Minority Report: Anglo Filmmakers in Quebec

Meryam Joobeur, Matthew Rankin, Zion Lipstein-Saffer, and Aonan Yang have a lot in common, surnames notwithstanding. All grew up in English-speaking neighbourhoods outside Quebec, and all finally ended up in Montreal pursuing an all-consuming passion for film. Now & Next rounded up all four to get a better understanding of what life is like for anglophone minority creators in a francophone majority world.

Gathered together in the heart of Montreal’s Angus Shops district, the filmmaking foursome heartily agreed that being in the linguistic minority is actually a plus for what they do. Oscar-nominated (Brotherhood, 2020 shorts) Meryam Joobeur emphatically stated from the outset that film for her is a bridge between cultures. “There are no longer any borders when you’re watching a film,” she said. “There could be some when you’re making films, but I’ve never felt that my language was a problem with any of the organizations or collaborators I work with.”

GreenGround Productions (award-winning documentaries Taming the Horse and A Touch of Spring) co-founder Aonan Yang doesn’t feel his minority language status is an advantage or a disadvantage. “The real challenges we face are related to filmmaking itself and not the language we work in,” he said. “There are always mindsets and perspectives depending on your cultural background influencing the way you tell your stories. Your language doesn’t change anything else.”

Aonan Yang (L) AND Matthew Rankin (R) - Photo credit: Sandra Larochelle

Winnipeg-born mixed animation and experimental film artist Matthew Rankin is convinced that his language gave him a different vantage point to see what was there and shared his linguistic journey as a case in point. “When I moved to Montreal, I couldn’t speak a word of French and that was a challenge I can tell you,” he said. “After just one week as a student at McGill, I realized that everything in Montreal that interested me was French. Something had to give.” After picking up the language of Molière without missing a beat, Rankin completed a master’s degree in Quebec history at Laval University in Quebec City for good measure. “My unilingual English status helped me to see all I was missing and motivated me to learn French to fully appreciate Quebec culture.”

A graduate of the 2019 cohort at Concordia University’s Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema, Zion Lipstein-Saffer weighed in on Rankin’s language lesson. “When I landed in Montreal, my French was poor for sure and I had problems in school because that’s the language my classes were taught in. Talk about an incentive to parlez vous! I have a good understanding of French now, at least enough to work,” he said. “I never once thought I could never work in Quebec because of the language.” Lipstein-Saffe will soon direct the video portion of Canadian singer-songwriter Denique’s audio-visual album.

Staying put and sticking to your guns

After graduating from university, none of the four thought the grass would be greener in Toronto, Vancouver, New York, Los Angeles, or London because of their language or with better opportunities to tell their stories. “The last thing I wanted to do when I finished my studies was move to another place,” said Joobeur, an English-speaking Tunisian who grew up in the US before settling in Montreal.

“Public funding is much more abundant in Canada,” she said. “I wouldn’t have had access to the same resources anywhere else.”

Joobeur also feels that Quebecers enjoy a much richer film culture than many do in other parts of the world. “When I was studying at Concordia, I had tremendous freedom to experiment, unlike many American film students I know who told me they were strongly encouraged to stay within the norms,” she said. “Breaking the rules to discover your voice was par for the course at Concordia.”

Lipstein-Saffer couldn’t agree more. “Experimenting was the reason I was at Concordia,” he said. “There’s no better way to prepare yourself for a filmmaking career or the real world for that matter. While many of my classmates didn’t stay in the business, those who did and the ones making their mark all have that same urge to break the rules.”

Zion Lipstein-Saffer - Photo credit: Sandra Larochelle

Having grown up in China and in Toronto, Aonan Yang is sometimes overwhelmed by a sense of ambivalence. “While I consider Toronto my hometown, I feel like bailing after a week every time I go back. I much prefer the Montreal cultural hubbub with its charming ambience, and its friendly, outgoing residents. It’s a great place to live and work as an artist.”

Matthew Rankin certainly has no regrets about leaving Winnipeg for Montreal. “As an individual, I feel totally at home with Quebec culture. It’s one of the few places in North America where culture is a real public asset.”

When in Quebec...

The possibility of having relatively easy access to experienced filmmakers is also a big plus for Meryam Joobeur. “When I was a student at Concordia, practically every established producer in Montreal paid a visit to the class at one point or another,” she said. “I was able to build relationships with some of them. Even young filmmakers like me could make contacts with major production companies. In big American cities or Toronto, you almost need special dispensation from the powers that be just to get your foot in the door.”

