I first saw Au pays des esprits / Home of the Buffalo in the cramped top floor office space of The Dominion in Montreal. It was my first time eating an entire meal made from food found in dumpsters and the first time I encountered Rémy Huberdeau’s work. Both were experiences that confronted and provoked me in ways that I hadn’t expected, and both were incredibly pleasurable encounters.
Huberdeau’s Home of the Buffalo is a haunting dreamscape of trains, plains, horizons and histories; and also of relationships, wreckage, survival, identity and family. The film is unrelentingly personal and its generosity as it lets you inside someone else’s memories, history and emotions, affected me like few short films I have seen.
Sitting there on the wood plank floor among 30 or so mediamakers and activists, I almost felt like reaching through the dark to the screen to touch the images — they represented an experience so real, so close, and so intimate. I caught up with Huberdeau after he returned from a screening of the film at a festival in Switzerland and asked him about his work.
Art Threat: What was the impetus or inspiration for you to tell this story in the audio-visual form?
Rémy Huberdeau: Au pays des esprits / Home of the Buffalo came out of an exercise called Image et voix (Image and Voice) at Quebec’s Institut national de l’image et du son (National Institute for Image and Sound). The goal was for students to engage in writing a personal narration – as opposed to a journalistic one — and then seek out archival images that weave an extra dimension into the text — as opposed to illustrating it. The theme was L’identité / l’appartenance (Identity & Belonging).
This context, all of it, was ideal to tease out a story about transexuality in relation to where I come from — not as an esoteric human experience, but one that is rooted in place and space. Cinema has been the most torturous yet most rewarding place for this particular exploration cause you can peel back the membranes of experience and memory and stumble into new places along the way.
The ways in which the film peels back those layers is like a poem, but it is also a letter to your father, I believe. Is it a letter that was actually sent? Will he see the film? Why a letter?
Sitting down to write a “letter” can catapult you into a state of personal journaling, complete with an intended audience. Letter-writing is as much about updating someone about your life as it is about updating yourself about your life — its a place to process with a sharing mechanism built-in.
I invited my parents to visit me in Montreal last spring without telling my Dad that I had been working on a video piece that involved him for the past 2 months. On the last day of their trip, I explained what I had been up to and brought them to school to screen the piece. They were the first to see it. Being patient paid off (in terms of not building it up before their arrival) because we had an honest moment together with it. My Dad acknowledged that it was challenging but respectful, and I agree. I trusted we could handle it.
There is a nice play and tension between your narration and archival footage of landscape, trains, memories and moments in time. What was the process in matching or mismatching these images with the words you speak (and write)?
I had the honour of working with a very skilled, experienced and instinctual editor named René Roberge. We had 3 days to cut down 60 minutes of archival footage (that I had pre-selected from 18 hrs of viewing rushes from the National Film Board of Canada archives) into 4 minutes.
After the first 2 days, we hadn’t gotten very far — nothing seemed to really fit. This had a lot to do with my lack of experience with communicating in the editing room — until then, I had been used to editing by myself — relinquishing the mouse and finding words instead was a big deal.
On the 3rd day, we both started to sink into the atmosphere a little bit more, and bits and pieces of the archives we hadn’t noticed before started to stand out. I know I couldn’t have made that film by myself, and working with René is a perfect example. We alternated moments of seeing a connection between a particular phrase and a particular image, and eventually we found the tracks. Working with an editor expanded the range of possibilities for this story and this film.
The story (and the film), for me, is about identity, but it is also about expectations and relationships with those close to us. It comes across as deeply thoughtful and never feels angry. Is there anger, or sadness? Or both?
Working through Identity, expectations and relationships is deep-tissue work. Anger is an emotion that lives close to the surface like some kind of buoy pointing at the stuff going on underneath. This is where we need to get to — anger is often one way of getting there. All that said, I don’t think of anger when i think of this film or the life that brought me to make it.
