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  • Exberlinale Interview: Ordinary xenophobia and the Undead

Berlin

Exberlinale Interview: Ordinary xenophobia and the Undead

David Mouriquand interviews Canadian director Denis Côté for his Competition selected film, Repertoire Des Villes Disparues (Ghost Town Anthology).

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In Competition this year is Denis Côté’s Repertoire Des Villes Disparues (Ghost Town Anthology), a playful oddity from Québec that fuses horror elements, supernatural happenings and sly social commentary. It chronicles how a small, isolated town with a population of 215 deals with the death of one of their youngest. The townspeople don’t like to discuss the tragedy, and as the days of protracted mourning go by, something otherworldly starts happening: strangers start to appear in the wintery fog… Who are they? Why are they here? What do they want?

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This is one of my Competition favourites, an atmospheric gem that got under my skin, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this nabbed one of the major awards, possibly the Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize or the Alfred Bauer Prize.

I sat down with director Denis Côté to talk about his latest film, the layered topic of national identity, and some fresh ink…

How’s the Berlinale treating you this year, for your third year in competition?

It’s my third film in competition, so nothing is new on the protocol side, the glamour side… I know how it works… So my biggest fear was how the film would be received, because for the last six months, the film was over and you only show it to your friends and collaborators, and they’ll never tell you whether it’s good or bad…

The reception seems to have been quite warm…

Yes, the reviews are quite good and even the American trades are good. Most people are seeing the film as this original item… So, I’m more relieved this morning and can sit through this interview with you, no problem! (Laughs) But to come back to your question, I guess the novelty this year was bringing new actors to this festival. In this film, I have several actors who are extremely famous where I come from, but they have zero international experience. It’s like bringing stars who here behave like kids! It’s really touching.

What brought on this “original item”?

Well, there were three points of departures for this story… When it’s your 11th film, you don’t have the same sense of urgency to make it film… And where I live, which is like everywhere in Europe, we’re faced with a “migration problem”, but a very small one, because it’s Canada! So, what we’re facing is people with no papers from the US that are afraid of Trump, as well as people from Haiti, people from Nigeria… They cross the border. And people in Quebec freaked out, thinking that they were really going to lose something. That phenomenon was pretty funny to me, and I felt about making a film about ordinary xenophobia. So, there was that, the fact that people had been asking me to make a horror film, and the third point was somebody handing me Laurence Olivier’s book, ‘Repetoire Des Villes Disparues’ and told me I was going to love it.

What was it about Laurence Olivier’s book, on which your film is loosely based, that inspired you? 

It was pure poetry and there was no film in that book. But there was still a spark… But it’s 5% the book, a few percentages the horror film idea, and mostly this social phenomenon. Germany welcomed 1 000 000 Syrian people – how many Germanys can you fit in Canada? 5? 6? And we welcome 40 000! We have the resources, we have the land… It’s clearly a non-problem for us. People who are afraid of this in Canada are maybe racist… The thing is that when you live in a very comfortable society, you get used to your comfort. The film is about that – the fear of difference and the resistance to change.

Nothing is confronted head-on though, which is what I liked about this film…

Thank you – and yes, nothing is explicit. There are several strands there – you watch, you take what you want. The zombies – are they zombies? For me, they are the sleeping conscience of the villagers, and they come back to look over the living and ask “What are you doing?” But I don’t want to say too much…

You’ve fused horror and a certain degree of absurdism in this film…

People have been telling me they find parts of it scary. I’m glad some people are seeing it as a sort of horror film. But a lot of people are getting more social commentary out of it, and some are all about the grief… I like that all these doors are open. What I like is making a film that looks for 45 minutes like it’s social realism and then something switches and you drift towards the supernatural. Or maybe it’s just a simple film about ghosts in a small village. It’s a buffet of a film!

The children with the masks did made me think of Twin Peaks…

I love it when people come up with references, because when I was a film critic, I did that. As a film critic, I would always declare that this film is inspired by such-and-such, and since yesterday, I’ve been reading reviews that cite Romero, Twilight Zone, and like you, Twin Peaks…

What about Les Revenants (supernatural French TV drama The Returned)?

