What do Quebec nationalism, time-traveling refugees, and Newfoundland have in common?
They all intersected last month at the Nickel Film Festival in St. John’s, packed into a powerful and politically charged short by filmmaker Marwen Tlili. The 18-minute short film is set in Quebec, but tackles politics of identity and colonialism that have equal resonance in other parts of Canada, and especially in Newfoundland and Labrador.
Both Newfoundland and Quebec are parts of Canada that have nursed long-standing grievances against the rest of the country, and they are also parts of the country with a deeply distinct and proud sense of identity. But that sense of pride and identity also excludes as well as it builds strength; and a fervent obsession with heritage and tradition can stagnate future growth. Any time a place cleaves to a strong sense of traditional identity, there is a question that needs to be posed: whose identity is reflected in terms like Québecois (or Newfoundlander)? Whose identities are being excluded in this process? And what relationships do these selective national identities have with Indigenous peoples, whose identities are the most rooted in this land yet also the most exploited and ignored?
Des Solitudes takes place along the lonely stretch of road between Rimouski and Montreal; a stretch of concrete lined with stunted trees that could mark any highway in eastern Canada. Baba is an international student from Senegal who films his car-share ride with Remi (a young, white, Québecois filmmaker with a passion for minorities) and Nataly, a young Indigenous woman. The film is presented as a faux-documentary of their car-ride and the discussions that take place. Along the way, they pick up Claude, a woman who claims to be a time-traveller sent back from a future world at war.
Many of the film’s insights come from its creator’s own experiences. Tlili originally hails from Tunisia, and moved to Montreal thirteen years ago.
“I had a lot of complicated life experiences… I realized it is very important to tell stories,” Tlili told The Independent. His interest in filmmaking grew out of a course he took in Sensory Ethnography, which encouraged students to make films instead of write papers. Already an avid photographer, he took to the new medium passionately.
Gripped by the film’s political punch and its resonance with issues in this province, I met Tlili. We discussed the film’s significance, both from a national and a local scale. Our discussion covered the mythic narratives that root our sense of place and identity, the role of film in reconciliation, and the ways in which privilege manifests so powerfully among so many of those who are determined to help the oppressed.
Hans Rollmann (The Independent): What inspired this film?
Marwen Tlili: A lot of things. I was very close to the separatist movement in Quebec when I arrived, because in my family—in Tunisia—you have a strong tradition of resisting colonization. My grandfather for instance was a big figure in the fight for independence. So for me it’s natural to help any nation that wants to take its independence, or sovereignty.
But I started to realize that the native people in Quebec are absent almost from everything—politics, art… or at least, they’re not present enough. And I started to question that, as I started to get to know different native groups, and I realized that there is a strong exclusionary narrative in Quebec. People in Quebec will say that they are a victim of oppression, and sometimes they’ll even use the word colonization. I started to get interested in how the Quebec identity got built in the past, and the relationship between this and minorities like immigrants and native people.
I guess what I wanted to explore is: can we redefine what it means to be Québecois today? And part of the answer to that for me is—everyone who lives on the territory! If we think of our differences as a way to categorize people, then we are in big trouble. Especially given the unfair, unjust situation of native people.
I left Quebec two years ago with an emotion of anger, because of the Charter of Values created by the Parti Québecois in 2013. It was like a break-up, you know. The Charter, it was very hard for me, and for a lot of people, to understand. Why do we need to go that far, and stigmatize people in society that are a very small minority? So because of my other job I could go live in Paris, so I [became a] voluntary exile.
I could think more clearly when I was [in Paris]. Because in Quebec, I usually feel there are taboos, and you cannot really talk about them. And then Cinema Politica got a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts and made a call for short films to imagine the future 150 years in Canada, in juxtaposition to the past celebration, with a futurist style. So when I saw the call, a friend encouraged me to submit, and everything came together. I saw an opportunity to write a story and to have these things make sense together.
It often seems that books, films, and other media tend to deal either with relationships between white settlers and Indigenous people, or between white settlers and other more recent, non-white immigrants. Both of these groups—Indigenous people and recent immigrants or refugees—face oppression and exclusion from the white settler population, but these dynamics are usually explored separately. What I appreciated about your film was the way you put all three of these groups in conversation with each other: the Indigenous, the African immigrant, and the white Québecois settler. I think that putting these three groups in conversation addressed some important and under-explored issues.
