Mad Dog Labine doesn’t fit any narrative

Directors Renaud Lessand and Jonathan Beaulieu-Cyr on their new film, a blend of documentary and fiction set in the Pontiac region of Québec.

Ève-Marie Martin and Zoé Audet in Mad Dog Labine

Lindsay Labine (Ève-Marie Martin) lives in the Pontiac, a rural region of Quebec north of Ottawa, with her father (Emmanuel Bilodeau) and two knucklehead brothers. Every year, most of the men in her hometown head out for hunting season, but at the last minute, Lindsay’s father throws her stuff out of the truck and peels out, leaving her alone for hunting season.

Understandably pissed, Lindsay wiles away the days with her friend Justice (Zoé Audet), a Secondary 5 student who’s preparing to go on a humanitarian trip to South America, which Lindsay sees as another form of abandonment. Their roundabout existence finds a whole new purpose when the lottery ticket they purchase (with money gained from lifting empty cans the men bring back from their hunting trips) turns out to be a winning one, to the tune of $10,000. But the girls aren’t 18 — and finding someone in the village who’ll cash it for them, no questions asked, proves harder than they could imagine.

Mad Dog Labine is what is commonly referred to as a “docufiction,” a blend of narrative and documentary that draws on the direct cinema of Quebec from the ’60s and ’70s. The ongoing narrative is peppered with interviews with residents of the Pontiac, particularly Pascal, a straight-talking overweight teen in a fishing boat who waxes poetic about life in his corner of paradise. Mixing non-professional actors with recognizable actors (including the entire cast of the teen show Le chalet who show up for one scene as campers), Mad Dog Labine offers a bittersweet portrait of a region that few people from Quebec or Ontario are even aware of. The Pontiac exists on an essentially non-existent line between the two provinces, a forgotten corner where everyone speaks with a particular franglais twang and industry is essentially non-existent.

“I’m originally from Outaouais,” says Renaud Lessard, who directed the film alongside Jonathan Beaulieu-Cyr. “I lived in Aylmer for 18 years, which is maybe half an hour from the Pontiac. We had a cottage on the edge of the Pontiac. Joe, on the other hand, is from Témiscamingue, which is basically on the other end of the Pontiac. If you keep following the Ottawa River, you’ll arrive in Témiscamingue. We shared a certain fascination and knowledge of the area, but it was always in passing.”

“My father was in the army, so we lived in Quebec City,” says Beaulieu-Cyr. “We’d go to Témiscamingue often, and to go to Témiscamingue, you have to go through Ontario because there’s no direct road. There was supposed to be a road, but they never went through with it. Northeastern Ontario is very well-developed. It’s welcoming, there are rafting clubs, people from Ottawa have cottages everywhere in the Ottawa Valley. Economically, too — there’s a nuclear plant in Renfrew. Things are happening. On the Quebec side, in the Pontiac, there’s no industry. There used to be the lumber industry, but for the last 10years or so, there’s been nothing. If you live in the Pontiac and you don’t work in services — if you’re not a teacher in a school or something — you work in the mines, and you’re gone six months out of the year. It’s very challenging economically and has been for a long time. You see it in the landscape, in the homes, in the ways the villages are laid out, in the municipal politics.”

This also extends to the language, which has the slightly créole twang of Franco-Ontarian or even Acadian French without actually being either of those.

“It’s basically a mirror effect of Franco-Ontarian language,” says Beaulieu-Cyr. “It’s not a sort of displaced French being spoken within an anglophone majority — it’s the opposite. It’s displaced English being spoken in a francophone environment. The accent is a little similar, but then again, not that much. Even between villages, the accent shifts and mutates. There are 3,000 people who live in Fort-Coulonge altogether and they speak a language they called the “fortcoulongonais.” But that means there’s 3,000 people in the world who speak the same language as you. Pascal, the kid in the boat – he speaks “fortcoulongonais.” If you’re speaking to 3,000 people, it needs to be known. And that was our idea: We knew it existed, but we needed others to know. It needs to be known that this cultural identity exists in Quebec. And for reasons that we don’t know — but that we can certainly guess — it’s been ignored.”

“It doesn’t fit any narrative,” continues Lessard. “It’s not good for sovereignists and it’s not good for federalists. They’re — they fly more Canadian flags than anywhere else in Quebec. They’re Ottawa Senators fans!”

“Their cultural identity is very specific,” says Beaulieu-Cyr. “But they remain sort of removed from that debate. They don’t feel involved, but that’s also because we don’t feel like involving them. There’s not much going on in the Pontiac. We knew we wanted to make a movie out there, but we didn’t necessarily have a clearer idea that than. We knew what method we wanted to use, but not necessarily the story we wanted to tell.”

That method is one borrowed from the pioneers of Quebec cinema like Michel Brault, Gilles Groulx (who’s shouted out indirectly through the presence of Barbara Ulrich, lead of his seminal film Un chat dans le sac, in the cast) and Pierre Falardeau (whose Pea soup seems a direct inspiration for the sequences with Pascal in the boat). It’s a mix of documentary and fiction that can basically be described as “directed reality” — the echoes of which are still felt today in every single reality show currently on the air. Mad Dog Labine leans more on the directed side than the reality side, but the lines are nevertheless blurred. In some scenes, you can hear the directors’ voices as they ask questions to the people being interviewed – but the people being interviewed never explicitly inhabit the same space as the characters.

“From the beginning, we knew that we were going to focus on the kids,” says Lessard. “The whole “docufiction” style came part-and-parcel with the method. We knew we wanted to make an in situ film — a film that we wrote over there while inhabiting the space — and that makes reality a necessary part of the film as long as you’re open to it.”

“Usually in filmmaking there’s a certain style of production, which we didn’t have,” says Beaulieu-Cyr.

“Everything was blurred,” adds Lessard. “We had a sort of narrative skeleton in the sense that we had ideas of things that could happen, but even those were really just guidelines. We had to make sure that we could scrap them at any time. Meeting the kids created stories in itself.”

“Our creative drive was really just making a movie,” says Beaulieu-Cyr. “And to make it in the Pontiac. Even today, when people ask us questions about intentions or technique, the real answer is that we don’t know. We didn’t really know what we were doing. It’s our first movie, we’re young, just out of university… but then again, no one was expecting this movie.” ■

Mad Dog Labine opens in theatres on Friday, April 5. Watch the trailer here: