Sonia Bonspille Boileau’s ‘Le Dep’: A Quebec director gets real about the biggest problem in Aboriginal Canada
Genre films are often driven by polarities between the lead characters: good versus evil, strong versus weak, new versus old. This offers instant conflict and resolves dramatic tension by answering key questions for audiences. And if an auteur director can get viewers to see more than simple human discord, they can also be left with a message of hope and renewal.
That’s a lesson that director Sonia Bonspille Boileau learned with her first feature, “Le Dep,” a character-driven crime thriller set in a rural Quebec community riven in two by the collateral damage of Canada’s residential-school era. By the climax of this heist pic, hero and anti-hero alike are allowed to heal and move on with their lives.
“The characters are based on people in my life. I won’t say who. But I wrote them with people in my life and my circle, and the storylines are based on situations that I know of, and everything has to do with how the store runs is based on (Eve Ringuette’s) experience, who worked as a store clerk,” Bonspille Boileau told CanScreen at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival, where “Le Dep” had its world premiere.
In this moody, theatrical drama, Quebec actress Ringuette plays a young Innu woman named Lydia who works the cashier at her father’s convenience store. One night, just as Lydia is about to close up shop, a masked robber (played by Charles Buckell-Robertson), holds her up at gunpoint. The danger is compounded when she discovers the identity of her attacker, forcing her to decide the fate of those closest to her.
But the intense interplay between characters in “Le Dep” occurs amid community polarities of parent against child, criminal against police and outsider against establishment. The result is no simple crime thriller. Bonspille Boileau has instead created a multi-layered drama in an aboriginal context about a community in turmoil, and yet a film in which the characters convey universal themes of family bonds, failure and retribution.
“There’s family dynamics that go way beyond whether you’re aboriginal or not. I didn’t want it to be this very narrow, only aboriginal film. It could be about anyone,” the director explained.
In this French-language movie, what at first seems a simple corner-store robbery-gone-wrong becomes a far more complex hostage situation. As Lydia attempts to keep her gun-toting kidnapper at bay through a cat-and-mouse storyline, “Le Dep,” with pace and precision, deals with questions of family betrayal and revenge.
Bonspille Boileau’s decision to depict in her film some of the tragic polarities in Canada’s First Nations communities even involved whether the robber, a drug addict desperate to pay off a debt, should eventually be killed off.
“I was still in the (film) treatment phase and I had the robber die. He was shot by the police officer that came back. But my script editor said, ‘If you do that, your main character has no hope whatsoever because her boyfriend kills him. You’re leaving her in despair,” Bonspille Boileau recalled.
The director was being told not to leave her audience without hope.
“He put doubt in my mind. I’m the first aboriginal female filmmaker out of Quebec to make this type of film. This is what I’d be setting,” Bonspille Boileau explained.
The solution to the scene was instead to hand agency back to Lydia.
“I wanted to make sure she remained the person in control of the situation, right to the very end. It’s a power shift. (The robber) has control at the beginning. But as the story goes on, (Lydia) slowly takes control, loses it at one point, and then regains control and has the power in the end,” Bonspille Boileau said.
The director explained that putting Lydia in the driver’s seat was no easy task.
“I don’t want to sound like a feminist, but I had mainly men giving me feedback, and it was really hard to tell them, ‘No, (Lydia’s) the lead, he’s not.’ They would have control shift to him. After all, he’s holding the gun,” Bonspille Boileau said.
“Action films always have a man with a gun and we’re going to follow him. I wanted (“Le Dep”) to be from her perspective,” she added.
As it happens, Ringuette plays Lydia stoically for most of the film. But her coolness shouldn’t be interpreted as a lack of anger. In the movie’s final scene, Lydia erupts emotionally, as she finally takes command of events.
“I wanted to build up for this scene,” Ringuette said. “I knew I would find it hard to play the last scene, where I pop out. I just wanted her to look like she was still calm, and that she wanted to have control.”
Bonspille Boileau added that Lydia is not so much passive as not willing to show her fright or stress, as “Le Dep” slowly reveals a surprising bond between robber and captive. The film diverts Lydia’s anger away from aggression and towards constructive engagement and healing.
“When we were rehearsing, it was important that the characters have balance. (The robber’s) over the top. He’s yelling and bouncing around. So (Lydia’s) thoughts and emotions are more interior, so it didn’t turn into a shouting match,” she explained.
“And I wanted her to not show the robber that she was afraid. You can feel her stress, but also she’s trying to remain calm. And at the end, I said, let it all out,” Bonspille Boileau added.
“Le Dep” producer Jason Brennan of Nish Media explained that Lydia’s stoic nature for most of the film reflects the reality of many aboriginal women.
“They’ve seen so much crap, so they’ve built this stoic character. Having dealt with so many emotions, it takes a lot to push them over the edge. So the last scene is (Lydia’s) breaking point,” he said.
The final scene also ties into the ravages of substance abuse and violence faced by the residential-school generations.
“These people grew up not knowing how to parent their own kids. They have all this anger built up, and turn to alcohol and drugs to relieve their pain,” Bonspille Boileau said of the backdrop to “Le Dep.”
But despite being held at gunpoint by a desperate robber, Lydia wants to be the glue that holds a family and a community together.
“At the end, even when I was writing, I knew the final scene would work if she became the child that saw the dad beat the mom. That’s what we discussed – (Lydia) going into that little girl zone, going back to being the innocent kid,” the director explained.
The end of “Le Dep” holds a surprise for those Canadians who have long assumed that this country’s First Nations can never overcome the ravages of poverty, violence and substance abuse to reach a place where all is reversed and the damned can be saved.
The return from Karlovy Vary to Canada of “Le Dep,” which also stars Yan England and Robert-Pierre Cote, is timely as it comes during a political thaw. The residential-school era, where cultural genocide was disguised as Christian charity, is at long last being talked about by Canadians.
“Suddenly there’s more of an openness. So our film arrives at a good time,” Brennan said.
But as much as the film was well received in Karlovy Vary, Bonspille Boileau is wary about how Canadians will respond to “Le Dep.”
“We don’t really want to see it (the impact of residential schools) because it’s our backyard. The relationship between First Nations and Canada is still fragile,” the director said.