Alexandre Chartrand: ‘In Quebec we feel that Catalonia’s situation is very unfair’

An interview with the Quebecois film-maker whose documentary about Catalonia has premiered at the DocsBarcelona festival

Martí Estruch Axmacher
24.05.2019 - 11:40
Actualització: 24.05.2019 - 11:41

Last Sunday saw the premiere in Catalonia of Avec un Sourire, la Révolution! (With a Smile, the Revolution!), a documentary whose title was obviously inspired by a well-known Lluís Llach song. The Catalan singer and songwriter himself features prominently in the latest work from Alexandre Chartrand, the Quebecois painter and film-maker who directed Le Peuple Interdit back in 2015, another film about Catalonia’s independence process. His new film shows the events occurred in September and October of 2017, with the referendum on October 1 and the police crackdown as two key elements. Besides Llach and actor Sergi López, Chartrand’s movie includes the testimony of ordinary people, grassroots activists like Jordi Cuixart and politicians such as Carles Puigdemont, Mireia Boya and Quim Arrufat. Shortly after landing in Barcelona, Chartrand met this newspaper for an interview where he answered our questions in Catalan.

—You have “reoffended” with another documentary about the Catalan independence bid. Why are you interested in Catalonia?
—Initially I became interested in Catalonia because I thought it was Quebec’s mirror image in Europe. But, truth be told, I later realised that the more I learnt about it, the more different it seemed. Nowadays it is the grassroots mobilisation and non-violent resistance in a repression context that interests me the most.

—Does Avec un Sourire, la Révolution! pick up where Le Peuple Interdit left off somehow, or are they two independent works?
—They are parts one and two of what I’m hoping will be a Catalan trilogy one day.

—How did you choose the people who feature in the movie?
—This time I met all of them before any shooting began. I wanted to paint a picture of the different strands that coexist within the independence movement. I also took into consideration the Quebecois institutions that funded the project and I chose people who could speak French.

—When you do a project about an ongoing process I guess it must be difficult to decide at what point on the timeline of events you stop shooting. How do you go about that?
—The budget decides that for me! I had to limit myself to a single trip to Catalonia, so I chose to arrive in early September and stay until the middle of October 2017, because I figured that would be a historic time. I knew the Catalan parliament was due to vote on the referendum law on September 6 and 7; then there was the National Holiday (September 11) and the referendum on October 1. I thought I’d have to call it a day two weeks later.

—You borrowed the title of your film from a song by Lluís Llach, the Catalan signer and songwriter. What was it like to work with him?
—I was thrilled to have Lluís Llach working with me on the movie. To me he is a giant of Catalan culture. It was a pleasure to talk to him and make the most of his willingness to help. For a Quebecois who doesn’t know Llach, I would compare him to Félix Leclerc, our own giant in song and literature.

—Do you believe it is possible for a revolution to succeed just with smiles?
—I wish it was. I hope the future will show that Catalans are right and you are able to exercise your right to self-determination with your smiles!

—Jordi Cuixart, the president of Òmnium Cultural, also appears in your documentary. He is all smiles but has been in prison for over a year …
—It’s totally unfair! And an embarrassment. But Jordi Cuixart has not quit fighting and smiling. He is someone to look up to, an example for the whole world.

—What was October 1st like for you? What memories do you have from the day of the independence vote?
—It was a long, exciting day. My camera crew and I set off at about 4 am to go to Institut Pau Claris [a polling station] in Barcelona city. We witnessed how the people got organised and made the vote happen. When the Spanish police arrived, my first reaction was to be afraid because I knew what they had just done at the Ramon Llull polling place. However, seeing the reaction of the people, with their strength and chants, I felt strong too.

—How do people in Quebec see the Catalan case? Do you follow the news on a daily basis?
—For some time now, the press in Quebec have been reporting on current events in Catalonia a little more. When I made my first documentary, most people asked me “Cata … what?” Nowadays you have articles about Catalonia nearly every week. Obviously, people in Quebec sympathise with the Catalans and feel that the current situation is very unfair. In my case, I read newspapers in Catalan online every day.

—For those of us who are not as clued up about the Quebec issue as you are with Catalonia, could you give us a quick rundown of the situation? Where are Quebec’s independence efforts are at the moment? Is there any chance of a third referendum?
—Personally, I feel very disappointed. I am a member of Québec Solidaire, the left-wing pro-independence party that got its best result ever in the elections held last October: 10 out of the 125 seats in Quebec’s National Assembly, our parliament. But the winner was a conservative nationalist party that does not support independence, Coalició Avenir Québec (CAQ), which got a broad majority. Now they are passing legislation about immigration and banning religious symbols, for example, which I find embarrassing and detrimental to the new Quebecois, in particular. We are drifting away from René Lévesque’s independence project, a great leader who fought for a fairer, more open society. At any rate, no new referendum is in the cards, not at all …

—What about the relationship with Canada?
—Unlike Spain’s attitude towards Catalonia, Canada is shifty and sly [with Quebec]. They smile at you and tell you everything is alright, but they stab you in the back.

—Are you pleased with the feedback your documentary has got so far? You’ve already received several awards!
—I am delighted, yes I am. First in Quebec, where cinemas filled with applauding crowds and the film managed to stay in commercial cinemas for three weeks! We’ve also travelled to France, where the documentary was first shown outside Quebec. At the end of May the movie received the audience’s award in Grenoble.

—What did you expect from the film’s showing in Barcelona on Sunday? I suppose it must have been special.
—I was very nervous about Sunday’s showing. Obviously people here are familiar with the subject and already have an opinion. So they would judge my work and the way I’ve presented it. Anyway, I hope the audience here didn’t get bored!

—Would you like to show the movie in Madrid? Have you tried to?
—I’d love to take the film to Madrid! Some Madrid people got in touch with me on social networks asking me if I’d go there. So far, that’s about it. Besides, we do not have a Spanish version yet. I should have it made, but haven’t got round to it. Ideally I’d like to find a Catalan or European distributor that sells the film across Europe, of course.

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