Father Claude Paradis | Hot Docs

Making Last Respects

Megan Durnford offers a filmmaker diary on her Hot Docs award winner

11 mins read

You never know where your next film idea is going to come from. Last spring, I was suddenly inspired while reading a book by Turkish-British author Elif Shafak. The novel, 10 Minutes, 38 Seconds in This Strange World, ends with a group of people digging up a friend who had just been buried in Istanbul’s Cemetery of the Companionless. The sex worker protagonist of the novel had a gruelling life and died in a dumpster but, fortunately for her, she was not companionless. After glancing at a photo of this grim Istanbul cemetery on the last page of the novel, I wondered: What happens to Montrealers who die alone and whose bodies are not “claimed” by loved ones?

First, I found out that the Quebec coroner takes care of the physical remains of these people. I was not surprised to learn that many of Montreal’s “unclaimed” were unhoused people who did not have ID on them at the time of death. I quickly discovered that there are also dozens of other ways that people can end up in this situation. Coincidentally, while I was in the midst of this research, filmmaker and professor Katerina Cizek posted that an elderly man, who had died at her father’s seniors residence, had been saluted “out” by residence staff–because there were no family members to honour him)

Considering that I have attended so many heartfelt funerals and memorial ceremonies for friends and family over the course of my life, I found it hard to imagine that people could be so forgotten that not only would their life not be honoured, but their body wouldn’t even be claimed. This was truly the ultimate form of loneliness.

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Then, I uncovered a brief article in the French-language press about Father Claude Paradis’ annual ceremony for Montreal’s forgotten people. I was really moved by his commitment to celebrate human beings whom he had never known and had been forgotten by everyone else.

I first met Father Paradis on a bench in Lafontaine Park in Spring 2022, the requisite six feet apart. Quickly, I recognized that Paradis was determined to provide a final rite of passage. Even though he could not improve the lives (or deaths) experienced by these people, he believed that he could still lend them some dignity, that they should still be commemorated as human beings.

Then Paradis told me about his personal experience of homelessness on the streets of Montreal. After moving to the metropolis from rural Quebec, he had been overwhelmed by city life. Although he left “the streets” several decades ago, he still strongly identifies with Montreal’s unhoused population.

Paradis was very eager to tell me about the whimsical elements that he had added to the Catholic liturgy. For instance, he told me that every year at the end of the (outdoor) ceremony, attendees were invited to blow gently into tiny cardboard cases that housed dormant Monarch butterflies. As attendees pondered the lives of the recently deceased, hundreds of butterflies took to the skies. How cinematic! I immediately began to consider the best way to film this mass butterfly ascent.

So much for planning. Weeks before the Fall 2023 ceremony, I learned that the ceremony would take place in a church, while I was out of the country (on various journalistic assignments, including covering IDFA, Amsterdam’s great documentary festival, for POV) and that my film project was still “under consideration,” i.e I had no budget.

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Thank goodness for Hugh Durnford-Dionne. Hugh is a very talented cinematographer and editor and a well-established creator of music videos and short films who is always game for a challenge–and willing to accept deferred payment. He is also very easy to reach, because we live in the same house.

Thus began a marvellous mother/son collaboration. Although it was our first creative joint venture, Hugh and I soon discovered that our respective talents and interests meshed well. The key was to proceed as two professional adults and to let our parent/child relationship take a back seat.

Several ideas coalesced during the location scouting. First, we visited the Sanctuaire Marie-Reine-des-Coeurs in East End Montreal where the memorial ceremony was scheduled to take place. The aesthetic charms of this church were not immediately obvious, however the bold linearity of its 1960-era architecture really “popped” in black-and-white. Fortuitously, Hugh and I knew that black-and-white would also serve the rest of the film by conferring gravitas to scenes of forgotten people and places.

Paradis agreed that we could do the interview in late November as long as it was after 6 pm. The presbytery where he lives is very busy, and quite loud, with community events during the daytime. No problem.

During the production of Last Respects, I was really under the influence of the fabulous films and events that I had attended at IDFA the previous month. As I prepared my interview questions for Father Paradis, I was inspired by documentary superstar and IDFA Guest of Honour Laura Poitras. During her Master Talk, Poitras had mentioned that the audio interviews with Nan Goldin for All the Beauty and the Bloodshed were so emotionally powerful that she had cancelled the “on camera” interview.

Hugh and I prepared for an audio interview. Father Paradis was clearly comfortable with this arrangement and I was very pleased with his articulate and resonant responses. After editing down the interview to a 6-minute personal narration, the benefits of an audio-only interview were immediately obvious. As Paradis recounts pivotal moments and motivations, he invites viewers into an intimate space. Last Respects was starting to come together.

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After the interview was cut, we realized that we needed a bit more footage. So I contacted Paradis and asked if we could film him walking through Lafontaine Park, near the presbytery. He replied that it would be his pleasure. However, every time that I tried to call (the only means of contact) him in December he was either out of town or otherwise occupied. As we approached the Hot Docs drop dead deadline of January 5, Hugh and I began to psychologically prepare ourselves for the fact that we would probably miss the Hot Docs deadline.

In the meantime, while waiting for Paradis to be available, Hugh and I created a placeholder scene of me walking through a nearby park. The film was so close to finished!  On January 3, Father Paradis did not answer the phone. I started to worry. Had Paradis been stricken with COVID? Was he in the hospital?! Would we ever see him again? On January 4, I called again. Paradis answered the phone. Yes, he was well. No he did not have COVID. I asked if we could come over to film a short scene the next morning…at 8 am? He hesitated for a moment and then said that 8:30 am could work.

On January 5, after shovelling out the car (of course, it had snowed overnight!) we raced over to Lafontaine Park, filmed the final scene with Paradis and chatted with him about the City of Montreal’s response to homelessness. Back at the presbytery he pulled a bag out of a cupboard and gave Hugh and I some beautiful brightly coloured socks that his late mother had knit—because he wanted to give us something!

Hugh and I tidied up the final version of Last Respects, moments before Hugh’s friends picked him up on their way to an out-of-town birthday celebration. Then, 30 minutes later, I submitted the film to Hot Docs.

It seems simultaneously absurd and beautiful that our film, barely completed in time, won the award for Best Canadian Short Documentary.

Hugh Durnford-Dionne and I are currently developing a docu-animation.

A born storyteller, Megan Durnford is a Montreal-based writer and documentary filmmaker. Her latest film, Last Respects, won the Betty Youson Award for Best Canadian Short Documentary at Hot Docs.

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