The toll of preserving memory and the cost of forgetting

We spoke to François Girard about his new film, an exploration of memory, WWII and friendship through music.

For nearly three decades, François Girard has been one of Quebec’s most musical directors. In films like Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould (1993), The Red Violin (1998) and Boychoir (2014), music served as a backdrop for personal and historical inquiry. What role does music play in our lives, as markers of identity and as a vehicle for history? With his latest film, The Song of Names, historical memory by way of a song takes central focus. I sat down with Girard to discuss the film’s inspiration and the importance of remembering.

The Song of Names is based on Norman Lebrecht’s first novel. Labrecht, a noted commentator and critic of music and cultural affairs, is considered the foremost classical music critic working today. His book portrays the fictionalized story of two boys growing up in the shadow of the second world war: a young Brit, Martin, and a Polish emigre, Dovidl Rapoport, who is also a violin prodigy. Clive Owen and Tim Roth star as the adult versions. Girard read the script before he read the novel and was interested in how it treated memory and remembrance.

The screenplay by Jeffrey Caine (The Constant Gardener) restructured the linear novel into a detective mystery. The film opens on the night of Dovidl’s big performance. The small theatre is packed and the audience eager, but Dovidl doesn’t show and Martin spends most of the rest of his adult life searching for him. The quest takes him on an intercontinental journey as he pieces together hints and traces of his friend, while the film pulls us into extended flashbacks, illuminating their complicated past. 

“Music, like cinema and literature, is like a time machine. It allows us to travel to the past and into the future,” explains Girard. Right now, especially, he feels like we are increasingly held captive by the present. “We are more and more obsessed by the now,” he says. “Music and cinema allow us to break out of those patterns and remember. He mentions recent statistics showing that many young people are unaware what happened during the Holocaust (likely a recent survey that suggests one in five Canadian youths are unaware or have serious misapprehensions about the event). 

The consequences of this lack of historical memory can be devastating. Girard refers not only to the events of the Holocaust but other acts of genocide and violence when he talks about an impulse to not only erase history but to rewrite it. Recently, he said, he found out that the Canadian government was directly involved in the decision to drop the bomb on Hiroshima in the Second World War. “We are all culpable in violence,” he says. “We have to remember because if we forget, history repeats itself.” 

In recreating the past for The Song of Names, Girard’s biggest challenge was casting. Three different actors play the two main characters as children, teens and adults. Girard, who has often worked with children, says he doesn’t find them particularly challenging. “Sometimes, with adults, you run into ego problems. They have more insecurities than children,” he says, contradicting the long-held showbiz truism about not working with kids or animals. 

Creating a bridge between all three actors was particularly challenging for the character of Dovidl. The young actor who plays him, Luke Doyle, was untrained as an actor but is a real violin prodigy. As the character grows older as well, his accent has to evolve, reflecting his growing familiarity with English and his changing environment. There was a lot of work with dialects. 

Girard explained that working with Gerran Howell, who played the young Martin, was like working with any trained actor. Luke Doyle was less experienced, but soon Girard realized if he directed him as if he were playing a piece of music, things came more naturally. “There is music in all speech,” he says. “Think of Shakespeare, the intonations, the rhythms… it’s music.”

One of the most critical aspects of the films is the titular “Song of Names” and the score by Howard Shore. Music and the Jewish oral tradition are deeply interlinked. “I’m often asked if the song exists, and yes, it exists,” says Girard. “With Norman Brecht, you have a music scholar and a scholar of Judaism, and Howard Shore, who lived through it during the same era surrounded by rabbis and scholars, were in a search for truth.” Those forces combined to recreate a thread in the Jewish tradition that would be true to the early 1950s. Working in historical fiction, he explains, is about the search for truth. As filmmakers or musicians, they’re like archaeologists piecing things together. Even if that specific melody doesn’t exist in history, it encapsulates it. “I can’t think of more qualified people to find the truth of that experience.” 

All of these ideas come into play in The Song of Names. It is a movie about remembering, but more deeply, it’s about the toll of preserving memory and the cost of forgetting. In a tumultuous era where we see a resurgence of fascism across the world, and people are increasingly out of touch with even recent history, the film serves as an essential ode to remembrance and how the past can continue to inform the present and future. ■

The Song of Names opens in Montreal theatres on Wednesday, Dec. 25. Watch the trailer here: