Caroline Monnet is a filmmaker and visual artist whose work has been shown both nationally and internationally. She has selected 7 works on VUCAVU that relate to the theme of A Sense of Belonging and how this theme relates to ideas about identity. The following is an interview about her film selection, her artistic practice and her relationship to her chosen theme with fellow artist, curator and AXENÉO7 Gallery Director, Stefan St-Laurent.
Caroline Monnet

Selection by multidisciplinary artist,

Caroline Monnet

Interview by artist, curator and Director of AXENÉO7,

Stefan St-Laurent

Caroline Monnet is a multidisciplinary artist of Algonquin ancestry from Outaouais, Quebec. She studied in both Sociology and Communication at the University of Ottawa (Canada) and the University of Granada (Spain) before pursuing a career in visual arts and film. She is based in Montréal. Monnet is an alumna of the Berlinale Talent Campus and TIFF Talent Lab 2016. Her short films have screened at numerous festivals including Toronto International Film Festival (IkwéWarchildTshiuetin), Les Rencontres Internationales (Gephyrophobia) and Sundance Film Festival (Mobilize). She was nominated for a Canadian Screen Awards for Best Short Drama for Roberta. She won a Golden Sheaf Award at the Yorkton Film Festival for Best Experimental Film for Mobilize. She is currently developing with Microclimat Films her first feature film entitled Bootlegger, selected for both CineMart and Berlinale Co-Production Market 2016.

Stefan St-Laurent (SS): You named this program A Sense of Belonging. I was curious to know whether for you, the notion of a feeling of belonging was challenging to come to grips with, since I know you are a person who identifies with several communities. Did this play into your choice of theme at all?

Caroline Monnet (CM): Yes, totally. The idea of identity and belonging is definitely something I explore in my personal work.

I also chose a sense of belonging as a theme since it’s practically a human need, almost like eating or having a roof over your head — a vital need. It’s crucial for managing your emotions, giving meaning to your life... For me, identity and a sense of belonging are linked right from the outset. It could be through culture, language, land, even architecture or the buildings you live in or the apartments you choose. These power relations are constantly defining us. They surround us, defining and creating us as individuals. As a theme, I found it intriguing as well as abstract enough and broad enough. This is why the films I’ve selected are all pretty different from one another; but for me, they all relate to this theme.

SS: Today, would you say your feeling of belonging is rooted in your humanness or the fact that you are an artist?

CM: That’s interesting, since each of us has our own constructions. We’re constantly in search of a sense of belonging. Do we belong to the artistic community? Do we belong to some other community? We’re always looking for answers. 

Like, for example, in the film Vent Solaire (Solar Wind) (Ian Lagarde), what’s interesting is the idea of a sect. Of having such a need to belong that you end up in a cult — caught in something that’s like a kind of brainwashing. It’s based on this need to belong, to feel close to someone or something and be part of something bigger than you.

For me, identity and "a sense of belonging" are linked right from the outset. It could be through culture, language, land, even architecture or the buildings you live in or the apartments you choose.
Still from '930' by Alexandre Larose

Still from "930", Alexandre Larose, (2006), CFMDC

SS: You travelled outside of Canada from a very young age. I’d like to know how this has influenced your perception of your community, your identity.

CM: Yes. Well, I was immersed in French culture from a young age because I attended a French lycée. So already, the French side took up a lot of room. For example, in my mother’s family, which is largely English-speaking, right from the start I felt a greater affinity with something that was more Francophone than Anglophone. My mother hadn’t taught us any English when we were kids, so maybe that resulted in tensions at that level. Also, growing up in Quebec, given that I spent a lot of time in Europe, my sense of belonging was tinged with the knowledge that I wasn’t entirely Québécoise either. There was this very European side and then the whole idea of the Indigenous community as well. When you put it all together, it pits these various communities against each other and makes for affinities that I find fascinating. I love that complexity.

SS: I saw a lot of overlap between your experimental film Gephyrophobia and Jacquelyn Hébert’s documentary Francophone-hybride, which addresses identity, bilingualism and linguistic duality. One subject in Hébert’s film is asked, “In what language do you dream?” As a bilingual person, I’ve often put the question to myself, as if it would reveal my real identity or my authenticity. But in fact, I dream in many languages, even those I don’t know. So here’s a question that’s maybe a little tongue-in-cheek: what language do you like to dream in?

CM: [laughs] I have no idea! I think my own dreams are dialogue-free. I dream purely in images, and there’s maybe music. A little like in my films, which also feature relatively little dialogue. I can’t say.