Yes, the French press – and now you – have mentioned Les Revenants! I’ve never seen it. But my sales agent said that that reference would come up! My personal references though were Teorema by Pasolini, and the only film I watched before making this film, to be totally influenced, was Nashville by Robert Altman. And that’s because there’s no main character in Nashville and it still needs to make sense. The group has to become the main character, like in my film. I was also Googling a lot of photographic material, including Diane Arbus and her pictures of kids… But I get it, I used to do the same. As soon as a film is weird, it’s David Lynch! As soon as a film is slow and in black-and-white, it’s Béla Tarr! There are ghosts, so it’s Uncle Boonmee in Quebec! (Laughs)

Can you tell me about the decision to shoot the film in Super 16mm?

I told my DP that what I want in one word is ‘residual’. I told him to make me feel like I’m always about to lose the film. The characters in the film feel like they’re about to lose their village. We were thinking about shooting on VHS, but that’s been done… I started talking about Super 8, but that would look hipster… And we ended up on Super 16 for the grain, and we didn’t clean the film stock. Usually, you send the film to the lab and they clean it, but we kept the dust! It felt right for the story.

The film deals with a communication breakdown in society…

Yes, and I don’t want to say that this film is about Québec, but it’s very Québecois… It’s universal in many ways, but from a Québec point of view, we’re stuck in an ocean of Anglophilia. So, when we’re trying to define who we are, it’s very hard, because we are totally indifferent to English Canada. The film industry in Québec doesn’t connect with the film industry in Toronto – we don’t know these people. We go there, we go to TIFF, but we don’t really know them, and it’s our country… They don’t care about us or understand us. We’re all Canadians, Québecois people can speak English, but if I sit with a Toronto person, I’m like… (grimaces). They don’t know our singers, our books, our films… And we’re not looking to connect to American culture the way the rest of Canada does. So, we like to say we have a European edge… But we’re not French either. We have a love-hate relationship with the French. Our accent is different – we are the equivalent of the Scottish for the French, and it quickly becomes very condescending. And we are British people, since we were colonised by the British… But we’re British people that don’t care about Britain. So, in the end, we stay among each other, like the characters in the film. The film is in many ways a metaphor on the communication problems of Québecois people. And the Québecois in Québec can be fucking arrogant with all that is different from us, because we’re in our fortress. The film hides all of these things, specifically the sense that identity and nation are complicated things… And you totally understand what I mean, since I’m speaking to a half-French, half-Brit! (Laughs)

I was chatting with a colleague of mine about the end of the film – he saw it as a pessimistic ending. I thought it was quite hopeful…

Yeah, the characters do seem to get used to the strangeness, don’t they? I think that if the supernatural was a lot more in our lives, we would deal very naturally with it. And that’s why at the end of the film, if there’s a message – and I hate saying that! – I think it’s a pretty positive one. It’s about the living, and saying: “Why don’t we just take care of each other, because death is a part of life?” It’s not a reactionary message that says “Hey, be careful, because the immigrants are coming!” No. The bleakness of the film is strictly aesthetical – if you pay attention to the film, it’s not that bleak.

It is in many ways about accepting death as a part of life…   

Yes, it’s about collective and individual grief. And I don’t love to talk about this, but I have a chronic disease – I have a kidney insufficiency and I’m going towards dialysis and a transplant. I made many films, and it would have been very easy for me to not do anything. But my films are little wars I’m fighting against my disease. And I keep playful!

In that spirit, I’ll admit I just got mesmerized by your tattoos (Côté has two freshly inked skulls on his hands)

They’re brand new! I got them done here in Berlin. The price of these tattoos was ridiculously high though, so I didn’t buy a new suit for the red carpet! (Laughs) I have quite a lot of skulls, and as you can see, I’m always confronting myself with the idea of death! But again, in a playful way.