Sovereignty Is Not Independence

A Q&A with director Philippe Falardeau on his new film, My Internship in Canada

Still from My Internship in Canada
Still from My Internship in Canada

In Philippe Falardeau’s new film, My Internship in Canada, an idealistic young Haitian man (Irdens Exantus) journeys to rural Quebec to work for an politically independent member of parliament (Patrick Huard). Over a few eventful days, the outsider re-ignites the veteran politician’s idealism while the prime minister tries to rally support to send the country to war. If this all sound a bit sentimental, the film (opening Tuesday at the Toronto International Film Festival) is also one of the slyest and most clear-eyed parliamentary farces ever shot in this country—although not that it has much competition. Where American and British filmmakers have fearlessly and successfully tackled the vagaries and viciousness of their respective political systems, Canadian directors have mainly shied away, save for a few faithfully recreated period pieces (like last year’s TIFF hit Corbo, set during the October Crisis).

The film’s parable of a parliamentary swing voter caught between party machinations of the Liberals and the Tories arrives six weeks before what looks to be a tightly contested federal election. But while the film’s thinly veiled depiction of Stephen Harper is likely to get a lot of attention, its true achievement is to dramatize—albeit in a light comic vein—the dynamics between municipal, provincial, and federal levels of government.

In the film’s best running joke, Exantus’s character, Soverign, breathlessly narrates the twists and turns of the story via webcam to his friends and family in Haiti—in effect turning Québécois politics into a series of Hollywood cliff-hangers. The idea that Canadian political life could be exotic and exciting is incongruously funny, of course, but it’s also surprisingly stirring: In lieu of simple cynicism, Falardeau gives us a film that crosses the aisle between satire and sweetness, and which chastises those who would stubbornly toe party lines at the expense of their constituencies. His timing couldn’t be better.

Adam Nayman: There have only been a handful of feature films about Canadian politics, and few of them are as specific as yours when it comes to party names and policies. Why do you think our political life is so lightly represented onscreen as compared to, say, the United States?

Philippe Falardeau: I think it’s because Canada is a fairly minor player on the international scene. Canada has forged an identity for itself with peacekeeping and other things that have given it a good image. That was certainly the case when I was travelling as a young man in the late eighties and early nineties. Canada wasn’t considered a threat in the places that I went. Nobody thought of us as having any power, in any form. But the thing is, in films about politics, or in any film, really, you need to have some sort of drama, or tension. We do have that in Canada, in a way. When I used to listen to CBC Radio and then to Radio-Canada, it was always like I was living in two different countries—you get the news from two different angles. So it’s difficult to craft a film that will appeal to all Canadians when it comes to politics. And then there’s the issue that’s been haunting us for the past sixty years, which is the sovereignty issue. I didn’t know that I wanted to go there.

AN: You went there in so far as one of the major characters in your film is named Sovereign. It’s a pretty good joke to have a character from Haiti observing Québécois culture and politics as an outsider, and then to give him that particular name.

PF: He’s looking at Canada the way we look at the rest of the world, the Third World we want to teach moral lessons to. I reversed that situation. I also wanted to remind people in Quebec that sovereignty does not equal independence. It is a term that is employed for that, but it relates to the base of power. In the monarchy, the sovereign was the king. I didn’t want to make a film about sovereignty per se, but I wanted to address it in a philosophical way. That’s why I gave that name to this guy who loves politics, and who loves philosophy. In Haiti, people have beautiful names, even if they are odd names to us. So it makes sense that somebody from there might have that name.

AN: It’s interesting to see a movie that draws a link between Canada and Haiti—a pairing that isn’t immediately apparent but which has a certain resonance.

PF: You’re right. Canada didn’t literally colonize anybody, although the case can be made that we have financially, when you look at mining companies in South America. We’ve done our share there. As for Haiti, I think there are historical ties and community ties because so many refugees have come from there to Montreal over the years. My actor was born in Quebec, after his parents came here when they were younger. When I started making films, carrying around a video camera, I wasn’t a film student. I was in political science. I learned my craft walking across the borders of countries in South America and Africa, so I was always interested in the Other, and in the stories of immigrants.

AN: John Sayles has said that he doesn’t see himself as a “socially conscious” filmmaker, but as not being “socially unconscious”—meaning that he doesn’t try to have diverse casts in his films, but it happens naturally because that’s the truth of the places where he sets his stories.

PF: I don’t sit down and tell myself, Ok, I need an immigrant character in my next film. It occurs naturally, because I live in Montreal. I’m surrounded by people who are from other countries. That’s part of my life. I want to reflect reality in my films, and that’s what’s there. When I start writing, I understand that things can be charged politically, socially, or racially. It’s very interesting to look at our society through the eyes of somebody else, because he sees us in a different light. When I started the research for this film, I went to northern Quebec, travelling with a Belgian friend, and he was laughing at a lot of things that I thought were obvious. I was rediscovering the region through him, and that helped me craft the film. It was the same when I made The Good Lie. It’s a Sudanese refugee story, but it’s about what America looks like to them.

AN: There’s an insider quality to the film, too. Its depiction of issues in Quebec, like the clashes between logging companies and First Nations people are very specific. And yet I wonder if it’s also a kind of fantasy: a French-Canadian MP gets to decide whether the country is going to go to war. It’s every Anglo’s worst nightmare.

PF: I would remind you that he doesn’t want that power. He’s a reluctant swing vote. He sees more trouble ahead. There’s a precedent in Canada for this, though it’s not from Quebec. It’s Elijah Harper. I had a scene where Soverign talked about Elijah Harper to his friends back in Haiti, teaching them the history of the Meech Lake Accord, though I took it out. I have to say I don’t think that the real issue here has much to do with Quebec, though. It’s about the way that people all around the country complain about how the percentage of the vote doesn’t reflect reality. The makeup of the House of Commons doesn’t really represent how popular they were with voters.

AN: Well, we’re living through a series of federal minority governments, and it’s obviously strange that a party that gets barely one third of the vote gets to stay in power for so long.

PF: There’s a frustration about that, and about how political parties always tow the line. Those lines are so rigid. It’s softer in Britain than it is in Canada. People feel like their MPs are trapped by that, or that they have no power. So I wanted to make an elaborate story where suddenly an MP has some power, and then: what happens next? What happens next is, basically, chaos. I wanted to explore that idea rather than the fantasy that Quebec would decide the fate of Canada.

AN: It’s easy to be cynical about the current situation, but I think your film avoids that.

PF: What I wanted to do with the film was to point at everybody who is responsible for our current cynicism, and it would have been unfair to just point at politicians or the prime minister for how democracy has eroded. I think we’re all responsible. I’m not critical of the MP in the film. His hands are tied. He’s stuck in a system where he has to do as he’s told.

AN: What I liked about Guibord is that he listens. His whole plan to host town hall meetings and do what his constituents say is very old school, very direct democracy, and then it ends up being seen as radical.

PF: I think we ask our politicians to make tough decisions. We expect them to represent us and to live with the consequences. We don’t expect them to come back to us and make every issue into a little referendum. That would be un-workable. At the same time, we also ask them to listen. When a politician goes around and says, “I’m listening, I’m listening,” it’s usually just a show. “I’m listening to real people.” As opposed to what? Unreal people? Guibord does this at first because he doesn’t know what to do. The weight on his shoulders is so heavy that he doesn’t want to make a mistake so he’s buying time with this idea of consulting the people, which actually comes from Sovereign. As he goes along, he comes to believe in it. He believes that by listening, he’ll find a solution, not only for his vote on the war but also on the roads in his riding.

It is a big mistake to think that these things aren’t linked. It’s wrong to think that what happens in another part of the country, or across the ocean, is not tied to us. If we don’t understand that, and if we try to solve everything in an atomized fashion, we never solve the big picture. When people begin to debate in an assembly, what they don’t realize is that they’re only looking at their own backyard. I can’t condemn someone who will want to talk about logging, and who doesn’t like when a folk singer is an environmentalist and who asks them to stop cutting down trees. I live in the city, and my family doesn’t depend on logging. I understand why it’s important to look out for your interest, whatever that interest may be.

AN: You’ve said that Guibord’s daughter stands in for your point of view in the film. So is it only a hippie-ish, fifteen year old girl who could call Prime Minister “fascist?” Not to get you in trouble, but that line really rang out for me as a Canadian film critic watching the movie overseas.

PF: She’s dead wrong in calling him a fascist because she doesn’t know what fascism is. Guibord says, “Hold your horses.” It’s the wrong choice of words. I’d never have an adult say that. Some people call Harper a fascist and they have no clue what fascism is.

AN: Whatever he is, he hasn’t really been referenced in a lot of Canadian films outside of documentaries, which is why it’s so interesting to have him in this one, even if it’s in a veiled form.

PF: It goes back to what we were saying earlier. Canada is modest as a country. Our political figures are smaller. But Harper is an important figure because he’s able to govern with a minority very skilfully. I’ll give him that. I don’t think he’s stupid. He’s very intelligent. I think he’s the wrong prime minister, but he’s not stupid.

AN: Do you think that the timing of this film is going to help it find an audience?

PF: It’s a blessing that might not be a blessing. I think that by the time the movie comes out people will be fed up with the election, and with campaigning. I don’t know how that will affect the film. I think it will attract attention of political journalists who otherwise wouldn’t pay attention to what I do. That might be new. I’ve had some interviews with political columnists who are preparing articles for magazines in Quebec. I’m curious to see how that plays out.

Adam Nayman
Adam Nayman is a contributing editor for Cinema Scope. He has also contributed to the Globe and Mail, the National Post, and Cineaste.