Canadian director Chloé Leriche discusses Before The Streets (Avant Les Rues) and bringing the Atikamekw language and community to the big screen for the first time at this year’s Berlinale.
Canadian Chloé Leriche premiered her first feature, Before the Streets (Avant Les Rues) — which she wrote, directed, produced and edited — at this year’s Berlinale. Before the Streets, which focuses on a native community in Quebec, is the first feature-length fiction film in the Atikamekw language. The story follows young boy Shawnouk (Rykko Bellemare) who, after accidentally killing a man during a robbery, returns to Native traditions as part of his journey towards healing, forgiveness, and peace of mind.
I spoke with Leriche and two of the non-professional actors from the film. Kwena Bellemare Boivin is an accomplished singer who is respected in the Atikamekw community for performing traditional Native songs. Jacques Newashish is a painter and sculptor recognised in the Atikamekw community, and plays the role of Shawnouk’s step-father. We talked about the film’s collaborative process, the place of tradition in Native communities today, and the role of women in the film.
This is a condensed version of our transcript translated from French.
Seventh Row (7R): Why did you want to make a film about the Atikamekw?
Chloe Leriche (CL): I worked for an ongoing social project called the Wapikoni Mobile, which involved visiting different native communities with little trailers equipped with video cameras, editing tables, sound recording material, etc, in order to give people there the chance to express themselves about subjects that interest them.
When I went to one such community for the first time, I immediately felt something very powerful. It was 2003, the first time I went, and there was, at this time, a rather important wave of suicides in the little community of Obedjiwan. I felt really interpellated, I wondered how I would have dealt with that situation if I’d grown up there, and how I would have reacted to this kind of ambient racism from Canadians against the First Nations. Fiction is very powerful, and I thought it was a beautiful way to break the silence, to give access to a modern and contemporary facet of that reality.
7R: Before the Streets is the first feature-length film entirely in Atikamekw language.
CL: 100% of Atikamekw speak their Native language: it’s a language that is still very much alive. Children learn it at school. So I had no choice but to make the film in that language; it wouldn’t have made any sense in French.
7R: How was it to work with non-professional actors?
CL: At the beginning of the project, it was important for me that the actors trust me, that they learned to know me and that they really understood my reasons for making the film and what motivated my choices. They told me that it was only once I told them the story of the film that they wanted to work with me on it. Because they’re not people who are into appearances and the superficial, they were not dreaming of being in cinema or on TV. They’re artists who already have strong artistic practice in other media.
Kwena Bellemare Boivin (KBB): When I go to a Native community, the first thing people will say about me is: she sings, she follows her traditions. And there are little girls who, when I started singing, I would be walking in the street and they’d go “Look, it’s Kwena!”. I’d keep walking, and I’d hear them singing my song. I was proud of that, proud to know that although I’m only an adolescent, there are children who take me as an example.
Jacques Newashish (JN): We’re recognised in the community for that, and we like that because we can act as models for other people to follow their traditions.
CL: They themselves translated their own dialogue into their language so that the words could truly be theirs. I just had to bring them to truly live these moments, with sincere emotions. It wasn’t really acting; they also lived a lot of things in front of the camera.
7R: How did you feel as actors? Was it easy or difficult?
KBB: For me, it was rather easy and natural to enter into the role and to get out of it. What helped me was the fact that I’m a singer. When you sing, you enter into a certain emotion; when the song is over, the emotion isn’t there anymore. For me, the dialogue was like a song I was singing.
JN: I had already performed in front of people, of an audience, so performing was easy. But acting was something else. It was a bit more difficult. I had to go search for emotions buried deep within.
7R: Did you hesitate about making a film about native communities because you’re not part of a native community yourself?
CL: I was scared of not representing these people well or accurately, or to speak for a people who haven’t been put to the forefront yet, and who don’t have a strong film culture yet. I felt a strong responsibility, as a filmmaker, all throughout the film.
