"We were shown, as in some strange phantasmagoria, scenes from different places in France. First there was the arrival of a train at the Lyon-Perrache station [...] you could clearly see each individual. It was most lifelike: you really were at the station. The train left and everything disappeared [...] And the sea? We saw it, not immobile, but rolling its waves. It was most striking. 'How refreshing!' cried a jocular fellow."
So reads the only surviving document of North America’s very first film screening. On Boul. Saint Laurent, on June 27, 1896, a bewildered La Presse writer sat in an invite-only crowd of equally-bewildered French-Canadians, in one evening inaugurating the illustrious traditions of Montreal cinema, industry events, and film dorkery.
Montreal has long served as the capital of a national film industry working outside of the Hollywood monopoly. The Palace Theatre screening was merely the beginning of motion pictures’ complex history in Montreal.
Louis Minier, the Canadian franchise holder for the Lumière brothers’ newfangled “Cinematograph” machine, along with his assistant, Louis Pupier, held the premiere at 974 Boulevard St-Laurent. For fin de siècle Montrealers, the present-day Chinatown address was the site of the glamorous Palace Theatre, housed in the now burned-down Robillard Building.
For the better part of the twentieth century, however, this primeval screening was absent from history textbooks. Anglophone film scholars, when conducting their research, failed to sufficiently spelunk the deepest annals of Quebecois film journalism when conducting their research. Until the 1980s, Canadians were led to believe that our nation’s cinema was founded in an Ottawa park, when a pair of ambitious Ontarian brothers screened Thomas Edison’s The Kiss outdoors, less than a month after the two Louis’ baptism of North American film.
While the Hollywood studio system churned out racy and provocative hits such as The Ten Commandments (1923), the Catholic Church rigorously censored the production and distribution of films in Quebec. In a singularly bizarre example of an institution nefariously leveraging a tragedy, after the Laurier Palace Theatre fire killed 78 children in 1927, the Church prohibited anyone under the age of 16 from seeing a motion picture. The law wasn’t repealed until 1961.
In the 1960s, bureaucratic shifts toward secularism paved the way for the robust Montreal film industry of today. A new provincially-administered film ratings system supplanted the Church bureau of censorship. The federal government introduced the Canadian Film Development Corporation in 1967 with an office in Montreal, alongside an allocation of $10 million in support of the national film industry. Quebecois cinema blossomed. The Canadian cinema history books of the late twentieth century are littered with Michels, Denises/Denyses, Claudes, and Jean-Claudes.
Today, the Ville de Montreal website boasts over 50 production studios in the city, in addition to the headquarters of Canada’s National Film Board. According to the website, over 600 national and international films are shot in Montreal every year.
Ben Stiller was seen on campus in 2016, and Steve Carrell drove a car through the Arts Building doors in 2008, but that’s about as far as McGill’s involvement in the world of motion pictures extends.
The university doesn’t have a fine arts school, nor a film school, and the anglophonic shadow it casts over the area around campus can leave students feeling isolated from the Montreal film scene. Ara Osterweil, visual artist and associate professor in McGill’s Department of English, spoke with The McGill Tribune about her experience living and teaching in Montreal.
“When I first started at McGill, I was a little disappointed that they didn’t have an art school,” Osterweil said. “Because I feel like the presence of an art school at a major university really creates a different kind of environment where that stuff’s always going on simultaneously with the more scholarly stuff.”
Beyond the Milton Gates, it seems like everyone is part of an improv collective or a noise band. Aside from Montreal’s burgeoning, government-sponsored film industry, the city is rife with DIY spaces, mini-festivals, and screening events on every corner north of Avenue Mont Royal. Almost everything is pay-what-you-can, but for many McGill students, it’s less a question of dollars and cents and more an issue of time.
“I think it’s inhumane that McGill expects students to take five classes,” Prof. Osterweil said. “I think that’s absolutely antithetical to learning, and it induces so much anxiety and stress. It’s not healthy.”
A full courseload leaves little room for improv or noise-making, nonetheless filmmaking. Prof. Osterweil insists, however, on the necessity of exploration in the student experience.
“The whole point of going to school in a major city is to get into the city and not expect the school to offer everything, because the city has to become the campus,” Prof. Osterweil said. “There’s nothing wrong with living in the McGill Ghetto, but get on a Bixi and get out of there too.”