I have a privilege—or maybe a curse, I don’t know—in that my mother is a historian. And she challenges me intellectually a lot. Five years ago she came to visit me in Montreal, and I was very active in the anti-racist movement. And she said, “But why are you fighting this? You are yourself a new colonizer! From a historical, intellectual point of view—you are a colonizer.” I had never thought about it like that. And of course I got really mad—partly because it was my mother—I felt she wanted to look down on me. But then I got more mature and I had more life experiences, and I realized she might be right. There is some truth in it. I started to have privileges, like good job situations, and other kinds of privileges, and I said ‘Okay, maybe now I have to reflect on my relationship with native people.’ It’s not just about the dominant group, you know.
So I think one of the objectives is to make immigrants think about their relationship to colonization. And this is what is very novel. Nobody talks about it. It’s very touchy. It’s also futuristic, because now we are struggling in Quebec against laws that are discriminatory, but at the same time history shows that when people who are discriminated against, and one day they are less discriminated against, what will they do? History shows that they will probably start to discriminate against other groups. So I wanted to look further than just what we have now, because it’s outrageous what’s happening. At the same time, I think we need also to think in terms of philosophy and history—how can you prevent the same thing from happening?
I think this is a very important question. It’s so easy to divide people who are experiencing oppression against each other, as a way to try to weaken what could and should be a collective struggle.
Exactly. But [the struggles] are not the same. Indigenous exploitation and oppression is more about land and resources, that’s a big part of the Canadian economy, and for immigrants—especially skilled immigrants—it’s for an economy that has added value, like IT or finance services. That’s why we’re here, there’s a very strict selection process to get people here who are very educated, then they can contribute their skills to the economy. Our roles in the system is different.
I really liked the monologue Baba gave toward the end of the film. He said something like “Today I am the one being oppressed, but one day I might win privileges and I might be the one oppressing others, oppressing the Indigenous people in this place.”
That line created a conflict in the group. … One of the ways to organize the film is to ask anyone if they are going through hard things in their life, like experiencing trauma, dependency, violence against women. So the idea for me, the way I see filmmaking, is we create a situation—like the film is a fiction, right, but we want to create it—we want to transform society through living different kinds of relationships, with more care, with more awareness of our own traumas and how they could affect people around us. Some immigrants in the film, on the team, had never met Indigenous people, so they went to the reserve.
The end was the weakest part I would say of the script. My grandfather died one week before shooting, and my mother had a stroke two months before. So I was in a very fragile emotional state… the first ending was that Nataly and Baba [the Indigenous woman and the Senegalese student] become friends, or allies. And I didn’t like it at all. I mean I might have done this ten years ago, in terms of my own path, but not today.
My grandfather, before he died, he said: “we arrived with the Ottoman Empire, in north Tunisia, around three centuries ago, and we served the Ottoman crown, and they gave us privileges, we became aristocrats, and we had land and things like that. So we are colonizers ourselves. But you need to respect people who were here [before you].” I am very happy that he said that, because it made me reconcile myself with part of me that was always in tension. I know in my body that somehow I’m also an oppressor, I’m not only oppressed. And he gave me very concrete answers. He told me that it’s important to respect people who—against their will usually—people who accepted us.
The team was asking me, why do you want to change the ending at the last minute? I said: you have to trust me. But a lot of people didn’t understand. I think in terms of ideology it’s very difficult for some people to recognize that we all have a master, and we all have a slave. Especially people like me, coming from the left, or from far-left movements. It’s like something you cannot really talk about.
And the other thing is the film talks a lot about power, and the idea that power is circular. I like this statement: Le dominé, n’est pas vierge du dominant. This means that someone, or a group, who once experienced violence from someone from another group—that violence becomes part of the person who experienced it. It doesn’t leave, just because the violence stopped or the person who committed violence left, or went to jail, or whatever. I think all of us, whether we’re immigrants or people who lived strong traumas, where people had to question themselves and their position in society, I think a lot of the violence comes back. So it’s not that since we experienced similar situations that we are automatically friends. Especially if it’s still subconscious, all these layers.
I learned this the hard way since the film making team is not a team anymore. Some relationships broke.
I think too what I liked about this in the film is that it shows that people’s identity and their position in power structures are not fixed—it always changes. It changes in relation to who they’re with, and it changes over time. Maybe that’s something that is possible to depict in a film differently than in a book, or in prose. I think too that this is something a lot of people might deny.
