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Claude Lafortune had a unique talent: He made sculptures out of paper. Magnificent sculptures, museum-worthy. Brahms, Van Gogh, Jesus Christ. Charlie Chaplin, a peacock. He made them on television, in particular on two Quebec children’s series: Paper Gospel, which ran for only one season but had a significant impact, and Parcelles de soleil, which ran for more than a decade. Using his often quickly made, evocative and whimsical sculptures, Lafortune would tell stories and offer life lessons.
It was TV many French-Canadian kids grew up on, including Tanya Lapointe.
“I remember sitting right up close to the TV – which my mom told me not to do – just to watch how he made these paper sculptures,” says Lapointe, who was born in Hawkesbury, Ont., and is now based in Montreal.
“In certain parts of the show he would demonstrate how he made these characters or animals, so obviously I would try to do the same thing at home and would fail miserably. But he was making us still dream of this ability of creating things out of our own two hands and I think that always stuck with me. It looked like a magic trick, but it looked like a magic trick that you could do as well.”
Paper might be ephemeral, but magic lasts. Lapointe was so affected by Lafortune, that he became the subject of her debut feature documentary, The Paper Man (Lafortune en papier). “I don’t feel like an artist because I make things that won’t last,” he says in the film. But watching it, you will have no doubts: This man was absolutely an artist.
Watching the clips today, the production values indicate a less sophisticated age, but those sculptures – mon Dieu, they stand up. They are just glorious.
Lapointe grew up to be a journalist – she interviewed Lafortune when she was with Radio-Canada in 2005 – before transitioning to a career in film. Seeing the recognition paid to Fred Rogers in the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor, Lapointe thought Lafortune deserved a filmic tribute as well.
“When I first told Claude about my idea he said, ‘I’m not Celine Dion; I’m not very glamorous,’” Lapointe recalls. “I said how about we make a movie that is in the spirit of what you do and he was like, okay.”
She began work on the documentary in 2018, the year Lafortune received the Gold Medal of the Lieutenant-Governor of Quebec, which we see in the film. In 2019, he received an honorary degree from the Université du Québec à Montréal. Some of his former TV child co-stars showed up for the ceremony.
“We never know the impact we have on others,” he says in the film.
He visits schools, and also stops by a travelling show of his works to meet with museum staff. “My work is ephemeral. Everything will disappear with me,” he says while looking at a nativity scene he made years earlier that has just returned from a museum loan abroad. “But to see it survive is very moving.”
“It was fascinating how the journey just kept [going],” says Lapointe, who originally thought the film might be a short doc. “It just felt like the journey didn’t want to stop. And the truth is I didn’t want to stop the journey with Claude either.”
The project, which Lapointe had planned to keep shooting through this spring, edit in the fall and release in 2021, took on new meaning and weight with the pandemic. In April, Lafortune died after contracting COVID-19.
“I felt an urgency to tell the story,” Lapointe says. “A lot of people were reacting to his death and I realized that there were a lot of people who really did love what he did on television.”
The Paper Man has its world premiere this month at the Whistler Film Festival. Because of COVID-19, the festival has moved online, with a curated program until Dec. 20 and all films available to stream across Canada until the end of the month (WFF filmmakers receive 50 per cent of net ticket proceeds). So a film like this can reach a much wider audience – in particular in Quebec – and Lapointe has heard reaction from people across the country. “That’s something that wouldn’t have been possible in other circumstances,” she says.
Lapointe is speaking from Los Angeles, where she is busy with her day job – executive producer of Dune, the highly anticipated film directed by Denis Villeneuve, her husband.
She worked on her documentary during breaks from Dune, on evenings and weekends. While the two projects couldn’t seem more different – big-budget Hollywood sci-fi versus quiet documentary about a man who made art out of construction paper – Lapointe says both are based in meaningful storytelling meant to inspire introspection.
“Working on Dune is/was a wonderful experience, working with hundreds of people and teamwork. And Claude would mention this when I’d be shooting with him. He would say, well, this must be a pain and you must be bored with this and I would say no, it’s the opposite because it’s such an intimate process,” says Lapointe, who worked with just a director of photography on the documentary shoots. “It just felt like two different worlds that were feeding each other.”
Lafortune became much more than a subject to her; they were in constant contact – writing or speaking virtually every week for two years. “I felt like I was losing a friend, I felt like I was losing a family member, almost, because … he had always been part of my life and also a childhood idol. Which is the strangest feeling to have all of those things in one person.”
During post-production, she cried many times, sometimes asking her editor to skip over the part that deals with his death.
“The grief was obviously sudden and difficult,” she says. “But the truth is I think that my mourning process was helped by making this movie, in the sense that I relived all those wonderful moments that we went through together.”