The Montreal film scene is scattered across town, but one venue in close proximity is Cinema du Parc. Located in the basement of the Galeries du Parc mall, Cinema du Parc was famed as Montreal’s first multiplex when it opened in 1977. Today, it’s the smallest one in the city. The theatre showcases international festival-circuit fare, subtitled in English, in tandem with larger independent American titles, which are subtitled in French.
With recently-installed recliner seats now featuring cupholders, Cinema du Parc is a haven for film dorks; however, for newbies looking to get their own movies screened, getting a foot in the door can prove difficult.
Raph Sandler, a filmmaker who graduated from Concordia’s Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema in December 2017, organized The Neighbourhood Film Festival in Spring 2017. The festival showcased eight films from first-time, Montreal-based filmmakers—none of whom had ever seen their work screened at a festival before.
“Me and the other organizer, Matthew Ober, were surprised at the response,” Sandler wrote in an email to The McGill Tribune. “Filmmakers are not usually known to be very prolific, but we had 12-15 submissions for the festival, just by reaching out through friend groups and minimal social media promotion.”
Sandler’s festival received an enthusiastic response from filmmakers and attendees alike, but his transition from film school to the wide world of industry work in Montreal hasn’t always been so fun.
“I was lucky to find a job in the industry a few months after finishing school,” Sandler wrote. “But it is a non-creative gig, and it’s proving more difficult to get deals on equipment rentals and find people who have the time to work on passion projects without school as a means to allow for creative work.”
Unlike Concordia and other universities in Montreal, McGill doesn’t provide an institutional creative outlet for students. Finding an entry point to the film industry post-graduation is that much harder as a result. Some professors have tried to fill the gap. In addition to running a creative graduate class, Osterweil accepts student film submissions for marking in her undergraduate classes.
“I’m a painter, and I completely stopped painting while I was in college,” Osterweil said. “So I stopped when I was 18, and I didn’t pick it up again until I was 26. [...] So I’m really attuned to that with students, many of whom did lots of creative stuff before they came to McGill, [... but] then they just can’t because they have too many classes, too much work, not enough time.”
Osterweil’s point rings true for many a creatively-stifled McGill student. Particularly with filmmaking, the logistical effort involved in coordinating equipment, cast, crew, and funding can make even the preliminary stages of production feel like a pipedream for students coping with a full course load.
Hannah Moore, a U3 Cultural Studies major and filmmaker, praised the services that are available to students passionate about filmmaking at McGill.
“I am always quick to recommend the production companies that do exist when I have a chance,” Moore wrote in an email to the Tribune. “The course MUPD 204 (Production for Digital Media 1) is a great resource for learning camera and editing skills in a classroom setting, and the Marvin Duchow Music Library has A/V equipment which I’ve rented for personal projects over the years.”
The resources are there if students have the time to look for them. But despite its place in the cradle of Canadian film, McGill offers only the Cultural Studies major and World Cinemas minor for students interested in pursuing film.
Prof. Osterweil is well aware of the potential for students to get wrapped up in academics in their time at McGill, only to emerge on the other side of four years having not made a film in half a decade.
“Professors have to make it possible for students to do this other stuff,” Prof. Osterweil said. “You can’t do everything, you can’t read 400 pages a week and be editing a film. It’s not going to happen. So I feel like, if professors want to enable that, they have to clear some space because learning does not all happen by reading a book. Actually, it’s a detriment to learning in many ways, because you just simply can’t absorb all that, and, you need to get out [to] be involved.”
Too often, McGill is a place where bright-eyed teens come to forget about their adolescent ambitions. Exams and deadlines tend to take precedence over noise and improv. Hollywood dreams cede to a communications degree.
To that end, Osterweil closed with some advice for the creatively smothered students walking the halls of McLennan. Her sentiment is not a demand for students to organize their own film festivals during midterms, but a plea for students simply to not forget their artistic dreams.
“I know from an older person’s point of view [...] how [students are] going to regret that they stopped playing piano, that they stopped drawing, when these were really vital and essential parts of who they are,” Osterweil said. “So I am always trying to encourage students to not let that go, even though I know how difficult that is, because those are essential parts of who we are, and [...] they serve so many vital purposes to you as a human being as you go through the different stages of life.”