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Andre Melancon holds up his award at the Jutra awards ceremony in Montreal, Sunday, March 15, 2015. (Graham Hughes/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Andre Melancon holds up his award at the Jutra awards ceremony in Montreal, Sunday, March 15, 2015. (Graham Hughes/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

OBITUARY

Quebec filmmaker André Melançon gave young people a voice Add to ...

It was a Tarzan movie and a Federico Fellini film, which André Melançon watched during his childhood in rural southwestern Quebec, that set him on the path to becoming a beloved screenwriter and director.

Known for making movies with children and for children, the filmmaker gained his exceptional insight about young people through his training as a school psychologist. His early experience also included several years of working with street kids and juvenile delinquents in Quebec and abroad.

As a filmmaker, Mr. Melançon balked at advice from those in the business to never work with children or animals and to never film in a Quebec winter – a defiance that in 1984 would allow the making of the children’s classic The Dog Who Stopped the War, perhaps his best-known movie.

“When André spoke to a child, it was if he could see into their soul and what character they could play,” his friend Rock Demers, the veteran film producer, said in an interview. “And once they were chosen for a part, he would be very reassuring and speak to them with love, tenderness and humour.”

Throughout his career, which began in the late 1960s, Mr. Melançon wrote and directed more than 30 documentaries and dramas and acted in more than 20 films.

When his long career was recognized last year with a Jutra Award, Mr. Melançon shared this advice to fellow and up-and-coming filmmakers: “It’s important to make us laugh, it’s important to make us cry, it’s important to make us think,” he said. “It’s essential to make us dream.”

He also believed strongly in giving a voice to children, as he did in several documentaries. One of them, La parole aux enfants (1980), consisted of 40 three-minute clips of children speaking. Les vrais perdants (1978) questioned parents who lived out their own unrealized ambitions through their children. Youthful Passions (L’âge de passion) (2007) revisited the grown-up children of Les vrais perdants.

Mr. Melançon died of a virus on Aug. 23. He had been fighting leukemia for about nine years and chemotherapy had compromised his immune system, leaving him susceptible to the infection. He was 74.

Last May, he invited his friend Mr. Demers to visit, knowing it would be their last time together.

“He was very serene,” Mr. Demers recalled about the man who touched an entire generation with his films for young people. “He knew it was the end and he had accepted it.

“He would have liked to have made one more film and had already written the screenplay, about women in Hull in the 1930s who fought for the right to vote.”

Born Feb. 18, 1942, in Rouyn-Noranda, Que., to Gervais Melançon and Jeannette Beaumier, Mr. Melançon had two older brothers, Serge and Michel, and a younger sister, Renée.

He had his first movie-viewing experience when he was four and watched, along with dozens of other children, a Tarzan film in a basement rec room on a Saturday afternoon. But it was a decade later, when he saw a Fellini film, that he first felt the urge to make films. His father received an 8 mm movie camera that Christmas, which his son immediately took to, Mr. Melançon recalled in an NFB documentary.

He studied to become a school psychologist, a career he practised for six years and which no doubt contributed to his films’ accurate and sensitive portrayals of childhood.

Mr. Melançon then spent a year in Peru working with street kids and returned to Quebec to work with young delinquents at the Boscoville Centre in Montreal, using theatre and acting to help rehabilitate his young charges.

“My six years as an educational psychologist wasn’t a detour, because to do that one has to learn to watch and listen, just like you do in film,” Mr. Melançon said once in an interview with La Presse.

His first film, made in 1967, was about the rehabilitation centre, a documentary called Le camp de Boscoville. In the 1970s, he joined the National Film Board, and in 1973, he wrote and directed Des armes et les hommes, about man’s fascination with firearms.

“André Melançon had a special niche in Quebec cinema,” NFB chairman Claude Joli-Coeur said in a statement.

“In documentary as in fiction, his sincerity and unique sensibility brought together viewers of all ages around original narratives that closely reflected the concerns of young people.”

In the 1980s, Mr. Melançon worked mainly with Mr. Demers’s production company, Les Productions la Fête, on a series of films for children and families, called Tales for All (Contes pour tous). Among the best-known titles in that series are The Peanut Butter Solution, Bach and Broccoli and The Tadpole and the Whale. The first instalment in the series, The Dog Who Stopped the War, was sold in 125 countries and translated into several languages. It brought in $1-million, the equivalent of $7- or $8-million in today’s dollars, and won a Golden Screen Award and a Genie, for best achievement in editing.

Mr. Demers, who worked closely with Mr. Melançon for 35 years, said they were happy with the film’s overwhelming success but had no idea how to top it.

Cinematographer Thomas Vamos, who worked on five films with Mr. Melançon, said Mr. Melançon was one of those rare directors who showed respect to everyone on the set.

“Because of that, there were never fights or arguments on the set,” Mr. Vamos said in an interview. “Everyone respected everyone else, because he respected everyone.”

Mr. Melançon’s humanity was exceptional, Mr. Vamos said, and his wisdom deepened during his long illness.

“He had no secrets,” Mr. Vamos said. “He was very open with his feelings and thoughts, and everyone knew him that way.”

During the era when Mr. Melançon worked with Mr. Demers, the pool of experienced child actors was small, so the two of them scoured classrooms for talent to star in their films.

Mr. Melançon hand-picked a few of the more attentive students for auditions. He was always spot on. None of the 18 children who starred in the The Dog Who Stopped the War had been in front of a camera before, Mr. Demers noted.

In the 1960s, Mr. Melançon married Michèle Devroede and they had two children together: Benoît and Andréane. They divorced when the children were six and three, respectively.

“He was a wonderful father,” Andréane recalled in an interview. “He listened, was very curious and sincere. He left us with wonderful gifts: his values, his films and [self-]confidence.”

Most recently, in 2013, he made a documentary called Trains of Life (Les trains de la vie), which followed writer Kees Vanderheyden as he visited dozens of elementary schools to share his experience of living in Holland during the German occupation. Throughout his career, Mr. Melançon acted as well, appearing in the title role of Clément Perron’s Taureau (1973) as well as Denys Arcand’s Joyeux calvaire, and the TV series Lance et Compte II.

Last year, Mr. Melançon received a Jutra Award, the Quebec film industry’s highest honour. He was also named to the Ordre national du Québec (2013) and won the Albert-Tessier Prize (2012), the Quebec government’s most prestigious distinction in cinema.

Mr. Melançon leaves his children, Benoît and Andréane; his wife of 21 years, actress Andrée Lachapelle; and her children, Patrice, Catherine and Nathalie Gadouas. He also leaves his brother, Serge, and sister, Renée.

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