The poster for the film Sauvage says it all. It’s a drawing of an Aboriginal man decked out in traditional clothes and a feathered headdress speaking on a cellphone. It’s this image that’s at the heart of this uncompromising, yet appealing documentary as it delves into the issue of Aboriginals caught between tradition and modernity.
How to deal with this dichotomy of remaining traditional and surviving in a modern world is what prompted Montreal filmmaker Guillaume Sylvestre (best known for his critically acclaimed Durs à cuire) to make Sauvage. He inadvertently got the idea for his film from his friend Jean-Pierre Laurendeau, the vice president of programming at Canal D, the French-language cable television channel.
“Jean-Pierre said there was a young Huron from Wendake who kept sending him ideas for projects about his community and he asked me to meet him. That’s how I met Daniel Picard, who is very intense and talked about his life and all his projects. He was completely different to the image of the Aboriginal that you normally get in the media. I found him fascinating, so I pitched the idea of making a film about him.”
An intense, charismatic figure who’s always in your face, the fast-talking Picard, 35, is a great guide to understanding the plight of Aboriginals in Quebec. He speaks about the history and confrontation with the white man, about the loss of land and dignity, and about the fight for identity and respect. As he states bluntly to the camera, “This is our home… We got on very well without you.”
But Picard also speaks about his personal life that is full of hurt, sadness and violence. His description of witnessing his father beating his mother one night is graphic and unnerving.
“Like many Aboriginals, growing up was tough for Picard, but he never wanted to be a victim of the circumstance of his life,” explains Sylvestre. Then he points out, “I didn’t have a script, I just followed Daniel with my camera and went with the flow.”
Besides Picard, Sylvestre introduces his audience to two other articulate and captivating individuals: Anne Archambault, 56, the Grand Chief of the Viger Maliseet First Nation near Rivière-du-Loup, who is trying to reclaim lost land for her people; and Sabrina Boivin, an 18-year-old Atikamekw high-school student and a single mother living on the Wemotaci reserve, who dreams of going to college and studying management.
All three of these characters, who are strong and represent different generations, share the desire not be victims and not to accept that plight. As Picard points out, “The Elders have to understand the whites have changed.” Later on he adds, “If the Elders spend their life whining, the youth will too.”
Before starting this project, Sylvestre says he had little knowledge about Aboriginals in Quebec. “Like most Quebecers, I knew very little about them,” he confesses. “However making this film has changed my vision of the history and territory of Quebec. When you see that the Aboriginals have been here for thousands of years, you have to listen to them.”
When asked what the biggest surprise he had working on the project, Sylvestre says, “You realize that only a few hours outside of Montreal, people live in a very different world. Then you realize that they have been there for more than 5000 years. It makes you humble – you’re in their place not in your place.”
At one point, Picard and Sylvestre visit Oujé-Bougoumou, where they meet Steve Mianscum, who works as the community’s tourism development officer. Mianscum, who is fluent in French, represents a new generation who are equipped to function in the modern world.
“Oujé is amazing,” says Sylvestre, “it is quite a contrast to other Aboriginal communities. There is so much money there. It’s a real shock to see that up north.”
Since the film is shot in French and the three Aboriginals are French speakers, Sylvestre wants to reach out and connect with the Quebec community. “It is a film Aboriginals should see, but most of all Quebecers should see it to get a truthful idea of who Aboriginals are.”