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Quebec Cinema: Tiny Budgets, Big Stories

If there's anything that characterizes Quebec cinema, it's chutzpah despite limited means. The government grants that fund Quebec filmmakers' projects add up to small salaries, but that doesn't restrict their artistic vision. Plus, Quebec's homegrown movies have a better chance at domestic box-office success, where the rest of Canada tends to prefer Hollywood imports. But because the films don't always leave the province, you might miss them altogether if you don't catch local showings.

Luckily, the Rendez-Vous du Cinéma Québécois (RVCQ) festival in Montreal gives people another chance to see those movies. Each February, the RVCQ showcases a large selection of Quebec movies—over 300 this time around—that were made in the last year or, in some cases, that are making their debut. It covers all categories: fiction, documentaries, shorts, animation, student productions, and for the first time this year, interactive movies. A great deal of the films aren't even in French, and some need no words at all.

This was a terrific year for non-fiction in Quebec. The coup came with the festival's closing film, the world premiere of "Over My Dead Body" directed by multimedia artist Brigitte Poupart. It spans the harrowing 18 months during which Montreal choreographer Dave St-Pierre, stricken with cystic fibrosis, awaits a lung transplant. Despite its heavy subject, it doesn't fall into unnecessary pathos. We witness the genuine bond that forms between Poupart and her subject, and the cruel, complex science of organ transplants. The movie's jerky storytelling, asymmetrical split-screen sequences, and quiet candor mirror the choreographer's style. There's a lot of nudity in the film, as in St-Pierre's work, but it's not titillating. It seems more a means to depict mortality's unkempt, brutal form. "Over My Dead Body" isn't hitting the festival circuit, but it'll be shown in English at MoMA on March 17 and 18 as part of the Canadian Front program.

Another powerful documentary is "The Vanishing Spring Light," by Xun "Fish" Yu. It's the allegorical portrait of Dujiangyan City in southwest China—home to the oldest irrigation system, a UNESCO site—by way of Grandma Jiang. While her neighborhood is on the verge of a massive gentrification, Grandma Jiang is slowly dying of the after-effects of a stroke. The movie has several long takes of frank discussions with Grandma and her children, who help her as her health deteriorates. "The Vanishing Spring Light" provides breezy snapshots of the community, getting on with their daily routines, well aware that that their lifestyle is on the cusp of extinction. The film is the first in a four-part series about this now-refurbished neighborhood. The second movie is due out in 2012.

"El Viaje Silencioso" ("The Quiet Ride") also deals with displacement, this time on the U.S./Mexico border. Director Marie-Eve Tremblay travels between Agua Prieta and Douglas, AZ, through the long stretch of desert that connects both, just beyond the border walls. The title refers to how quietly Mexicans must cross the desert on foot to migrate to the U.S. without papers. The journey takes days and people have died of heat stroke or dehydration on the way. The unforgiving irony is that because the U.S. economy thrives on cheap labor, this stretch of desert remains mostly unguarded. What distinguishes El Viaje from most documentaries about hotly debated political topics is the lack of "expert" opinions. Instead, Tremblay focuses on those most affected by the U.S.'s imbalanced immigration laws: the people who want to immigrate, and the activists who help them do it or help them cope when it doesn't work out. "There's lots of racism once you get to America," says one anonymous Mexican, summing up how he experienced the better life he chased.

On the fiction front, "Jaloux" ("Jealous") is probably the best tribute to Quebec's determination to make art at any, or no, cost. Shot over 16 days on a teeny budget of $60,000, director Patrick Demers has all the right ingredients for effective suspense: a mysterious man with a shotgun, a feuding couple and an isolated cabin by a lake. Because the actors improvised all of their scenes, the pervading dread is even more significant. In true Canadian fashion, the film delivers a satisfactory payoff, but it's no studio ending. Maybe that's the upshot of grant funding. An English version of the movie is available on iTunes.

Another world premiere was the multi-lingual "Une bouteille dans la mer de Gaza" ("A Bottle in the Gaza Sea"). It's the sweet, hopeful story of an unlikely friendship between Tal, a 17-year-old Jewish girl in Jerusalem, and Naïm, 20-year-old Palestinian man in Gaza city. Tal and Naïm become email pen-pals and discuss their respective sides of the 2007-2008 conflict. The movie doesn't delve into complex politics, but because the two main characters are so young, it doesn't have to. That their friendship endures while bombs are set off around them is what forges their ideal rebellion. Maybe this wouldn't happen in real life, but wouldn't it be great if it did?

One of the RVCQ's most interesting pieces was the interactive "Code Barre" ("Bar Code"). The "Code Barre" project was a collaborative effort between 30 directors in Quebec and France. They developed a mobile app that scans bar codes from different products, which then launches a short film related to that object on "Code Barre"'s website. There are 100 movies to view and each is utterly unique in treatment and temperament. To test it out, I recommend going to the Code Barre website (http://codebarre.tv) and entering "tweezers," "shovel" or "404 object not found" into the search engine. I don't know for sure what will happen when you do, and that's the point.

Experimentation is a big part of Quebec cinema's DNA, but that doesn't make it any less accessible to the masses. "It used to be that Quebec only produced auteur movies," says RVCQ program director Dominique Dugas. "In the 2000s, we created that balance between films that were both artistic and crowd-pleasing." So don't flinch when you see Oscar-nominated "Monsieur Lazhar" and non-narrative "Square Dance Hypnotist" on the same ticket at the RVCQ. Quebec's culture might be rooted in French, but its cinema is all over the place.

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