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Film Meet Sophie Dupuis, the Quebec filmmaker who could change Canadian film - if the rest of Canada could see her work, that is

Film director Sophie Dupuis poses for a photograph in Montreal on March 7, 2019. Her 2018 film, Family First (Chien de garde in French) was chosen as Canada's submission to the 2019 Academy Awards and has been nominated for Best Motion Picture at the 2019 Canadian Screen Awards.

Dario Ayala/The Globe and Mail

Last month, when the Canadian Screen Awards announced its 2019 nominees, the country’s sometimes sleepy film industry was elbowed awake. For the first time in the CSA’s seven-year history, all five movies up for best motion picture were Québécois productions: Une colonie (A Colony), Genèse (Genesis), Dans la brume (Just a Breath Away), La grande noirceur (The Great Darkened Days), and Chien de garde (Family First). What does it say about the English-language landscape that its filmmakers can barely catch the attention of Canada’s largest artistic awards body? Well, nothing that hasn’t been repeated, over and over, for the past decade: Québécois films, and more specifically Québécois filmmakers, are this country’s dominant cultural forces.

This is true within Canada - seven of last year’s top 10 highest-grossing homegrown films were French-language productions - and abroad, where directors such as Jean-Marc Vallée and Denis Villeneuve are household names, at least in the households (i.e., the estates of Hollywood executives) that matter. The reasons are both obvious (Quebec’s unique marketplace doesn’t compete with the U.S.) and trickier to parse (is it this more captive audience that allows Québécois directors to more fully embrace their artistic instincts?). But as the CSA nominations make clear, the future of Canadian film rests in la belle province - so the only question that remains is who, today, is going to lead that future? Enter Sophie Dupuis.

On paper, the 32-year-old Concordia graduate presents as the perfect poster child. Her feature-film debut, the low-budget crime drama Family First, was a critical hit inside her home province, earning three wins and five nominations at Quebec’s 2018 Prix Iris awards (formerly known as the Jutra Awards). At this Sunday’s CSAs ceremony, the film is up for four awards, including best motion picture, best director, best lead actor (Théodore Pellerin, also the star of Genèse), and the John Dunning Best First Feature Film honour. And Dupuis already has the obligatory U.S. cachet sealed up, thanks to her movie being selected this past fall as Canada’s official entry for the best foreign language film category at the 2019 Academy Awards. Yet, it only requires a closer look at Family First to realize that Sophie Dupuis is a profound and complicated artist - someone who deserves more than an easy pigeonholing as Canadian cinema’s Next Big Thing.

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“I’ve always wanted to push audiences,” the director says over the phone from Montreal, the word “push” escaping her lips as if by its own pure force. “When I was growing up, I was fascinated with the films that made me cry. Growing up in Abitibi-Témiscamingue, I didn’t really have a good film culture. At 14 or 15, I was renting a lot of Hollywood films, and just fast-forwarding to the scenes where I knew I’d be crying. I was only watching to cry. But those movies taught me something, which is the power of making people feel something. Now, my intentions are not the same - I don’t want to just make you cry. I want you to make you feel everything.”

Family First lives up to Dupuis’s emotional ambitions. Set in the Montreal borough of Verdun, the drama focuses on a tightly knit clan of sociopaths and ne’er-do-wells who run a small-scale drug cartel. There’s the deeply disturbed enforcer Vincent (Pellerin), his see-no-evil mother Joe (Maude Guerin), her violent brother Dany (Paul Ahmarani) and the burgeoning conscience of the family, Vincent’s older brother JP (Jean-Simon Leduc), who is trying to make a clean break from his suffocating relatives. A cheap pitch would be Animal Kingdom meets The Sopranos en français, but Dupuis, who also wrote the film’s screenplay, is less interested in the easy dramatic sparks that a crime story offers and more in the knotted bonds of family. As JP outgrows his small world - the tired streets of Verdun, the beer-soaked bar of Uncle Dany, the crammed family home that Dupuis shoots with such a sense of claustrophobic intimacy that it feels as if her camera is constantly butting against the apartment walls - the film begins to tell a larger tragedy, of hopeless causes and lost opportunities. Its obsession with blood ties and compromised morality recalls the work of a young James Gray or Derek Cianfrance.

“The crime was just context to talk about the family - this isn’t a film about a little drug business,” Dupuis says. “It was important for me to have you feel the oppression in JP’s life, that turmoil. Sometimes I call this a prison movie, because it’s a film about deciding to be free instead of in this prison of a family, this prison of relationships. Every day, JP has to be there, a watchdog over these people, who he can’t break away from.” (As for why Family First’s French title translates to Watch Dog, the answer is disappointingly simple: “Watch Dog” was already taken as an English-language title for a forthcoming video-game adaptation.)

