Filmmaker Dany Chiasson's obsession with Joan of Arc began more than 30 years ago during the long walks she'd take each Sunday with her grandmother on their way to church.
Growing up in a family of six children in Quebec's devoutly Catholic Îles de la Madeleine, religion was a mandatory part of everyday life. As the pair walked companionably along dirt roads and through cow pastures, Chiasson says her grand-mère would talk about her favourite saint - the French-born peasant girl who led her country's army to several victories in the Hundred Years' War, paved the way for the coronation of Charles VII and, before the age of 19, was burned at the stake.
For years, the French-Canadian filmmaker, who is married to Toronto director Bruce McDonald, was stymied as to how to pay homage, cinematically, to Joan of Arc, a woman whom the 41-year-old says has been "done to death" in countless films, literature (Voltaire's La Pucelle d'Orléans), music (Verdi's Giovanna d'Arco) and plays (George Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan).
But finally a few years ago, while on a Joan of Arc fact-finding mission in France, Chiasson said she found her inspiration: a man named Jean-Michel Millecamps who planned to retrace Joan's 11-day route on horseback from her hometown of Domrémy-la-Pucelle, over enemy land, to meet the uncrowned king in Chinon.
"I called up Jean-Michel, who is fascinated with old Roman routes, and asked if I could join him on the trip," says Chiasson, whose first independent feature documentary, Ma Jeanne d'Arc ( My Joan of Arc), has its worldwide premiere next Thursday at the 14th-annual Cinéfranco film festival in Toronto.
"He asked me if I could ride. I hadn't been on a horse since I was 13. So, of course, I lied because I knew he wouldn't let me accompany him," says Chiasson with a chuckle. She signed up for three months of riding lessons, and in 2008, travelled back to France with a small team to chronicle Joan of Arc's historic route.
"I saw it as my personal way to connect with Joan in the way I wanted to, in a certain solitude, almost in a meditative kind of way. Tons of things have been written about her over the years, but there is very little known about the actual young woman, what may have motivated her. I wanted to tap into the mystery that is Joan of Arc. The journey was a springboard to explore that."
Over the course of a week and a half, Chiasson says she and her guide, Millecamps, rode nine hours a day, stopping along the way to chat with locals who were Joan of Arc buffs, and all eager to share their personal musings about the mythic young woman who became a heroine of France.
"I've always been attracted to people who have a mission, and a focus, which is not ego-driven. Those kind of people are rare. And Joan of Arc seemed to embody that trait. I was raised by a single mom, and she, too, was like that," adds Chiasson, who dedicated the 78-minute documentary to her mom.
Chiasson, who studied film at Laval University, has several short films to her credit ( 29 Mai 1431, Le Matin and Pantomime), as well as executive producing credits on some of her husband's more recent films ( Trigger and Hard Core Logo II). But Ma Jeanne d'Arc was her first foray into factual moviemaking, a process she feels is worthwhile since "it keeps you connected to life. As a fiction filmmaker you often forget about that. This documentary was spontaneous. We didn't really have anything planned. We took a camera, and filmed what we were seeing in the moment, which was incredibly liberating.
"I cannot explain why I have this connection to Joan of Arc. I don't know what it is," adds the artist, who is now writing a screenplay for a feature film, based on a father-daughter relationship in her hometown of Îles de la Madeleine. "But when I was shooting the documentary, I met a woman from Joan's hometown of Domrémy, and she told me the character of people reflect the land from which they're born. She told me 'The land here is very hard, so the people are hard on themselves, but they have heart.'"
"When she said that, I knew what she meant," says Chiasson. "Having made this documentary put me at peace with the phenomenon of Joan, which has always haunted me, so that I'm able to move on and do other things."
Cinéfranco opens Friday in Toronto and runs to April 3. Ma Jeanne d'Arc screens March 31 at 6:30 p.m. at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.
Cinéfranco kicks off in Toronto on Friday with 45 Francophone films from around the world. A few musts:
La petite chambre/The Little Room This Swiss/Luxembourg co-production - about an elderly man (Michel Bouquet) who befriends a young nurse (Florence Loiret-Caille) grieving the loss of her child - won best Swiss fiction film at the Quartz 2011 awards.
2 frogs dans l'ouest /2 Frogs in the West In this Québécois comedy, a young woman (Mirianne Brûlé) - hell-bent on adventure and wanting to learn English - quits school and decides to hitchhike to Whistler, B.C.
Comme les cinq doigts de la main/5 Brothers A thriller from France, 5 Brothers follows the travails of five siblings (Eric Caravaca, Mathieu Delarive, Pascal Elbé, Patrick Bruel, Vincent Elbaz) in a close-knit, French-Jewish family, who are chased by the Marseilles Mafia.
For screening information, visit cinefranco.com.