There is definitely some sadness woven into this film however, a thoughtful sadness, partly on which these memories can float — my own and the ones imprinted onto film. And it’s valid – its one colour among many for these memories — and for memory, I remember this:
When it’s truly alive, memory doesn’t contemplate history, it invites us to make it. More than in museums, where its poor old soul gets bored, memory is in the air we breathe, and from the air, it breathes us. (Eduardo Galeano, Upside Down)
In the film you say you find solace in aboriginal spaces, which is the space where the film seems to be situated. How are those spaces more nurturing to you than others? Do those spaces include film? Is this inspiration for the title?
Good question. The reference to Aboriginal spaces is meant to echo in different directions. The first is that it grounds all the images we are seeing — of colonial communities under construction in the Canadian prairies — as taking place on an Aboriginal continent, on Aboriginal land. This has spiritual (and social and economic) implications for all of us — colonial communities under construction included.
Weaved into this colonial-aboriginal space dynamic is a Métis elder named André Nault, who is as light-skinned as everyone else in this film, and who raised arms against the Canadian state three years after its inception. (I mention skin colour because I think one of the weaknesses of pan-Canadian culture — not including the Québécois here — is being invested in a notion where skin colour = a certain culture or ethnicity. Time spent in Latin America gave me room to realize how complicated the relationship between colour and culture can be, more than is often understood and represented up here.) All this to say that the notion of finding refuge in Aboriginal spaces, whether physically or philosophically, is also a poetic reference to the European ancestors of (Red River) Métis culture and community — not to romanticize several generations of individuals, but to reference conscious choices that were made in terms of building community and territorial dynamics in a particular region of Turtle Island.
Lastly, on a personal level, as a Franco-Manitoban, I’ve come to realize that the francophone culture I inherited has a significant influence of Aboriginal-worldview. Franco-Manitoban families are often intermarried with Métis families, thus making the lines drawn within our communities blurry. At times, they are heavily-patrolled and contested borders and at other times they are constructive spaces for connection and creation.
Regarding the title, I chose different phrases in French and in English. The French title Au pays des esprits is a translation of the Anishinaabe word “Manitoba” — which in English means “In the Land of the Spirits”. This says it all for me — in terms of grounding this work about a settler family and community in an Aboriginal territory, and naming that territory as sacred — which I feel, I am very much rooted in the prairies. This title also grounds the narrative on transexuality in a spiritual dimension.
I chose Home of the Buffalo for the English name instead of a direct translation of the French title to complicate the reading of the film a little bit. At an English screening, both phrases appear on the screen at the same time during the title credit, creating a relationship between esprit (french for “Spirit”) and Buffalo, which are in fact related in the context of the Great Plains. Winona Laduke, author of All Our Relations, does an amazing job of explaining this in the chapter Buffalo Nations, Buffalo Peoples. Home of the Buffalo in Anglophobe storytelling has historically been more of a cliché phrase in relation to settlers in the Plains. This is an attempt to reframe it; at least a little bit.
Where will the film be shown? What’s next for you as an artist?
The film has screened at Visions du réel in Nyon, Switzerland and will be screened at Pink Screens in Brussels, Belgium. It’s also played at RIDM in Montréal, Cinémental in Winnipeg and at the Queer Film Festival in Vancouver. It falls into francophone, documentary, post-colonial, queer and trans themed programming at the same time, something I really like.
As an artist my life is busy and I am thankful. I had the honour of co-editing two documentaries and one fiction from Labrador last year, which was really interesting and rewarding work. This year I am finishing up two Making Of behind-the-scenes pieces — one about a documentary and one about a fiction. I am starting a web-documentary project with a crew of Trans people in Montréal and am also going to Italy in December to edit a good friend’s film. Lastly, I am doing research for a French doc about Michif, a Métis “créole” language living in the Canadian and American prairies.
Note: For those in Montreal area, you can see Home of the Buffalo on October 18th, 7PM at Concordia University (in Room H-110) as part of Cinema Politica’s program.