Shannon Walsh’s feature documentary À St-Henri le 26 août (known in English as St-Henri, the 26th of August) takes the viewer on a visceral and honest journey through the bilingual, working-class neighbourhood St-Henri in Montreal. The film follows a day in the life of about a dozen diverse residents as they navigate the neighbourhood, each in their own bustling sphere.
With sixteen experienced directors filming for 24 hours, the film cleverly weaves together the pulse of the neighbourhood with the style and intimacy of cinéma vérité. Produced by Parabola Films in co-production with the National Film Board of Canada, À St-Henri le 26 août was inspired by the classic 1960s NFB cinéma vérité film À St-Henri le cinq septembre, which documented this same neighbourhood over the course of the first day of school in 1962.
St-Henri is situated south of downtown Montreal, and shares borders with one of Canada’s wealthiest neighbourhoods, Westmount. St-Henri boasts an eclectic mix of Francophone and Anglophone culture, encompassing both artists and cols bleu, young and old.
À St-Henri le 26 août is a well timed revisit of life in St-Henri. In recent years, Montreal has seen a wave a prosperity, a renaissance in art and music and a reexamination of the Quebec identity.
This has also contributed to increased gentrification. Large condo blocks have taken over much of the now sought after waterfront property, and wealthy newcomers who want to live close to downtown have driven up rent. (For an interesting look into Montreal’s migration of riches, check out this article from Spacing Montreal.)
Walsh’s film takes a modern look at this vibrant neighbourhood on the first day of school in 2010. The film follows bottle collector, optimist and hard-lived Doris on her trek through the city. The viewer gets the rare opportunity to delve under and above the city, through sewers and to rooftops, and peek into scenes of daily life in the borough: a street artist at work; the trials and (often hilarious) tribulations of urban fishermen; chats with hip Mohawk twentysomethings; an elderly couple offering live commentary as they move through the neighbourhood like St-Henri royalty.
À St-Henri le 26 août is Walsh’s second feature documentary. Her first film, H2Oil, which exposed the terrible effects of the tar sands, holds little of the same tone of À St-Henri le 26 août. This is not surprising as Walsh herself wears many different hats — filmmaker, activist, and academic to name just a few.
But what can be seen from Walsh’s growing oeuvre is her commitment to effective storytelling. Her films all tell the stories of those affected by change, and share information on a global and local level. Walsh, along with the dedicated producers she works with, Sarah Spring and Selin Murat of Parabola Films, is savvy towards using media as a tool to raise awareness, mobilize, celebrate and comment.
À St-Henri le 26 aoûtis a stunning film — from the moments it captures, to the sophisticated editing, to the note perfect soundtrack by Patrick Watson, it will act like a Rubik’s Cube in your mind, and is worth several viewings. Check out this very special documentary if it shows in your city or on television.