But Jacquelyn Hébert’s film is very interesting because I know Saint-Boniface and I also lived in Winnipeg. It’s so interesting to me that there’s a river separating the French and English districts. A physical separation in the form of a body of water dividing the two language groups, not unlike the situation in Hull/Ottawa. I called my film Gephyrophobia, which means “fear of crossing bridges.” I could feel it in the Outaouais where I grew up. I grew up in Aylmer but every day I crossed the bridge to go to school in Ottawa. It was often the Francophones who were crossing over to go and work in Ottawa. Though maybe things have since changed, because Hull is becoming really cool! [laughs] But I found you could only rarely bring an Ontarian to the other side, you know? It’s just a bridge and it takes just five minutes to cross. Not very far, but there’s this physical barrier that becomes a real obstacle.

When I selected my films, I felt it important to include a Francophone work from outside of Quebec. It’s maybe more of a traditional documentary but I feel — at least in terms of my selection — that it’s the most directly aligned with my chosen theme. The question really boils down to “trying to define an identity” and that’s no easy thing. 

These are questions that I, as an Indigenous woman, am asked quite often. I’m often put into these boxes and asked, “So, just what is the Aboriginal identity?” and it can be so many things. For me, Jacquelyn’s film does this, tries to define it, only to conclude that it’s basically indefinable. It’s something that can only be experienced and expressed. For this reason, I feel the film is a key work in Canada’s French-language cinema.

SS: Absolutely, we often discuss this. But please go on.

CM: I find it to be an interesting connection when we speak of the French language and then of this “language oppression,” like what happened in Manitoba as well as in Acadia, Ontario and the rest of la Francophonie. This idea of “oppression” is interesting since it very much relates to the Indigenous experience — the idea of struggling to keep your own identity. It’s this identity that contributes to feelings of belonging, of being part of a culture, a reality that you can call your own. 

These are questions that I, as an Indigenous woman, am asked quite often. I’m often put into these boxes and asked, “So, just what is the Aboriginal identity?” and it can be so many things.
Still from 'Francophone-hybride', Jacquelyn Hébert

Still from "Francophone-hybride", Jacquelyn Hébert, (2013), Video Pool

SS: Sound and music are prominent in your films as well as in the films you’ve selected. Is sound at the service of image, or does it play a more important role? 

CM: I love it when films can tell a story without words, without dialogue. I find we often try to over-explain things whereas the images can already say so much. For me, sound is always at least 50% of the film. Getting into the sound studio is also just about my favourite part of the creative process, in part because I would have liked to have been a musician but have zero musical talent. [laughs]

But for me, sound is definitely a vital and intrinsic element to an audio-visual work... I mean, it’s why they’re called audio-visual. For example, I found the audio in Vent Solaire really outstanding. The sound entirely creates the tension. It’s practically imperceptible, but it’s like we’re feeling the characters’ tension and unease. Sure, the visuals are there too, but I think it’s mainly through sound that the viewer feels it.

SS: You’re a self-taught visual artist and filmmaker. In cinema alone, you’ve produced experimental works, installations, performance pieces, documentary and fiction. Your program [in this selection] presents a wide array of contemporary film production. Do you think that being self-taught afforded you greater artistic freedom and now, greater curatorial freedom?  

CM: Probably so. Maybe in the sense that nobody ever made me choose and I never wanted to have to choose. I’ve always approached these things as learning experiences, like an exploration of a visual language, or as formal or stylistic exercises.

Often it’s the aim or concept that dictates my chosen medium or format. Some things are better said through documentary, things I find beautiful and want to celebrate. Like my last film, Tshiuetin (North Wind), a film that I could have easily made as a fiction — but the reality was already so moving. Then there are other matters, like the performance I presented at AXENÉO7 as part of my exhibition "Standing in the Shadows of the Obvious". For me, there was only one way of explaining this matter and that was through a performance. It’s almost a mise-en-scène as well. Fiction can be based in documentary; documentary can include the experimental. The boundaries are a little fuzzy.

More and more, I’m asked to choose between the visual arts and cinema, whereas I really have no intention of choosing. Each can inform the other. The basic questions are the same: What do you want to say? How do you want to say it? What themes move you? I think there are just as many different ways to express yourself. 

...nobody ever made me choose and I never wanted to have to choose. I’ve always approached these things as learning experiences, like an exploration of a visual language, or as formal or stylistic exercises.

SS: Absolutely. Of course, especially now that you’re writing your first feature, Bootlegger, you’ll soon be under pressure to become a feature filmmaker.

CM: Yes, that’s right. And I never even wanted to make a feature. [laughs] I still don’t quite know how it happened.

But I think I’ll always work in short film. A feature length project is very interesting, like doing a performance every year. I don’t know; it takes a long time to develop. It’s a whole new structure and a whole different way of working. But that’s not to say that as of now… that’s it, from now on I’m only going to work in feature film and I’m done with making short films and videos for galleries. 

SS: Making a feature film, with the extensive film crew it involves, must impinge somewhat on your artistic freedom. How do you feel about being an independent artist who must now find funding, write the screenplay and work with a producer?

CM: What’s interesting about filmmaking is the teamwork that happens while working with the crew. There’s no doubt that it removes a great deal of freedom because it’s extremely regulated. For example, I made one short film so far, called Roberta, with a professional film crew where I was working with technicians who were unionized and all that. It’s heavily structured with very specific schedules. For me, it’s a completely unfamiliar context since I normally work in a very intuitive fashion. And while there are probably some disadvantages, you’re working with a team who are employed to produce your vision. So in terms of costumes, artistic direction, cinematography, these are people who have a lot more expertise than you do and they can take your project that much further. 

I also believe I showed up at a moment in the film scene where there was room for me to make this film (Bootlegger). There was a need for French-language Indigenous fiction films. I mean, I have about a dozen shorts to my credit — I didn’t just appear from nowhere. But perhaps they saw it as a good time to go off the beaten track and look for new ways of seeing. I’ve been really lucky. There was enormous interest right away for this film and everything fell into place. We went to the film markets in Rotterdam and Berlin and there was the residency at the Cannes Festival; so with all of that, we said, “Okay, it’s going well”. You know, sometimes certain projects are easy to get off the ground and this is one of them. 

SS: It makes me think of your film Creatura DADA for the Festival du nouveau cinéma where Alanis Obomsawin is among your cast. I can’t even begin to imagine the context she had to work in when she first started out. You said that for you, it was a pivotal moment. There have been so many Indigenous women trailblazers who came before you.

CM: Exactly. I don’t think the film would have been nearly so powerful if she hadn’t agreed to participate. The idea was to bring together Native women in Montreal who are strong and who do things. Celebrate Indigenous pride and also have a good time round the table at a sort of gargantuan banquet, a Dadaesque feast. Women like Nadia Myre and Alanis Obomsawin paved the way for a new generation like me. There’s now room for us and we can make works that are a bit different. 

Women like Nadia Myre and Alanis Obomsawin paved the way for a new generation like me. There’s now room for us and we can make works that are a bit different.
Still image from "Adam and Eve Saulteaux"

Still image from "Adam and Eve Saulteaux", Theo Pelmus and Kristin Snowbird, (2014), Video Pool

SS: This brings me to my last question. Your exhibition "Standing in the Shadows of the Obvious" at AXENÉO7, featured certain performative elements. The performance in the film Adam and Eve Saulteaux by Theo Pelmus and Kris Snowbird pays tribute to [a performance by] Marina Abramović and Ulay, diverting its meaning in order to discuss human interconnectivity. What were your sources of inspiration from the world of performance? 

CM: That’s a tough question because until recently, I didn’t have that much contact with performance. I like the idea of introducing the physical into a work; I’ve always been very attracted to that idea. For example, the way Marcel Barbeau makes his paintings — there’s a highly performative aspect to his process. I find it so interesting when bodily experiences claim a physical presence in a work...

In the film Adam and Eve Saulteaux, I was fascinated with the idea of performing as a couple. To return to my theme of A Sense of Belonging, there’s something powerfully symbolic in how they braid their hair together, strengthening their bond, both as a couple and as the parents of a son. They come from different cultures but they’re able to transcend that and they each belong to one another and I found that beautiful. There are no subtitles to the original language — I think it’s in Ojibwe — and so the language becomes like a score and it lends a kind of sacred tone to what they’re doing. It’s a very simple and exquisite film. 

I find it so interesting when bodily experiences claim a physical presence in a work...
Still image from "Presque Vu", Cecilia Araneda

Still image from "Presque Vu", Cecilia Araneda, (2013), Winnipeg Film Group

Stefan St-Laurent, multidisciplinary artist and curator, was born in Moncton, New-Brunswick and lives and works in Gatineau. He was the invited curator for the Biennale d’art performatif de Rouyn-Noranda in 2008, and for the 28th and 29th Symposium international d’art contemporain de Baie-Saint-Paul in 2010 and 2011. From 2002 to 2011, he worked as Curator of Galerie SAW Gallery, and has been an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Visual Arts at the University of Ottawa since 2010. His performance and video work has been presented in numerous galleries and institutions, including the Centre national de la photographie in Paris, Edsvik Konst och Kultur in Sollentuna (Sweden), YYZ in Toronto, Western Front in Vancouver and the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in Halifax. He has been a curator and programmer for a number of artistic organizations and festivals, including the Lux Centre in London, the Cinémathèque Québécoise in Montréal, Festival international du cinéma francophone in Acadie, Les Rencontres internationales Vidéo Arts Plastiques in Basse-Normandie (France), Festival international du cinéma francophone en Acadie (Moncton), as well as Pleasure Dome, The Images Festival and Vtape in Toronto. He is currently Director of the artist-run centre AXENÉO7 in Gatineau.

Still image from "All That Is Solid", Eva Kolcze (2014)

Still image from "All That Is Solid", Eva Kolcze, (2014), CFMDC