Filmmakers with features premiering at festivals are usually dying for advance publicity. After all, anything that helps create buzz around their projects will bring bigger audiences and better chances for a wider release.
But Montreal filmmaker Jacob Tierney wasn't quite prepared for the wave of publicity he received in the past two months in the Quebec media, where he set off a firestorm of debate about how the film milieu reflects the province's population.
His latest film, Good Neighbours, stars Emily Hampshire, Scott Speedman and Jay Baruchel as residents of a Montreal apartment who are mired in paranoia about the identity of a serial killer who has taken several victims. In his screen adaptation of Chrystine Brouillet's novel Chère voisine, Tierney has shifted the timeline so the murders occur during the buildup to the hugely contentious 1980 referendum.
That might have been controversial enough, but what set many media pundits on their ears was what Tierney stated at a Los Angeles premiere of his previous feature, The Trotsky, in July. There, a La Presse reporter asked Tierney what he thought of Quebec's robust cinema. Tierney responded that Quebec cinema was too insular and didn't reflect the true diversity of the province, calling it "white white white." He went on: "Quebec society is extremely turned in on itself… anglophones and immigrants are ignored. They have no place in the Quebecois dream. It's shameful."
Days later, Tierney awoke to a flurry of text messages on his cell phone. One from his father, veteran producer Kevin Tierney, caught his eye. "He asked me what I wanted to do about all those interview requests regarding the statements I'd made in La Presse. I raced to the depanneur and saw the front page of La Presse, which had the headline 'blanc blanc blanc.' I looked at it but didn't actually buy it. It was kind of like kryptonite to me."
Coincidentally, Tierney was off to the set of the film French Immersion (his father's directorial debut), where he was slated to do a noon-to-midnight acting shift on the comedy about relations between anglos and francophones. "On the way, I turned on the radio, and [Montreal filmmaker]Philippe Falardeau was featured on a call-in show," recalls Tierney. "He spent 40 minutes defending everything I said. I didn't feel the need to say any more after that, because I have such respect for Philippe."
Not everyone agreed with Falardeau, however. Columnists criticized Tierney, arguing that he supported forced casting quotas for filmmakers (something he never suggested), and the expected flurry of anonymous voices on the Internet charged Tierney with Quebec-bashing. The newspaper articles all pointed out that he was an anglo, even though the La Presse interview took place entirely in French.
Tierney says the arguments didn't entirely surprise him so much as "the sheer volume of it. I couldn't believe how much there was, apparently, to discuss. There were some articles that came out that were really interesting. The quotas charge was ridiculous: I never said that I supported that idea, and it was such a ludicrous way of not talking about this issue."
But some also said Tierney was simply stating the obvious, that popular films such as C.R.A.Z.Y., The Barbarian Invasions and 1981 reflect only the white-francophone part of Quebec and little else. "I'm certainly not the first person to be making these statements. As an anglo there's an assumption that, if I'm talking about Quebec, there's a baggage that comes with animosity or antipathy. Part of what was weird for me is that I was talking as a Quebecker. I consider myself one. This is where I live - I was talking about my own culture. I wasn't saying, 'You have to fix this,' I was saying this is something we have to look at. There were some who wanted to remind me that they don't consider me part of that 'we,' and that I'm not invited to the table."
Tierney says some of the reaction was marked by a generational line. "Younger Quebeckers think it's embarrassing to have this conversation - of course it's true. Older people seemed to feel a bit differently."
And Tierney says he also took umbrage with comparisons to the late Mordecai Richler, who was legendary in his sparring with Quebec nationalists. "Richler's views of this place that we're both from are radically, drastically different from mine. I find his views alienating and find it distressing that there are people who still think those views occupy the majority of English Montreal. When someone wants to compare you to Richler in Quebec, it's an insult. At least politically it is.
"I'm here to make movies. I don't know what the solutions are. I just hope we keep talking about it. I want Quebec to be the best place it can be."
Good Neighbours will have its world premiere Tuesday night at TIFF.