Cinéma Public Cinépistolaire

Cinéma Public’s first-anniversary project is a love letter to cinema

Cinépistolaire challenged 10 Canadian filmmakers to go DIY during lockdown, including Montrealers Carol Nguyen and Caroline Monnet.

In honour of their first anniversary, the Cinéma Public in Montreal created a film correspondence series called Cinépistolaire. Ten filmmakers were matched up in five film-letter writing series intended to capture life under lockdown. The series features Carol Nguyen, Caroline Monnet, Jorge Lozano, Lina Rodríguez, Trevor Anderson, Eva Cvijanović, Julien Elie, Shannon Walsh, Rhayne Vermette and Nour Ouayda, some of Canadian cinema’s brightest stars, and each correspondence reflects the different engagement and artistic process of the filmmakers involved. 

Available to stream online, the whole series will be screened for one night only at Cinéma Public’s outdoor space Livart as part of a free, in-person event on July 14 with two filmmakers, Lina Rodríguez and Jorge Lozano, in attendance. 

This project came to mind at the early point of the confinement in Montreal. The project coordinator Phil Bouchard-Cholette explained that its origins were quite simple: “We started a cinema in the context of a pandemic, so you already have to rethink the model completely. We felt an urgency to create opportunities for encounters we so thoroughly missed. We had a fund from the Council of the Arts, so we jumped on the idea of correspondences between filmmakers.”

The guidelines were straightforward: use what was at your disposal — phones, pre-existing footage and sound equipment you might have at home. “Keep it simple” was a big rule. “We didn’t just want a run of short films. We wanted a dialogue,” Bouchard-Cholette explains. 

The first correspondence between Carol Nguyen (No Crying at the Dinner Table) and Caroline Monnet (Bootlegger and a collection of her shorts is also available on the Criterion Channel) reflects the boundless creativity and discourse element. While some of the filmmakers involved were friends before the project, Nguyen and Monnet had never met, and outside of their respective cinematic work, they served as introductions. As Nguyen opened with a relatively simple “day in the life” style video, Monnet responded with something more abstract, engaging with the idea of language and identity based on a passing comment Nguyen makes about learning Vietnamese. 

“At the time,” explains Monnet, “I was taking a class in Anishinaabe, and I was trying to find ways of learning and working with my language. It was a perfect opportunity for me.” After Carol saw the video, her style and engagement changed. Her second response departed from her original style, embracing an essay-esque engagement with language, colonization and the beauty and deception of words. “Carol’s second video is insane. I told her it’s up to a festival standard,” laughs Monnet. “Working with language opened up possibilities that were not just about being a filmmaker but tapped into identity and personality.”

Carol Nguyen remembers seeing Monnet’s response for the first time and how it changed her idea of the project. “I took it as more Carol the person than Carol the filmmaker. Carol, the person, just made a video diary that was fun and would help introduce me. When she responded, it was as if the images were speaking for her, and I thought, ‘Oh man, I need to step up my game.’” 

No two correspondences are the same, and they reflect both a moment in time and a way of filmmaking that exists beyond our usual conceptions. As Bouchard-Cholette explains, “some filmmakers, and even me, we are envious of writers or musicians who can create works of art in very intimate settings. This project offered the possibility that there are practices we can use as well.”

While it may often seem that, socially, we failed to learn important lessons from the pandemic, Cinépistolaire offers an alternate way of thinking: one where confinement leads to new ways of working and thinking. Where the artistic process becomes, if only temporarily, divorced from budgets and financing, it’s a cinema that captures isolation but, more integrally, captures a deeper sense of hope in intimate connections. ■

Cinépistolaire is screening at Livart as part of a free in-person event on Thursday, July 14, 9 p.m. To watch the video letters online, please visit the Cinéma Public website.

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