Alexandre Trudeau is the thinker, or so we have decided. It is not surprising that Canadians hold the Trudeau sons, Justin, Alexandre and Michel -- the youngest, who died tragically in an avalanche in November, 1998 -- close to their hearts, like parents who lovingly isolate the unique characteristics and talents of their offspring.
Pierre Elliott Trudeau was a private man who had many passions. His sons are another glimpse into the life of the late prime minister, and not just because we remember family photos of them, when Trudeau was a single father, cavorting on the grounds of 24 Sussex Dr. Sons have a mythical place in the culture. We wonder how they reflect their fathers, whether they are a chip off the old block or if they are rebellious. We imagine the bond between them, especially so with Trudeau and his boys, because he was alone with them for so long. They had one-on-one access to his powerful personality. He shaped the soul of the country. Imagine what he could do with a child.
I thought of this as I prepared to meet Alexandre Trudeau, the 29-year-old middle son who is a documentary filmmaker and occasional foreign correspondent for Maclean's magazine. The media routinely refer to him as Sacha, his nickname, as though we are on intimate terms with him.
But that couldn't be farther from the truth. He shuns the media. He is the son who spoke politely but tersely to reporters, requesting that the family's privacy be respected, when Michel was lost in Kokanee Lake after he was swept from the mountainside while on a cross-country skiing expedition.
At his father's funeral, Alexandre remained in the background. It was Justin who made his grief more public, which prompted observers to say he had more of his mother, Margaret, in him while Alexandre seemed to have the reserve, the principled control, of his father.
The only reason Alexandre was talking to the media the day I met him in August was to promote his one-hour documentary, Embedded in Baghdad, a powerful exploration of the impact of the U.S.-led war on an ordinary Iraqi family, which airs in a CTV W5 special presentation next Sunday (7 p.m. EST).
But even this exercise makes him uncomfortable. The story of his documentary on Iraq had been splashed on the front page of this newspaper the day of our interview. I asked how he felt about the attention he gets that others may not. "I accept the machine," he says, somewhat wearily.
In a hotel room at Toronto's Four Seasons that CTV publicists had organized for interview purposes, Alexandre sits as uneasily as a student who has been summoned to a principal's office. His manner is in stark contrast to other sons of former prime ministers, namely Ben Mulroney, host of Canadian Idol, who was the subject of this column last week. Mulroney is made for TV with his big white smile and easy charm. He is comfortable with the media, giving journalists a good quote and personal information because he understands the game.
Alexandre Trudeau, meanwhile, sees it as a necessary evil. Dressed conservatively in clean, pressed jeans, a blue blazer, striped shirt and brown Oxford shoes, he speaks in short bursts, with long, uncomfortable pauses. "I don't accept to do this stuff unless I'm promoting my work. [The documentary]is a piece of expression and communication and it helps to get this kind of exposure," he says.
"I do feel after a day of this stuff it's overexposure," he continues as an afterthought. "Thank God I'm going to Africa where I'm incognito," he says, more to his feet than to me. "I'm out of here," he mumbles with ennui and an edge of disdain. "I'm out of here." The next day he was leaving for a month in Liberia to report for Maclean's. "It's not good for one's health to get a lot of attention you haven't earned," he explains after another pause.
His work shows a deep concern for the story behind the propaganda machines of both sides. His idea to be embedded with an Iraqi family as a counterbalance to the journalists embedded with the U.S. armed forces is fresh. He has earned the attention, I tell him. "Well, I'm trying," he responds.
The interview was a strange interplay of honesty and caution on his part. And I found myself moving between targeted questions of a personal nature and guilty retreat, a feeling that I had overstepped a boundary, not one he imposed, but my own sense of decency, I suppose. It didn't help that he almost cringed as he answered some of those personal questions, like someone too polite to refuse a forced relinquishment of a treasure.
It's interesting that someone who grew up (and still is) under the scrutiny of the media should choose to be a member of it. "Maybe you want to take control of the forces you are confronted with," he shoots back. But then, as if embarrassed that he was caught speaking in an unguarded manner, he adds, "No, that's not really it. No," he says, speaking more forcefully, in clipped sentences, "my passion is the struggle for ideas. And I think the real realm for the struggle for ideas in our age is the mass media, the new media. It was natural for me. My intellectual love for philosophy had practical consequences in film. Film was the tool for the exploration and the communication of ideas."
After graduating with a philosophy degree from McGill University, Alexandre first emerged as a filmmaker in 1999 when he was chosen to be one of seven bilingual video journalists involved in Culture Shock/Culture Choc, a 13-part series on CBC Newsworld and Radio-Canada's RDI. The ambition to work in film was always present. "I was sure I wanted to be a creator of mass media. It wasn't so clear that I would end up in journalism. I'm not planning to stay in journalism," he adds quickly. "It's just another facet that I like."
