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McGill: bastion of Anglo privilege, or a vital part of Quebec society? A little bit of both, according to Les Deux McGill, a film created by history graduates Walter Forsberg and Matthew Rankin.
The 14-minute documentary was shot last year at the behest of history professor Brian Young, for screening at the annual meeting of the Institut de l'histoire de l'Amérique française, held at McGill in October 2003.
The idea was to introduce McGill to 300 to 400 French-speaking historians, and challenge some stereotypes about the institution.
"How do we show the McGill campus? How do we make McGill more than just a symbol, or a cliché?" said Young.
"It came to me that an interesting question to raise money for the film was 'Why would you study Quebec history at McGill,' and I gave this to student filmmakers as a project."
Young asked Forsberg and Rankin to take on the project, while he secured financing from the University Relations Office, alumni, the Dean of Arts and other sources.
The result is far from a promotional film. Containing interviews with everyone from Normand Lester (author of Le Livre Noir du Canada anglais) to "angry-phone" Howard Galganov, the film shows McGill as inhabiting a world somewhere between the extremes of the two solitudes.
With cheeky use of archival footage of McGill's well-fed–looking Board of Governors, and an interview with Richard Rice - a founder of the left-leaning Montreal History Group, and who was denied tenure at McGill - the film is full of sly humour, a fact that Young said was appreciated by the historians who saw it in October.
"I think people were pleasantly surprised by the originality of the film. I think they were shocked… by its radical side, the way it picked away at McGill and wealth," said Young.
"They enjoyed McGill's ability to spoof itself, and that public relations would invest in a student film and give a student total liberty."
Rankin, now pursuing his master's at Université Laval, has made a number of short experimental films. He's tackled Quebec history before - one of his previous projects was entitled Je me souviens, and is a five-minute encapsulation of the last 40 years of televised Quebec history. The tensions of French and English in this province gave him plenty of material for this project, and coloured his approach.
"I think that it can be taken too seriously. We often forget that this tension is often hysterically funny, and very absurd. We definitely did not want to make a talking heads type of movie."
His interview with Normand Lester is a case in point. Lester's Livre Noir is a catalogue of English-Canadian writers' negative portrayals of Quebec. In the segment with Lester, Rankin lists off a number of other English-Canadian writers and scholars - Brian Young among them. To each name, Lester responds "inconnu" (unknown).
"His book is effectively about how people in English Canada who have written about Quebec or study Quebec follow a very negative, hateful, loathsome kind of rhetoric. And he has many examples of this. In showing just that, you fall back into this very classic two solitudes dichotomy, which is ridiculous," said Rankin.
"The historians I was naming were not only McGill historians, but other people who have studied and contributed a great deal to our understanding of Quebec, and who are anglophone and who do not fall into this tradition of Don Cherrydom."
Les Deux McGill will be showing at the McGill Student Film Festival which will be taking place on April 7-8, 8 pm, 3475 Peel.