In Newfoundland, for instance, we talk constantly about the oppression we experience from Britain or mainland Canada—we talk about having experienced colonialism, about having experienced oppression and exploitation. But in Newfoundland we are often so focused on our own experience of exploitation and oppression that we don’t see our role as being colonizers and exploiters as well.
It’s a double position, and I understand it is very complicated to deal with it. Because the same person, the same group of people, at the same historical moment—they are both at the same time. And we live in a world that is more and more like that.
Remi reminded me of so many people I know—the privileged white person who says they want to do good and they want to help but they don’t realize their role in creating some of the very oppression they want to help tackle. It’s like the time traveler Claude in the film said—they don’t realize they are responsible for the very problems they are concerned about. I thought that was very well expressed in the film.
It’s the Trump phenomenon. A lot of people will say, “oh no, I’m not racist, I should not be included in this,” and I think this is a big mistake that we make. People who are artists, or intellectuals, or leftist, or whatever, people who are defining their view of the world—their values are stronger than what they actually do.
I think it’s a by-product of individualism, where people say, ‘okay, I’m a good person because I’m working with Indigenous people,’ for instance. And just saying that doesn’t describe the entirety of it, because that same person can have privileges, strong privileges, and can deny it. I think society gives individuals a kind of weapon to define your own self, but there are I think strong limitations to that. We need to be very careful with that, because we also need to define collective values, and not only individual values.
Remi, he really exists. I took this car-share route multiple times, and these people really exist! They take the liberty to ask you a lot of personal questions without even knowing you. I think it’s a lack of consideration for people. For instance I am always asked where I come from. So I’ll say I’m from Montreal, for instance. And then they’ll try to know—Yes, but before that? And before that, and before that? And what are your values? What is your religion? What is your ethnicity? As if they have a carte blanche and they can do stupid things like that. Whereas it’s never crossed my mind to ask someone—especially a white person—what is their religion, or where do they come from. And why don’t they go back to their country, and things like that.
Films like this challenge a lot of collective myths. Among Newfoundlanders for example there is a strong narrative, a strong myth, that racism is not a big problem here. For instance, one of the stories people always tell is the story of Lanier Phillips—there are plays and books written about him—an African-American sailor who was the sole survivor of a US naval boat that sank off the coast of Newfoundland during World War II. He was saved, and was treated nicely by the poor Newfoundlanders who rescued him. He later went around saying that it was the first time he was treated nicely by white people.
Now, it’s great that he had that positive experience. But it sometimes seems like we’ve built it into this myth that because this one sailor had a good experience 70 years ago, there’s no racism here. Or because many of the early non-white immigrants to Newfoundland have been upper-class professionals—doctors, engineers—therefore we’re not racist. This is a myth, of course.
In Quebec people will say that they have Indigenous blood, so they cannot be racist. It’s very problematic. For me it’s very crazy, like in 2019 we still use blood-related arguments to define identity. I mean we know what happened in history.
There’s a lot of talk today about reconciliation. How do we move out of this cycle of being oppressed and oppressing others?
I think that’s the question. That’s the project. Probably, the first thing is to acknowledge the tough reality… it’s not just about colonizing land, it’s also that this western civilization, our model, our lifestyle, causes other groups to disappear. I don’t know, maybe we should downgrade, I don’t know if it’s possible. Again, let’s just acknowledge it.
I think there are people in this world who have made some kind of reconciliation inside of themselves, like between different identities, or with traumas, and they have made some harmony, some peace. Not everyone can. I think one of the answers is to listen to these people.
One of the things that characterizes modern capitalism is that the system needs people to be disconnected from themselves. In order to make them consumers, or whatever else. The question is how can we become subjects again. We might be disconnected from nature, from history, from some of our identities and so on, and I think that serves the system. So I think one way to resist is to reconnect. And that’s why I’m saying there are people who have done this work, probably because they faced so much adversity, it was the only way, and they decided life over pure survival. So there is some learning to be had there.
The time traveler who appears in the film—that was very creative and interesting and unexpected. Why did you use her?