What is he looking for in his work? To uncover truths? "Yeah, there's that kind of crusade-like element," he acknowledges. "But it's more that I'm looking to understand things that are not understood; looking to see new things; to have new ideas because I am seeing new things. That's what drives me."
Is that what draws him to places of chaos, I wonder. "I'm drawn to places that are raw and that are a good battleground for yourself and for your knowledge of yourself. You come back knowing yourself better and having better command of your tools and your talents. And it's an exercise for the mind how to bring things that are outside of the world back into the fold, give them meaning."
His work in Iraq was not intended to be political, but he agrees that because of the content, it is. "In a wide sense it is political. It's the politics of humanism that should exist beyond our national strategies that I feel are being neglected. We're moving away from that whereas we should be moving toward it. The rhetoric is certainly kept up -- of justice and democracy for the world -- but I just think the actions that are imposed in the name of that are regressing," he continues.
It must be hard to avoid a close examination of ideals having been brought up in a household that clearly valued them. "Intellectually, it is hard to avoid strong ideas. You're being ignorant or blind if you're not addressing them properly. You have to adhere," he says, almost spitting out his sentence. "If you have a strong argument, you better deal with it to overcome it or accept it.
"He made a strong case for some strong ideas," he says, referring to his father. "I find guidance from them."
His obvious tenacity for a story -- he lived through a prolonged blackout in Baghdad as well as dangerous bombing -- makes me wonder if the Canadian government ever worries about his safety or takes special precautions to protect him when he is working in places of danger. It's something one can imagine Americans doing for families of former presidents.
"No," Alexandre says. "I have friends in the Canadian government who worry about me like my friends do outside the Canadian government. Maybe they wonder sometimes if they should be protecting me, but in a place like Baghdad or Liberia, there is no kind of protection. The Canadian embassy [in Baghdad]was warning everyone to get out. Not more so to me. My decisions, I make completely," he says tersely. "I believe in my ability to make decisions properly."
His mother must worry. "She worries, sure," he says, easing into conversation. "But my father used to say, 'Take risks but make sure they are calculated risks, not purely instinctive. Make sure there's a sense of how you get in and how you get out. If you can do that, take as many risks as you can.' "
The comment is poignant considering the sadness the family must feel about the death of Michel. He took all the precautions, after all, and was a responsible back-country skier. He also was unafraid.
Our conversation swings back to his documentary and a discussion about what he learned and how he was transformed by the experience. "Excitement doesn't change you quickly, but powerful people do. The people I knew in Baghdad were powerful people. They taught me a lot about the dignity of humans in really adverse situations. I'd like to see us Canadians stuck in that situation. We'd come apart. One thinks of SARS and the panic and hysteria, and you compare it to this dignity."
It's an opportunity to ask about the influence of his father and his leadership qualities. "He was a brave man," Alexandre replies shyly. "That's something that rubs off on people who were close to him." Brave in what sense? "Because he believed in things. And he had a notion that if you are afraid of something, you confront it. Face your fears," he says, using stern imperatives as though he is his father, uttering them in the sanctuary of a private library. "Don't be irrational toward your fears. Don't let your fears dominate you. Overcome them! And if you don't understand something, go throw yourself into it. Figure it out. Don't run from it. Face the world."
He's lucky to have that, I say, and then I try to explain why there's such interest in him, that people maybe want to touch his father through him. Does he feel that?
He is looking away, saying nothing. Averting his eyes, he sinks a little in his chair. "Let's talk about my work," he says quietly.
I persist for one little bit longer, explaining that perhaps his father indirectly influences his work. There is that obsession with ideals. "The one [influence]that's most important and that I'm still learning is the tremendous sense of -- I hate to say it so strongly -- but love for people. My father would pick out in his private world in other countries someone outside, who was poor and had great dignity, and he would express love to that person in some way. He goes up and says hello. Don't forget people of all sorts in an ideal sense, but also when you get down to it, always try to understand. Never judge them too quickly," he says, reverting to those paternal imperatives. "Try and love them for who they are."
He pauses, as though exhausted by the revelations he has offered. "I think of him when I'm working in that way. That's the connection to him," he concludes softly.
There's only one more tortuous question. Would he ever consider politics?
"I have bad feelings about politics," he answers sharply. Why? "Because my father did, and he passed that on to us. 'It's an ugly business. Don't ever let anyone tell you to go into it. Find your own way. Do what I couldn't do.' "
The interview over, the Globe photographer asks how to spell Sacha for use on the photo caption. Is that how he likes to be identified? "Sacha is my nickname," he says. It is a Russian short form of Alexandre. A Russian diplomat, who was a friend of the family, suggested it. Everyone uses it, I point out. "Yeah, I think of Alexandre as my real nickname," he replies.
Of course. It may be his proper name but in a media world that assumes intimacy where there is none, it is the more personal name because it is the less used.