens at Hot Docs 2021.

Please visit the POV Hot Docs Hub for more coverage from this year’s festival.

Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association.

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