I wanted to give them a space to express themselves. I didn’t want actors who would just play the part. I wanted people who would create and carry the film with me. For example, the quite central place of music in the film came when I met Kwena and Rykko. You don’t need to explain that culture when Kwena starts singing. It enters your heart immediately.
7R: Did you have reservations about what you would and what you would not talk about in your film?
CL: In Canada, we still talk a lot about First Nations problems —- all the missing and murdered aboriginal women, for example. And it feels like now would be the moment to go towards healing: we must finally accept that history of violence against the First Nations. Of course, the film is fictional — there’s that story about a murder, etc — but to me, there is also that larger metaphor.
KBB: The problems in the family that we see in the film do exist, and the problem of suicide, too: they’re all real stories. I really like what Chloe did because she did not hide the reality of our community. I could tell that, at first, she was scared to show the reality. But it’s the truth, it’s what really happens in our community.
CL: Even though I was a bit scared, I thought it was essential to talk about the realities of those communities, no matter how disagreeable they might be. I felt I had to. I worked hours and days on this project because I thought it was really important, more important than me even, more important than my signature as an artist, as well.
7R: How did you try to get viewers who don’t know that culture to have an interest in it and understand it?
CL: I thought it would be interesting to start from cliches that people have about the First Nations in order to ultimately go beyond them. I wanted to bring people to understand the humanity of the First Nations, which to me has a lot to do with helping each other. Community and family are very important for them.
In the film, each of the characters represented that: the sense of community is incarnated in the role played by Jacques; the sense of family is represented by Kwena’s character. I wanted to start from cliches to bring people elsewhere, almost like a road-trip, in the sense that there are parts of the film where we go in a zone with more suspense, then to another one in the woods with a sense of travel. We are beside the character in that trip all the way towards healing.
7R: The film is a lot about healing as part of Native culture and tradition. How did you get the idea of making the film about that?
CL: Healing was part of the film from the start. It happened when I watched a meeting of elders talking about the problems and challenges in the community. I got the idea when I heard the elders say that they wished the young people of the community could return to their native culture through the woods and the forest.
They were talking about social problems and were saying that they wanted there to be more therapy in the woods, which is part of their tradition. For them, the solution to the problems brought about by modernity was to be found in that tradition.
KBB: As a young Native who also has problems, like all young people, I was trying when I was watching the film, to watch it from the perspective of an adolescent. To see a teenager who lives with technology then slowly starts to get in contact with his traditions again.
When you go into the woods, all you hear is nature. You hear no judgments or opinions. There is just yourself. You can just think about yourself and be by yourself. I think that’s what it can teach people. That’s why the elders want the youth to get in touch with the traditions.
But many young people don’t want to because people are judgmental. It’s mostly fear and fear of judgment that prevents young people from returning to the traditions. Whether you’re a native or not, as a young person, you’re always judged.
7R: Isn’t the topic of healing in opposition with the more masculine emotions of pride and violence?
CL: The film isn’t exactly masculine in its subject, but its main character is. We always follow Rykko’s character, who’s a man. That’s because I got the idea for the story by meeting a 16-year-old boy. I wanted to make the film with him at first, but it took so much time that I had to find another actor.
It was important for me that the healing process in the film went through a woman, an elder woman. It was totally conscious. In the film, the women carry the whole society. The First Nations are matriarchal societies. They have a beautiful balance in the Atikamekw communities between men and women. There are many female politicians in the Atikamekw community, with important positions.
7R: How did you think about communicating the healing process to viewers?
CL: I thought a lot about rhythm during the writing process. I wanted the viewers, at the beginning of the film, to be caught in a fast-paced rhythm that then breaks completely, to bring the viewers elsewhere.
But the rhythm of the film also comes from my actors. I respected their natural rhythm at the editing stage, and I let them act as things came to them naturally. The rhythm is also a way to talk about a culture. I wanted the rhythm to be native, in the same way that I wanted the words in the dialogue to be native. So I respected that in the editing, I tried not to impose a false rhythm.
JN: It’s also the rhythm of the forest, of the woods. It’s part of our culture.
Read more about indigenous film here.