The idea, we were told, was to tell “the story of Canada through the prism of relations between whites and Indigenous peoples.” How that story might have been told by Robert Lepage and the players of Paris’s Théâtre du Soleil, if Lepage’s Kanata had come to fruition, is hardly mentioned in a new documentary that claims to “plunge into the heart of a theatrical creation.”
Filmmaker Hélène Choquette’s Lepage au Soleil: At the Origins of Kanata is reaching theatres nine months after Kanata was declared dead by its creator. Last July, the show collapsed after New York’s co-producing Park Avenue Armory withdrew financial support for reasons it has never made clear.
Many blamed social media, and Indigenous people who had asked in an open letter published July 14 how a high-profile theatre production could fairly represent white/Indigenous relations without creative input from Indigenous artists. “We don’t want to censor anyone,” they wrote, but “did the makers of Kanata seek a collaboration?”
Choquette had access to rehearsals in Paris, and to interviews with Lepage and the 36 actors in the cosmopolitan cast. She also filmed Indigenous people talking to the company about their experiences. It quickly becomes clear, however, that Choquette’s aim is not to reveal how the show took shape, but to absolve Lepage from the charge of cultural appropriation.
The scenes with Indigenous speakers are powerful. A residential school survivor tells the cast, “Our identity was taken away. We were told not to speak our language.” A Nak’azdli Whut’en woman named Ceejai tells of her life as a drug addict and sex worker in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, her escape from serial killer Robert Pickton and her rediscovery of her Indigenous culture in prison.
Cast members say they see their own stories in what they hear. “It’s my tragedy I’m playing,” says an Armenian actor, because his grandfather was put in an orphanage after his parents were killed during the Armenian genocide. But the Armenian orphans were mostly rescued from death by aid agencies. Canada’s residential schools were filled with children taken from their families by the state, which then did its utmost to strip them of their culture and self-respect.
The apex of false equivalence is reached when an Iraqi actor talks about Indigenous addicts in the Downtown Eastside. They’re like Daesh suicide bombers, he says, because the latter also take drugs to dull their minds to what they’re doing.
Lepage talks about how every actor has the right to play anyone, and how every story can be made universal. Yes, Indigenous people’s cultural identities have been under assault for generations, he says, but isn’t everyone losing their identity these days?
At no point does Choquette talk with any of the authors of the July 14 open letter, or anyone else with qualms to air. At the end of the film, she runs a few unattributed comments across the screen, including “We are really tired of others telling our stories for us.” The final words shown are “cultural genocide,” offered with no context whatsoever.
“When you guys do your play,” Ceejai tells the cast, “carry my voice for me.” Did they? Abenaki filmmaker Kim O’Bomsawin, who signed the July 14 open letter, went to Paris to see the truncated Kanata, épisode 1, la controverse, which played Théâtre du Soleil in December. It focused mainly on misery and murder in the Downtown Eastside and on Pickton’s farm, and on a white painter’s efforts to memorialize the victims. The work, O’Bomsawin told Le Devoir, was “superficial,” and “confirmed the fears of the Indigenous community.”
Lepage au Soleil: At the Origins of Kanata opens in Quebec theatres on April 26.