Neither Meryam, Matthew, Zion, nor Aonan ever had any anxiety about being able to tell their stories in Quebec. “I always felt that Montreal was a place where we were free to tell our own stories, not just a place to make big blockbusters,” Lipstein-Saffer said. “Of course I never gave much thought to being a filmmaker as a way to get rich, with a reel the whole world wanted to see and becoming famous in the process. But that is the modus operandi in my hometown, Toronto.”

What Zion said rings a bell with Meryam Joobeur. “My relationship to film has always been very personal,” she said. “I mean, okay, maybe one day I’d like to be part of a big-budget American film, but for now I’d rather develop my voice here and, who knows, the US might come calling for me with an offer someday.”

Meryam Joobeur - Photo credit: Sandra Larochelle

The subsidized minority

When the conversation turned to funding from different institutions, all agreed that the rules are fair between language groups. “SODEC, for example, sets aside a quarter of its budget for productions in a language other than French, either English or any other language,” Rankin said. “That’s fair as far as I can see.”

Aonan Yang even feels he enjoys special treatment. “I work with filmmakers who shoot in neither French nor English and that’s a lot tougher than what I have to deal with, so I can’t complain.”

Meryam Joobeur piped up to point out that funding is an extremely complex process no matter what the language. “Because funding organizations have only so much money and there are so many filmmakers, you have to work miracles with what little you get,” she said. “And if you’re successful, those in charge will think you’ve had enough. It’s a vicious cycle everyone gets caught up in.”

Photo credit: Sandra Larochelle

Uneven media coverage

While the relationship between English-speaking filmmakers and French-speaking film journalists is positive, the four feel there is room for improvement. Quebec media showed terrific interest in Brotherhood when it was nominated for an Oscar. “I was very touched when my short film was embraced as a Quebec production,” Joobeur said.

Matthew Rankin had a different experience when his film Twentieth Century won Best Canadian First Feature at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) at the same time that Sophie Deraspe’s feature Antigone won Best Canadian Feature, and Chloé Robichaud’s Delphine Best Canadian Short Film.

Aonan Yang (L) AND Matthew Rankin (R) - Photo credit: Sandra Larochelle

“Quebec media on location at TIFF published glowing reports on the two award-winning Quebec films and mentioned the winning production by a Winnipeg filmmaker...me!" Rankin said. “Truth is my film was financed in Quebec, shot in Quebec, and all the actors were Quebecers but was not seen as a Quebec film by Quebec journalists. I try not to lose sleep over it.”

Aonan Yang has adopted the same detached approach to media coverage of his work. “I don't really pay too much attention to it,” he said. “It’s not that I don’t care, but I've come to understand that there are fewer and fewer newspaper readers and moviegoers drawn to English, Spanish, Chinese, and other non-French stories in Quebec. Sure, I wish there was more media coverage. I should even get worked up about it, I guess!”

“Not Quebec enough”

It is true that English-language films shot in Quebec and mainly screened in Montreal cinemas and foreign festivals are sometimes deemed “not Quebec enough” by festival programmers. “They expect a certain type of film,” said Joobeur. “If you don’t fit their mold, like a film not shot in French or one that doesn’t represent the true-blue Québécois, it’s harder to pass muster.”

Joobeur feels it’s pretty much the same with most national film organizations. “It’s like that for any Tunisian film that’s not a realistic socio-political drama,” she said. “If anyone wanted to make a magic-realism horror flick, they’d be told that it’s not what Tunisian filmmaking is all about.”

While Joobeur has no problem understanding this, she does have a problem accepting it. “When I released my first short in English with its diverse cast of characters, a festival programmer told me it wasn’t a Quebec film. That really hurt,” she said. “I do have to admit, though, that it’s often even more difficult to get my work out on the international stage than it is here. I got two nominations for the Québec Ciné Iris Awards. One was in English and the other in Arabic!”

Samuel Larochelle
Originally from Abitibi-Témiscamingue and now based in Montreal, Samuel Larochelle has been a freelance journalist since 2012 for some 20 media outlets, including La Presse, HuffPost Quebec, Les Débrouillards, Fugues, L'actualité, Nightlife, Échos Montréal and many others. Also a writer, he has published two novels (À cause des garçons, Parce que tout me ramène à toi), the first two volumes of a series for teenagers and young adults (Lilie l'apprentie parfaite, Lilie l'apprentie amoureuse), as well as literary news in three collectives (Treize à table, Comme chiens et chats, Sous la ceinture - Unis pour vaincre la culture du viol).
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