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Ben Levine's new documentary looks at Maine's invisible French culture
BY BETH BROGAN
SHOW INFO: Reveil screens Feb. 14, at the Center for Cultural Exchange, in Portland, as part of their new foreign cinema series. Call (207) 761-1545. Also, at Lewiston Middle School, March 22 at 9:30 a.m. and 7 p.m.
Q&A with filmmaker Ben Levine
Phoenix: When you asked in Reveil about the Catholic churchís responsibility for some of this shame, many of the older people you spoke to were obviously uncomfortable. What are your thoughts about this?
Levine: The church is now going through a huge revolution because of the child-abuse scandal. Itís making it easier for people to look at other parts of the church. Thereís a long history [of oppression] in the church. When the English conquered the French in Canada, they didnít think they could assimilate the French. They told the church, ĎYou keep the calm and you can basically be a theocracy.í One of those abuses involved women being forced to have up to 22 children. As one man says [in Reveil], the church made us have children even thought we didnít want to, even with all the suffering. Thatís a big piece for people. I would need another couple of films to get at it with any real integrity but I wanted to bring it in because I felt that part of the campaign against the French had been the Irish-Catholic church appropriating the French-Catholic church. They couldnít have FrenchĖspeaking priests and thereís never been a French bishop in Maine ó Whatís going on here? This is not an accident.
Q: Was it difficult to persuade older French-Canadians to talk about the Ku Klux Klan presence in Maine?
A: Of the four or five people I approached, only one would tell me of her own experience and then the child of one another person [would also speak about it]. The fear is deeply ingrained ó so deeply that they canít talk about it. Itís the rare person that perhaps has been able to see a little bit of the history and understands that they have a role to play as a witness and they take that role, and its very courageous. Itís not easy at all, not easy for the nonĖFrench either. The Waterville Historical Society not only doesnít mention the Ku Klux Klan, it doesnít mention the French. Waterville is 50-percent French and the historical society doesnít have one thing [about them]. If you were to come into Waterville and go directly to historical society and then leave, youíd never know there were any French people there. Thatís what it means to be invisible.
Q: The recent visit to Lewiston by the racist World Church of the Creator has focused national attention on Lewiston and the Somali immigrant population there. Do you see similarities in that conflict and the wave of French-Canadian immigrants to Lewiston during the 19th century?
A: Thereís a piece in the film where an African lady and a white woman [in Woonsocket, RI] become great friends and the two families grow together. The two religions and traditions are accepted and embraced by the other side. Thereís a tremendous amount of potential for intolerance, and instead it was just the opposite. As people understand that piece, especially because there are so many Africans in Portland as opposed to Lewiston, they can understand that thereís a potential there ó that they can have intimate relationships with Americans and that there are Americans who would embrace them and support them. Lewiston is a bit trickier. Itís a very French city where French has gone underground. No French is spoken in public. The French themselves are afraid to be who they are in public. Then all of a sudden thereís a rapid growth of Somalis. Iíve been in Lewiston a lot in the last few months and of all the people Iíve talked to, Iíve never seen any hint of racism at all. Iím always talking and looking and I donít see it myself. This big anti-racist rally that happened ó Iíve been back there since then and things are more relaxed. You see Somalis more on the street and they smile at you when you walk by.
Q: In Reveil we see so many residents of Madawaska, particularly young people, who have escaped the stigma of the French-Canadian language and culture and really rejoice in their heritage. How do you account for that?
A: Thatís the St. John Valley, the Acadian tradition that has so much pride and fierce loyalty to their traditions. Thatís what makes the St. John Valley unique. They had perhaps a larger majority of French in their towns, and they werenít directly subjected to the Ku Klux Klan, but they were certainly subjected to the language laws. The short answer is bilingual education. Theyíve had a bilingual education program and have graduated high school classes that go to school a half-day in French. Itís legitimized. This is immersion French ó long periods of time speaking only French. Thatís what does it. Theyíre comfortable expressing themselves in French and you can see it. The other piece is that Madawaska is right across river from Edmonton, New Brunswick, a largely Acadian town. A lot of business gets done between Madawaska and Edmonton and you better speak French because thatís the language of the people youíre doing business with.
After growing up in a Russian-Jewish household outside Boston and fighting for civil rights alongside Martin Luther King Jr., filmmaker Ben Levine moved to Maine more than 20 years ago braced for culture shock. He expected to be surrounded by French Canadians in his new home. After all, Quebec is just a ways up Route 201. But after living in Augusta, Waterville, and Skowhegan, he still wondered, " Where are the French? "
" I always thought it was strange to be living in a New England town full of French people, just down the road from seven million French-speakers, and yet never, ever hear or see anything French, " Levine says. Now, after 22 years exploring the disappearance of the French-Canadian culture, Levine offers an explanation for this invisible culture in a new documentary, Reveil: Waking Up French, to be shown February 14 at the Center for Cultural Exchange.
