How Director François Girard Captured Montreal’s History in ‘Hochelaga: Land of Souls’

“I felt the need to go from my roots, dig and understand better who I was at that point in time,” Girard tells TheWrap’s Steve Pond

Montreal is celebrating its 375th anniversary this year. And to mark the occasion, the celebration committee turned to François Girard, the art house director of “Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould” and “The Red Violin,” to tell the story of Hochelaga, the 16th century city that resided in modern day Montreal.

Though Girard has worked in film, opera and with Cirque du Soleil, he said at TheWrap’s Awards and Foreign Screening Series of his film “Hochelaga: Land of Souls” that he’s never truly captured his home in his artwork.

“For my own sake, I needed to dig into my own roots,” Girard told TheWrap’s Steve Pond at the Landmark Theatres in Los Angeles Monday night. “I felt the need to go from my roots, dig and understand better who I was at that point in time.”

Hochelaga was an Iroquoian fortified village near present day Montreal that welcomed the explorer Jacques Cartier in 1535. Girard’s film gives fictional characters this historic background, and Girard uses the metaphor of a sinkhole spontaneously opening in the ground as a portal to uproot the past and trace a line back to the present. “Hochelaga” jumps through 750 years of history in a non-linear narrative and incorporates six different languages in a sprawling, ambitious portrait of Montreal.

In telling this story, Girard and producer Roger Frappier went into painstaking detail to recreate the film’s many time periods. They solicited the advice of native Algonquin experts and archaeologists to portray the immense scope of the native civilization. They said they knew that if “Hochelaga” were to be about the identity of modern Quebec as much as ancient Canada, they needed to get their facts straight.

“If you launch a rocket, you better know where it lands,” Girard said. “What they talk about is tied to history, but they themselves are fiction. And that distance is very useful. Even if you want to represent the truth, sometimes, historical figures are an obstacle.”

Frappier said researchers are continually unearthing new details about the exact location of Hochelaga, and he believes the location they shot on is the closest yet. “Hochelaga” is Canada’s official submission to this year’s Oscars Foreign Language race, so he considers it a great privilege to represent his country in multiple ways.

“This year we’re one of 92 films, so it’s recognition not only for us at home, the movie will be released in January, so already being able to represent Canada, it’s made awareness for the people,” Frappier said.

“I feel lucky to keep going back to school with every film,” Girard added. “For the team, there’s something special that happened digging for my roots and everybody else’s roots. It’s not Roger’s next film or my next film, it was a little more than that. It was a collective dig. We were making a movie yes, but we thought we were into something bigger than that.”