Before the Streets is a thriller set on a Quebec reservation

The challenges of working with non-pro actors in the Atikamekw language turned out to be blessings for first-time director Chloé Leriche.

©Glauco Bermudez ALR_Shawnouk_Raoul
Rykko Bellemare (left) in Before the Streets. Photos by Glauco Bermudez 

“There are about 6,000 people who speak Atikamekw in the entire world,” says Chloé Leriche. “I rewrote the script considerably based on who I ended up casting!”

Casting was only one of the many challenges Leriche faced while making her debut feature, Before the Streets. It’s the story of Shawnouk (Rykko Bellemare), a young Atikamekw man living on the Manawan reservation in Quebec’s Lanaudière region. Shawnouk’s day-to-day is troubled: he can’t find work, is at odds with his mother’s policeman boyfriend (Jacques Newashish) and enduring a long, protracted break-up fraught with jealousy. Befriending an outsider (Martin Dubreuil) who promises to pay him in exchange for lessons in breaking into cottages and hunting camps, Shawnouk eventually ends up committing the unthinkable when he kills the man in self-defence. Overcome by guilt, he disappears into the forest.

Chloé Leriche
Chloé Leriche

Leriche herself doesn’t speak Atikamekw; she became involved with the community through her work with Montreal non-profit organization Wapikoni Mobile. “I was conscious of the fact that I was coming in from the outside,” says Leriche. “There was a very real possibility that I could get lambasted for making this movie, especially since it was much more rock ’n’ roll in the initial stages. As I got to know the community, though, they were very receptive to the idea, very welcoming. I realized I didn’t have to be afraid of messing up; I knew everything would work out. At first I felt opportunistic but once I had the story outlined, everyone wanted in — because it spoke to them, because it was something that they knew.”

Working in a language she doesn’t speak came with obvious challenges.  “The film was written in French, and the actors translated their script every day of the shoot,” she explains. “I didn’t want to burn out all the scenes ahead of time since they were all non-professional actors. We shot the movie chronologically and I gave them the script at the end of each day — they did know their characters’ traits and al that. I definitely shot the movie without understanding the language, but I knew my story inside and out.”

©Glauco Bermudez ALR-Shawnouk_Kwena

Using a cast of nonprofessionals also allowed for greater improvisation and enriching of the script through the actors’ own experiences. “It allowed for certain First Nations notions and qualities to come out,” she explains. “There’s a scene where two characters are arguing and one of them brings up respect, for example. That’s not something that I had written in there, but the notions of respect are very important in their culture. It allows for certain bits of realism and authenticity to come out through their words and their experiences — they made the script theirs.”

Guilt is a recurring theme in the film, which eschews the traditional thriller narrative that one expects from the setup. What originally begins as a straight thriller takes on a more contemplative, almost documentary-like tone. “Unresolved crimes are a dime-a-dozen – the will he, won’t he.. Who cares? What’s interesting to me is the healing aspect of the film. Movies where someone seeks redemption for a murder, there are tons. It interests us on a human level because we always wonder how we would’ve reacted, but that wasn’t the story that interested me. I could’ve closed off the story — I had four endings written, I had a whole investigative angle written in — but we’ve seen that before.” ■

Before the Streets opens in theatres on Friday, April 15. Watch the trailer here: