"It's a film about the difficulty of being an idealist in today's world," says Denis. "We're kind of asking the question, 'Well, when is too much? When is just enough?' It's so difficult for the characters because we're living in times when the enemy is not obvious. We're seeing that materialize in different ways now since a lot of people are dissatisfied with the way the world is going. Some people think the answer to that is having Donald Trump as their president. Some people turn to religion in a very extremist and radical way. It's very difficult and our characters are stuck with that and they're trying to change things. They don't exactly know how to approach it and they're going by these very high ideals that they have—sometimes they're just going too far and it becomes inhuman."
"Neither of us is running around naked all the time and living in a commune so we're definitely not these characters. But at the same time, we're also wondering which way the world is going and how to change it in an actual way."
Image courtesy of TIFF.
As a three-hour movie about a cell of slogan-spouting, frequently naked, and very angry French-Canadian radicals determined to destroy society by means both dangerous and kinda pathetic, Those Who Make Revolution Halfway Only Dig Their Own Graves is bound to be way, way too abrasive for some people. Co-director Mathieu Denis discovered just how many at his film's premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September.
"We literally had 500 people walk out of the theatre," says Denis now. "And the people who were leaving were not just like, 'Oh, I've got something else to do.' They were angrily leaving and banging the doors. At some point, people who were staying were yelling back at the people who were loudly leaving."When it comes to determining the best time to storm out, easily outraged viewers have a wide range of options. Some may choose not to wait and leave during the first five minutes, which consists of an entirely black screen accompanied by a classical overture. Others may prefer to wait for one of the four lead actors to stare into the camera and deliver a screed of rage-filled rhetoric while standing before a wall scrawled with slogans. Sometimes they may do it while performing some sort of interpretive dance, their bodies spattered with paint and muck. At one point, a character pisses into a toilet to the sound of a Justin Trudeau campaign commercial.If none of that works, nothing says, "Get out now, you chicken shits!" like another black-screened intermission break set to the sounds of Norwegian black-metal gods Burzum. It was at that point in the premiere—at which Denis and co-director Simon Lavoie admit they were worried they'd run out of patrons—some audience members stood up and applauded. Says Denis, "When I saw that, I thought, 'We're fine—the boring people have left and the good ones are in!'"
The good ones were right to stay. The power, fury, and sheer weirdness of Denis and Lavoie's effort would make it remarkable even if it didn't represent such a break from the more restrained traditions of this country's cinematic output. Instead, their film is an unrepentant middle finger to that tendency toward timidity, which is why it was so gratifying when it won the festival's prize for best Canadian feature.It's also one of the rare movies from any part of the world that truly captures the feelings of frustration, hopelessness, and political impotency that define this moment for many young people, especially the student protesters who first inspired this assaultive vision of extreme dissent.Denis and Lavoie are friends and sometime collaborators with distinguished CVs in their own right—Denis' 2014 feature Corbo is a chilling drama based on the true story of a Montreal teen who became a bomber for the FLQ, the Quebec separatist paramilitary group whose actions brought Canada to a breaking point in 1970. The duo's first feature together was Laurentie, a stark study in youthful apathy and alienation. While promoting the film in Quebec in late 2011 and early 2012, they ended up meeting many students who'd become active in the movement against university tuition hikes, a fight that would involve half the province's student population by April of 2012."There were huge protests every day with thousands of people," says Denis of the groundswell later dubbed the Maple Spring, a name the filmmakers hate. "We'd met a lot of these students who were very much committed and it was a big, big deal for them. We thought that was very moving, especially because Laurentie is a film about political disengagement and we were meeting these young people who were not in that mood at all. In fact, they were asking us, 'Well, you've made this people about cynicism and apathy and look at what's going on—don't you think you missed the point?' What we said back then was, 'Let's talk about it six months from now because if this thing endures and it actually changes things, then yeah, we were totally wrong and we will have been happy to be wrong.' "
Alas, the Maple Spring dissipated with the arrival of summer and the end of classes. But the filmmakers kept thinking about what might've happened if the most hardcore protesters had stayed on the path of anger and righteousness. How much further could they go?Pretty far, judging by the extremity of the circumstances in Those Who Make Revolution Halfway…, which largely takes place in a filth-strewn apartment where the four radicals strive to live a truly revolutionary lifestyle by preparing for an increasingly dangerous series of anti-establishment actions. As relentless as it is futile, their assault on societal norms includes their own determination to negate their own sexuality and upend gender identities. (Trans actress Gabrielle Tremblay delivers the most startling performance by the uncommonly courageous lead performers.)
The film also taps into something deeper, a darker undercurrent that Canadians—especially those Anglos who know little about French-Canadians' history of political extremism—may be unwilling to recognize in their own society. Though some viewers have drawn parallels between the process of radicalization here and the kind that yields Jihadis, Lavoie notes that this association was not their intention. "This is rooted more in the historical tradition of the extreme left and the indépandiste movement that had previously occurred in Quebec," he says. In other words, the revolution imagined here starts very much at home if you live anywhere near Mile End.That realization may be disturbing enough to drive some people out of the theatre when the film—which continues to tour nationally as part of the Canada's Top Ten festival and plays the Berlin film festival next month—opens in Montreal in February. Others may feel inspired to acknowledge and act on that deep-seated hunger for change in less self-destructive ways than the characters on screen."Obviously we didn't try to make a propaganda film," says Denis. "We're approaching this more as a self-interrogation. Neither of us is running around naked all the time and living in a commune so we're definitely not these characters. But at the same time, we're also wondering which way the world is going and how to change it in an actual way. We hope that people who see the film will bring something of it with them and reflect on that. Because that's the first thing, we have to collectively think about, notice how the world is and identify what we want to change about it and how. I think we're at the point in the process when we have to identify what we want to change.""We only wanted to testify and be honest because we were very moved by these young people who were demonstrating and who truly believed there would be an opportunity to change things," says Lavoie. "To show the people the world in which they are living in is the first step to get to a solution."Those Who Make Revolution Halfway Only Dig Their Own Graves is screening across Canada as part of TIFF Canada's Top 10 and opens in Quebec on Feb. 3.Follow Jason Anderson on Twitter.