Exposing what Levine calls " a campaign in the 1920s and [later] in New England to suppress the French language and the culture, " Reveil is the most recent effort by a filmmaker whose previous works have been seen on US and European television and at the Museum of Modern Art.
" The film has really met with tremendous response, " Levine says when I get a chance to interview him after viewing the film. " People cry during and afterwards . . . they have such a strong response to the film. "
Levine reveals the hidden history of Maineís and New Englandís French Canadians mostly through filmed interviews. Tangible is the pervasive sense of shame and loss among many of the approximately two million people of French-Canadian descent in New England. Itís clear that the suppression of their heritage has resulted in a culture that has become less than cursory to their daily lives.
Early in the film, Levine describes an influx of almost one million French-Canadian immigrants traveling from Quebec to work in what were the regionís new mill towns. He examines the " fierce resistance " of this culture to assimilation, born during the English rule of Quebec.
But dramatic photographs illustrate one reason for their dive underground, and an especially unpleasant chapter in their history most Mainers would rather forget: At one time, Maine had more members in the Ku Klux Klan than any state in the country, and the highest per capita participation in the US, Levine says.
" People know there was some sort of Ku Klux Klan [in Maine] but they think they must have heard wrong because, ĎGee, there werenít any blacks,í " Levine says. " But Protestant clergymen, business and civic men, mill owners . . . the white Protestant ruling elite led a well organized campaign to bring the Klan here. "
The Klan was here to keep the French-Canadian Catholics under control, and was a " visible part of everyday civic life, " Levine explains as a black-and-white postcard flashes onto the screen, commemorating the Klanís " first daylight parade in U.S.A. " ó in Milo, Maine, September, 1923. " We had heard stories about the Ku Klux Klan, " one elderly woman remembers. " When I realized this was evidence of them right here in Maine, and if they were burning the cross . . . I was very frightened. "
" Over one-third of all Mainers are French, yet we have never elected a French-Canadian governor, US Senator or representative, " Levine says. " Why is there no French-American bishop when 70 percent of Maineís Catholics are French? "
A more insidious assault on the French language and culture victimized schoolchildren, who were told that the French they spoke was inferior.
" When I took French, every time I opened my mouth in French class I was made fun of, " one woman recalls in the film. " Thatís an awful thing to do to a person, to make them not have any worth in their language. "
" When you push something like that down, " Levine explains, " it changes you and then the next generation senses it and picks up that thereís something wrong. Then the culture goes underground. "
Levineís first exploration into French-Canadian culture was the subject of his 1980 documentary, Si Je Comprends Bien (If I Really Understand), which featured two French-Canadian families: the Turcottes of Lewiston and the Champagnes of St. Georges, Quebec. Levine continued to film the families for more than 20 years, and revisits several members in Reveil.
In 1995, partly prompted by an almost-successful Quebec referendum to secede from Canada, Levine began showing QuebecĖmade films at Railroad Square Cinema in Waterville. The films drew young and old members of the French-Canadian community. Inspired by a " huge outpouring of emotion that really surprised me, " Levine began to film the spirited post-show discussions. Clips of these conversations are included in Reveil.
" You could clearly see for all the ages that there was a great yearning for there to be French in public again, " Levine says.
Thanks in part to Levineís latest film, some people are waking up their French and finally finding pride in their language. This is possible because of a " linguistic brain map, " explains an advisor to the film, Julia Schulz, founding director of the Penobscot School for Language and Cultural Exchange and the Center for Heritage Language Reacquisition in Rockland.
" Your first language is Ďhard-wiredí into your brain and you canít really lose it because itís associated with all of your first experiences of who you are, " Schulz says in an interview. " So when you lose your language, you lose a part of yourself. But on the other side of that, you canít really lose that language completely. "
Recently, groups have begun to meet to speak French together in Waterville and elsewhere. One meets at Jorgensonís Café in Waterville. And the city of Waterville has plans to develop a new center of Franco-American culture ó partly a result of Levineís film, Schulz says.
" (As they) overcome shame, people realize theyíve been screwed and there was no need for it, " Levine says. " I saw a lot of joy in that as they realized that French could still be a living language. "
Beth Brogan can be reached at email@example.com