Dupuis adds that her fascination with family, specifically the fraternal relationship between JP and Vincent, is an odd fit for a single child. “It’s something I’ve never experienced, but I’ve witnessed from afar, as my cousins are all from big families where everyone has three or four siblings and they’re all best friends,” she says. “There is a kind of love that I will never experience, and it seems sometimes like it’s the best love that you can feel, so I’m kind of obsessed over it.” It’s a theme she will also return to in her next feature, which will be about gold miners north of Quebec who “are not brothers, really, but are kind of a family in that they all work together, live together, in the closest of ways.”

Given the confidence and skill displayed in Family First, there is little doubt that Dupuis’s follow-up will be a project worth watching. It is another question, though, just who will be able to watch it. Family First, which cost about $1.5-million, earned an impressive $100,000-plus at the Quebec box office this past fall, but bypassed screens in English-Canada entirely. Although the film is now available for download on iTunes with English subtitles, its marketing outside Quebec’s provincial borders has - like all of this year’s CSA best-picture nominees - been nil.

"The first problem is the way we distribute films, because the Quebec films are just not talked about," Dupuis says. "In the mainstream media, outside Quebec, we're not lauding them, acclaiming them, and even though they can have success all around the world, people here in Canada have never heard the titles of these Canadian films, and that's insane. Here in Montreal, in Quebec City, we have these films going on the big screens, but that's not it everywhere else."

Beth Janson, chief executive of the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television (ACCT), which administers the CSAs, recognizes the lack of Québécois films outside their provincial border. “Quebec films don’t need to be shown in English-Canada to survive,” she says, “but I think there’s still an audience outside of the province, and the foreign-language element isn’t as much a barrier as it might have been 20 years ago.” To that end, the ACCT this year introduced the Canadian Screen Arts Festival, an effort to give CSA-nominated films, including select French-language nominees, theatrical exposure across the country ahead of this Sunday’s awards ceremony.

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Vincenzo Guzzo, president and CEO of Quebec’s Cinémas Guzzo theatre chain, offers a different take. “Too quickly, we say that Quebec movies don’t get the same appreciation in the rest of Canada. They don’t, but not because of the language barrier,” the head of Quebec’s largest exhibitor says. “A movie like Men with Brooms maybe did well in Vancouver, but it didn’t do anything in Quebec. And I think that a Quebec story might not interest a Vancouver or Toronto crowd. Sure, there’s always someone who wants to expand their horizons or French-speaking people living in other cities, but not enough to justify releasing a picture in a big way. Don’t look at it as being either a French movie or an English movie, but look at it as a cultural movie from Quebec. Does that interest me or not?”

Yet despite its obvious Québécois elements, Family First’s themes are universal, and its vision compelling enough to bypass whatever theoretical cultural barriers exist between francophone and anglophone art-houses. But though this Sunday’s CSAs will provide a much-needed spotlight for the film, and for all the Quebec cinema that flew under the radar of Canada’s eager and curious cinephiles, Dupuis is cautious about her future as a Canadian filmmaker who tells explicitly Canadian stories.

“There are so many talented young directors and writers who have a lot to say, but there is not enough support for them to express themselves,” says the director, who received $500,000 from Quebec’s Société de développement des entreprises culturelles (SODEC) to make Family First. “It’s good that Telefilm has their microbudget program for first features, but you can’t pay people for their work on those sorts of budgets. It’s dangerous to make this industry work on that principle. In order for people to continue to make films, their second or third films, we don’t have the money. There is something happening in Quebec right now, where we have so many talented people and our films are going all around the world getting prizes and earning attention, but there’s too much talent and not enough money to handle it.”

As she details her efforts to “make miracles with nothing” for her forthcoming second feature, it is not difficult to see Dupuis following the path of all the Villeneuves and Vallées who came before her, and leaving the country for the plentiful resources and undivided attention of Hollywood. “It can be possible for me to go somewhere else and work with more money, but you know, my language is French, I’m from Quebec, and it is important for me to express myself in my own language, in my own culture,” she says. “I know that if I would go to the United States, every decision will be more of a fight. I want to talk about my people. Which is why I think we have to put more money in this industry here.”

Right now, though, Dupuis is putting the “why” of her work first, with the “how” to be figured out afterward. While recalling the phone call from Telefilm Canada this past December informing her that Family First was Canada’s official Oscars submission - “I was in my leggings, ready to go to the grocery store” - Dupuis circles back to the reason she became a filmmaker in the first place. “It was then when I realized, small budget or not, first feature or not, the important thing is how people were touched by the movie. Just because we made a small film, it didn’t mean we couldn’t push - a push to make people feel something.”

The 2019 Canadian Screen Awards Gala airs live March 31 at 8 p.m. ET on CBC-TV.

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