Just when you thought the dust had settled on the cultural appropriation debate surrounding Robert Lepage, Quebec director Hélène Choquette plunges us back into it with Lepage au Soleil: At the Origins of Kanata.The documentary is a behind-the-scenes look at the making of Kanata. The controversial theatre production found itself in the eye of a hurricane last summer immediately following the outcry that greeted SLAV, Lepage’s “theatrical odyssey based on slave songs” starring singer Bonifassi.SLAV premiered as part of the Montreal International Jazz Festival, drawing protests and criticism for its depiction of black transatlantic slavery with a mostly white cast.It was soon revealed that Lepage’s next production, Kanata, created with French director Ariane Mnouchkine’s Théâtre du Soleil, was a survey of Indigenous history in Canada featuring no Indigenous performers.An open letter questioning the project’s lack of Indigenous voices appeared in Le Devoir in July, signed by more than 30 Indigenous representatives; a meeting between Lepage, Mnouchkine and the letter’s signees followed in short order.The attempt at dialogue was commendable, but results of the meeting were mixed; several members of the Indigenous community felt little willingness from Lepage and Mnouchkine to rethink their approach.Regardless, in a matter of weeks the show’s North American sponsors pulled out and Kanata was cancelled. A truncated version of the play was eventually mounted for a brief run in Paris in December.
An image from Hélène Choquette’s documentary Lepage au Soleil: At the Origins of Kanata.
So here we are, just over four months later. The catch with Choquette’s documentary is that, for the most part, it doesn’t enter the fray. Lepage au Soleil follows the mounting of the production, from 2015 until the spring of 2018.Don’t let that fool you into thinking Choquette isn’t taking a stand. Her entire point in stopping where she stops is to show the artistic integrity and goodwill that went into Kanata, without the filter of the public outcry and media storm that followed.It’s an interesting approach, but it shouldn’t pass for impartial. Choquette is clearly in Lepage’s camp, and some reticent viewers might be too by film’s end.Théâtre du soleil’s 36 actors hail from 11 countries including Afghanistan, Irak, Brazil, China, Chile and Australia. We follow them as they travel to western Canada to meet with Lepage and learn about Canada’s Indigenous history from those living it, including a former prostitute who narrowly escaped being one of serial killer Robert Pickton’s many Indigenous victims.Pickton is a character in Kanata, which looks at missing and murdered Indigenous women, Canada’s residential school system and the centuries-spanning colonization of First Nations peoples.There are touching moments as Théâtre du Soleil’s culturally mixed cast of refugees and immigrants grapple with the atrocities of Indigenous history in Canada, often relating things back to their own stories, or to realities in their countries of origin.Lepage and some of the cast end up addressing questions of cultural appropriation, without having any inkling of the impending controversy. The director even repeats his now oft-heard mantra that theatre is all about playing the other.Choquette seems so intent on getting the point across that it becomes grating by film’s end, notably in a closing sequence featuring a montage of scathing media critiques of Kanata, followed by the not-so-subtle rebuttal that no one had yet seen the play.In recent interviews about the film, Choquette has taken a page from Lepage and Mnouchkine’s playbook of last summer by referring to the “violence” of some of the protesters against the production. So much for side-stepping from the controversy.It brings to mind the award l’Artiste pour la paix 2019, which Lepage received earlier this week — an ironic choice given the social discord that surrounded the director’s work in the past year.Interestingly, while Choquette and the team behind the Artiste pour la paix prize seek to defend him, Lepage has shown a degree of humility, of late. In December, he addressed the SLAV saga, admitting that mistakes were made and hoping to learn from them going forward.A reworked and less problematic version of SLAV was shown to Quebec audiences outside Montreal in January and February, before Lepage’s company Ex Machina announced in March that it would no longer be performed.And in accepting the Artiste pour la paix prize, this week, Lepage admitted that even with the best intentions, one can make a fine mess.With that in mind, Lepage au Soleil works best not as a defence of Kanata — and certainly not as a reckoning about the play’s conceptual problems — but as a testament to the noble motives behind the ill-fated production.AT A GLANCELepage au Soleil: At the Origins of Kanata opens in French and other languages (with English subtitles) at Cinéma du Musée, and in French and other languages (with French subtitles) at Cinéma Beaubien and the Cinémathèque québécoise. For more information, visit email@example.com/TChaDunlevyRelated