We needed to think about a futuristic element… I realized I also find her and people like her to be extremely arrogant. Because from the moment she entered the car she never had any friendly or compassionate discussion with Nataly and Baba. So for me it’s like a model of resistance that’s probably outdated. We don’t do revolution in a religious way or in a scholarly way. We also do revolution because we love each other, because we are connected. You know? So she tells everyone things, and she’s very sure of herself. Even though she lost the [future] war, she did not question herself.
So for me these two characters—Claude and Remi—are in fact the same character, it’s just that they’re in a different time in their life. So Remi, maybe he will fight nationalism, and he will lose because he doesn’t understand that he needs to have self-reflection also.
So Claude, the character from the future, she was fighting against people who define who belongs to the nation. And of course this reminds me a lot of fascism, but it’s a new reinvented fascism, it’s not the same that happened with the Nazis. But we can imagine one day a court that decides who’s Québecois and who’s not, if these kinds of things continue. They have already started. I wrote this film two years ago, but the reality is coming quicker than I thought. So she’s saying that we have to go beyond nationalism and see that every person who is on the land is a Québecois and that’s it.
But also Remi, one big criticism that he receives is he needs to listen to people. For people like him, it’s almost like a religion—‘I know that you need to be saved and I know how to do it and I will save you.’ That’s not really helping, it’s more controlling through good intentions. Helping is important, but how do you do this when there’s a power relationship? You can say ‘Okay, I’ll help you, so tell me what you need.’ But the two parties are not the same, are not equal.
You’ve shown the film in Quebec, and now in Newfoundland, and I’m curious how people respond to it.
In Quebec it was shown in, I would say, not-so-challenging spaces… I sent it to a lot of festivals in Quebec, and it was not accepted. So I think I need to talk with someone who is more specialized in distribution. My first motivation is that it have an impact in Quebec, and it’s not having that right now. So the reception I got here in St. John’s is amazing. I walk in the streets and people come up to me to congratulate me about the film. Maybe because there’s a distance, it’s not a film about here. I want to give it a chance in Quebec. But it’s not easy. I’m not surprised, but… it’s not even about me or my career, it’s an important film.
You’ve been here a week, exploring Newfoundland. You made the film as a reaction from your experiences in Quebec, but from what you’ve seen of Newfoundland, do you see ways that the film speaks to Newfoundland also?
Yes. I think historically, from what I know here, people come from Ireland, mainly, and were at the bottom of the domination system. And they were also Catholic. Same thing for Quebec. So maybe there is a similar subjectivity, that for centuries there was oppression and domination. And…that’s a subjectivity that stays. And then it gives sometimes justification for bad things, like relationships with Indigenous people, or hidden racism, and so on. Because it’s not dealt with.
And Quebec and here, in both situations, it’s a first world country now. We cannot say any more it’s a colony that was dominated or exploited economically. So I think there are similarities, yes. It’s like a psychological game—like okay, what to do now? We can be more responsible once we understand that things have changed. A lot of things have changed. And this is my main criticism to Quebec: we are not in the ‘50s anymore, we are not in the ‘70s anymore. There are people who need support, who need help… what English Canada did to Quebec, [Quebec] is doing now to the minorities.
It’s terribly ironic. What other impressions have you formed of Newfoundland?
I like the ocean, and the sea, the water. I feel very happy here. I went to see the nature, and it’s nice, it’s very beautiful. But I think, I mean maybe it’s too early to say this, but so much history is still here, and again, things have changed. Like I saw all the time these references to the war, and different wars, and the fishery, like the history of fishing, and also the colonial past. And I don’t think I could live here for a long time, because it’s repetitive. I think people here need to reinvent, like create something new out of the past. And this past, I think it’s interesting, but also it has been very alienating to people. It’s like, okay it’s interesting to know, but what can we do now? And again, things have changed.
So I think diversity is the key. And new projects. To build a new subjectivity, and to do it collectively. And I think this here is possible, more so than in other places… I feel here, it’s possible. I don’t feel there is aggression— I mean I’m not naïve, I know human relationships are complex, but it could be possible [in Newfoundland]. Not like Canadian multiculturalism, not like Quebec secularism—whatever that means—but maybe something else. That should be the project.
The title of the film is “Des Solitudes.” The conscious motivation for that is, there is an expression in Quebec, and in Canada also, of ‘the two solitudes’—so, Quebec and the rest of Canada. But here, really, it’s not two, but many…
All the characters, they started in solitudes and they end in solitudes. So it’s a statement. If we let things continue as they are, we will always be in solitude.
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]