Outremont and the Hasidim
(Canada, 52 min.)
Dir. Eric Scott
What is the Yiddish word for NIMBY? A quick Google search doesn’t quite yield a perfect translation, but “schmuck” captures the term justly. NIMBYs, or “Not in my backyard” naysayers often cherry pick strange rules to preserve an idealised nature of their communities. Moreover, NIMBYism often entails dynamics of inclusion or exclusion. It flares up when demographics shift in a neighbourhood.
NIMBYism, however, doesn’t quite adequately define the situation that Eric Scott observes in Outremont and the Hasidim. As the title suggests, the film chronicles a conflict between a Montreal neighbourhood and a specific cultural make-up of the community. The population of Outremont’s Hasidic community is growing—totalling some 7000 people among the borough’s 25,000 residents. The growing ultra-Orthodox Jewish presence means that people need a place to gather and worship. It also means that the general make-up of the neighbourhood isn’t simply as, let’s say, “traditionally Quebecois” despite a Hasidic presence for several decades. Tension mounts as the neighbourhood approaches a referendum on the right to religious places of worship on a street lined with chic boutiques and cafés.
Scott assembles parties from both sides of the situation. This approach, while discernably sympathetic to the Hasidic community, is admirably balanced. The cameras go into the homes of Hasidic residents of Outremont as well as those of the white francophone residents. On the side of the Hasidic community, the film finds an excellent subject in city councillor Mindy Pollak. A member of the Hasidic community herself, Pollak articulates how their request simply matches the rights afforded to others. On the “Quebecois” side of the debate (understanding that the use of the term Quebecois is a simplification here), Scott lands interviews with a spectrum of residents. One blogger nitpicks about bylaws while a shopkeeper complains that a synagogue might have frosted glass on its windows and alter the character of the community. They insist that their concerns aren’t rooted in anti-Semitism or racism, but speak of their neighbours as “others” and express their concerns vaguely as if they streamed One of Us on Netflix one time too many.
Other Outremonters are more pragmatic and want to understand a culture that differs from their perception of a traditional Quebecois. Michèle Dupont, for example, simply isn’t familiar with the religion, custom, and rituals that are becoming more visible in the neighbourhood. However, she also feels uncomfortable with the patriarchal dynamics of Hasidim that don’t jive with mainstream views on gender equality. Monique Jeanmart, an elderly resident and sociologist, expresses similar discomfort with the manner in which her presence goes unacknowledged by her neighbours. She also says that newcomers to the neighbourhood should learn more French (the Hasidic interviewees indicate they are) and adopt a better acceptance of assimilation.
One of the film’s stronger moments brings Dupont, Jeanmart, and Pollak together for a conversation. The three women highlight how people on both sides of the debate draw generalizations in relative ignorance. Moreover, this conversation evokes out the dynamics of cultural survival that amplify tensions on both sides. As Pollak reminds them, aspects of Hasidic practice are related to impulses to protect Jewish culture in the aftermath of the Holocaust. Dupont and Jeanmart, on the other hand, relate their concerns to the influence of the Catholic Church in Quebec and the experience of being a cultural and language minority within the larger Canadian populace.
As a city with strong roots in the Catholic Church, for better or for worse, the controversy about freedom of religious expression in Montreal speaks to the larger conflicts about identity and inclusion in Quebec. Several interviewees cite the practice of laïcité (which roughly translates to secularism) that makes Quebec a lay society. However, as Canadians have seen in the media, the practice of laïcité generally targets religious groups outside Catholicism’s reach, like the controversial ban on face coverings that gained attention as a form of voter suppression for Muslim Canadians. Scott’s doc doesn’t go beyond the Outremont conflict, but the larger implications are present in the emotionally charged interviews.
However, Outremont and the Hasidim shows the potential for mutual respect and understanding that arrives through conversation. Scott’s doc asks audiences to reconsider what it means to be good neighbours. In these divisive times, the film’s emphasis on civility and discourse is most refreshing.
Outremont and the Hasidim screens at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival from Tues, Oct. 27 to Wed, Oct. 28 with a Q&A featuring director Eric Scott, Outremont Mayor Philipe Tomlinson, and Outremont Councillor Mindy Pollak on Wed, Oct 28 at 7:00pm.