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Mathieu Denis  


A teenage Québecer in the 1960s evolves from pro-independence activist to radical terrorist, in this gripping chronicle of the origins of the FLQ in the decade preceding the 1970 October Crisis.


Hi Mathieu does it feel to have your latest film having its international premiere at Berlinale 2015?


It feels great! I see this as an acknowledgement that I have done something right with this film. The Berlinale is such an important and respected film festival… Having some of my work showcased there is in itself a form of validation that I accept with humility but also with a certain amount of pride.


Do nerves ever set in when you show your films with festival audiences?


Always. I never take anything for granted, I never feel safe about anything I have written or directed myself. So I never come to a festival thinking that the audience is going to love my film. And since I approach my work with a very personal bias (there is something of me in every character, in every dialogue, in every scene of all of my films) I feel that if an audience doesn’t like my film it’s as if they don’t like me! So I’m always somewhat stressed before I screen my film to any audience.


Tell me a little it about your latest film Corbo, how did the film come about?


My father first told me about Jean Corbo a few years ago. He was the same age as Jean when the events depicted in the film happened, and he still had a clear memory of his tragic story. I was moved by father’s brief account; so I decided to research Jean’s story. It quickly became obvious that there was a relevance to his story in today’s world. That’s when I decided to write something about it.

Who was Jean Corbo?


Jean Corbo was a 16-year-old teenager living in Montréal in 1966. He was of mixed background: his mother was a French-speaking Canadian and his father was Italian. Jean joined the ranks of a terrorist organization, the FLQ (Liberation Front of Quebec) during the spring of 1966 and remained with it all through the summer of the same year. Feeling a strong sense of belonging to the group, Jean became more and more radicalized over time, and his commitment ultimately brought forth a tragic outcome for him.

What was it about Jean Corbo's story that you connected with so much?


First and foremost, I was struck by the idea of a life cut short so suddenly and prematurely. I imagined the terrible shock that Jean’s family must have endured when they learned of his death, and then when they discovered the circumstances under which it had happened. I also wondered how his companions in arms might have experienced the death of one of their own. Finally, I wanted to understand what might have pushed a teenager, someone so young, apparently ordinary and from a comfortable background, to join the revolutionary – and openly violent – group that was the FLQ.

That said, another aspect interested me when I started researching the subject: Jean’s family background, with an Italian father and a French-Canadian mother. It was an identity-related duality that seemed to me to speak of the contemporary world, through a story that is almost 50 years old. This was what finally convinced me that a film about Jean Corbo might be utterly relevant today.


"I spent weeks trying to understand what that meant and it occurred to me at some point that Bale was not only trying to resurrect his friend but that he was trying at the same time to salvage the last shreds of childhood that were left in him."

What were the biggest challenges you faced bringing Corbo to the screen?


The research period was quite difficult because very little has been written about Jean Corbo or the incarnation of the FLQ of which he was a part. Of course, there are books about the history of Québec that give an overview of this period and a few others dealing with a general history of the FLQ. But most of these works focus mainly on the 1970 October Crisis, on the Chénier and Libération cells, and deal only superficially with the rest of the FLQ’s history, which lasted ten more years.


I quickly realised that my main source of information would be the accounts of the trials involving the members of FLQ ’66, which had been taking place from 1966 to 1971. At first, I thought I could study the transcripts of these trials. But when I visited the Justice House in Montréal I was surprised to find that the legal archives are destroyed every 30 years, without regard for the historical value of the documents being destroyed. 


Luckily, our libraries haven’t yet burned their copies of newspapers of the time. Looking through five years’ worth of these newspapers, I found hundreds of articles about the activities of FLQ ’66, and about the events that led to Jean’s death. But it was gruelling work parsing through these archives: six days a week over a six-month period!  The historical reconstitution was also hard to achieve since it also necessitated extensive research and a lot of inventiveness due to our limited budget.

What was your most difficult scene to shoot?


It would spoil the ending of the film if I discussed it here so I’d rather not.


Have you always wanted to be a filmmaker?


I was 12 years old when I decided I wanted to make films. My mother had prodded me to watch Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun, and I was shocked by it. I didn’t know if I liked it or not, but it had moved me. And it stayed with me for weeks. There was this one scene where Christian Bale’s character was trying to bring back one of his friends to life by giving him a cardiac massage. 

And he was pushing and pushing and pushing and there was this cross-cut between Bale’s face and his friend's face and at some point Bale’s face appeared in place of his friend’s face and that really troubled me. I spent weeks trying to understand what that meant and it occurred to me at some point that Bale was not only trying to resurrect his friend but that he was trying at the same time to salvage the last shreds of childhood that were left in him. Which is why we were seeing his face in place of his friend’s. The fact that this was said not through words but through the language of film - that was really a defining moment when I thought that this was something I would like to do.


What are the biggest lessons you've learnt since your first feature film?


If you’re not happy with a scene, don’t stop shooting. Yes, there are always time constraints on a set. It doesn’t matter. Do another take. Take a short break so that people can breathe and calm down. Change the setup or the mise en scène. Question your own certainties. Anything that will work is valid. The only thing that is not valid is stopping before you are happy with what you captured on film because you will regret it later. But also because it’s you, the director, is not the only one who’s involved; everyone knows when something doesn’t feel right. If you don’t make things right, you are killing the spirit for everyone - you included - and that will not make the next scene any better.


How much as your style as a director changed over the years?


I think it has refined itself - it has become more precise and less dogmatic.


Looking back at your work is there anything you would have liked to have done differently? 


I don’t look back at my work in that way. Because in hindsight, I would probably do everything differently! While editing, I start from the idea that everything that I’ve already shot is imperfect, not exactly like I’d intended it to be. So I just try to make it better. Obviously, I try to collect and remember the mistakes I have made so that I don’t repeat them on my next film, but I also try not to dwell on them because that is not constructive. I just try to come up with solutions.


Once I’m finished with the postproduction of the film, I don’t look at it anymore. Because it’s done and there’s nothing that can be changed about it. So I might as well start concentrating on the next one, instead of despairing about the things I could have done differently.


What has been the best advice you were given?


Don’t yell "Action" as soon as the camera rolls, and don’t yell "Cut" as soon as the take is over. Let the camera roll for a long while before and after each take; this will become useful when you edit the film.​


What would be the best advice you would give someone who is thinking about making their first movie?


Just do it! Don’t wait for someone to tell you: "Here’s some money, some equipment, actors, a script, locations, and…" It will not happen by itself. And most of all don’t wait for someone to tell you that your film is worth making before you actually set out to make it. You’re the only one who truly knows. Write something that has meaning to you and hopefully to other people around you, then go out and make the film. There is absolutely no reason not to do that when you consider how accessible today’s technology is.


Do you have a favourite film quote?


From Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder, 1950):


- You’re Norma Desmond! You used to be in the silent pictures. You used to be big!


- I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.


And finally, what do you want people will take away from your film?


Corbo is a period film that, from my point of view, is extremely relevant to today’s society. In addressing the essential questions of commitment (in this era of cynicism and renunciation) and identity (in a world that is constantly becoming more globalized), I tried to make a contemporary work that says something about our present while revisiting our past. 


To paraphrase Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao Hsien, someone who’s had a great influence for me, I hope that when we gaze with “comprehension and sympathy” at Jean Corbo, we will learn a bit more about ourselves and, by that very fact, find new meaning to this tragedy that has remained unresolved for almost 50 years.

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