When Solange Tremblay needed money to fight Michel Dumont's wrongful conviction for sexual assault, she sold the microwave he had given her. When director Daniel (Podz) Grou filmed that scene in L'Affaire Dumont, he showed not merely the empty microwave stand but also the crumbs of food left behind.
"If you are a person without means, you don't get off that easily," Grou said, speculating how Dumont's conviction ever happened in the first place. "That's why there is a lot of attention in the film to the environment, to the little details of their lives."
Grou's relentless realism in depicting Dumont's plight and the ongoing controversy over the case made L'Affaire Dumont the most-talked-about film in Quebec last year. The drama, which makes its Toronto premiere at the CinéFranco festival next week, earned seven nominations for Canadian Screen Awards and eight for Quebec's Prix Jutra, including two best actor nominations for Marc-André Grondin, who plays the disastrously passive Dumont.
After Danielle Lechasseur was raped at knifepoint in the Montreal suburb of Boisbriand in 1990, she picked Dumont's photo out of a lineup. An electrician who had suffered a back injury, he was scraping a living delivering groceries and lived in her neighbourhood. Lechasseur described a big man with no glasses and tattoos, which the slight and shortsighted Dumont did not have; four friends testified at his trial that he was playing cards with them that evening.
A judge discounted their testimony as unreliable and Dumont was convicted but released on bail pending an appeal. During that time, meeting his double in a local video store, Lechasseur began to doubt herself and told police that Dumont was not her assailant. Prosecutors say his lawyer, who died in 2005, was informed of that by letter, but the issue was never raised and Dumont lost his appeal. He went to jail maintaining his innocence: He served 34 months before he was paroled and could have got out earlier had he agreed to take counselling for sex offenders.
"The system favours incompetence," Grou said. "People were really incompetent, they didn't care about this guy, they didn't care about finding out the real truth and they didn't do their jobs properly."
Grou, widely known in the Quebec industry by his nickname Podz, directs series television in both French and English, but became interested in stories of the socially disadvantaged when he directed his second feature film, 10½, in 2010. Set in a halfway house, it is the story of a 10-year-old boy so violent he is labelled a danger to society and the guardian who tries to reach him.
L'Affaire Dumont, Grou's third feature, is heartless in its dramatization of Dumont's sad circumstances – his ex-wife is barely capable of looking after their two children, who wind up in foster care where they are abused – and the appalling indifference of the legal system. And yet it is also a love story: While on bail, Dumont met and began dating Tremblay; after he was jailed, they married and she campaigned tirelessly to get the case reopened. In the film, she gives up on uncaring lawyers and seeks out the trial transcripts herself; told by a government clerk that photocopying costs $2 a page and the transcript runs thousands of pages, she points out that the corner store only charges 25 cents a page, bargains the clerk down to 50 cents and sells the microwave.
Her activism saved Dumont; what is puzzling to everyone is his passivity.
"You kind of want to shake him all the time," confesses Grondin, the Quebec star known to audiences for playing the lead in C.R.A.Z.Y. "You have to put aside your own reaction. … He was the perfect victim … he was raised as a victim.
"He's a good guy; he has a heart of gold, but he doesn't stand up for himself," said Grondin, who met the real Dumont once, shortly before shooting began.
For Grou, Dumont's low-key personality created a crucial respite from a melodramatic story: "I wanted it to be very emotional but calm at the same time. The guy at the centre of it, things happen to, as opposed [to being] someone who provokes stuff. It's kind of a touchy way to make a film, because you don't have an action hero."
If he wants audiences to learn anything, it's that the system has to be questioned: "I just wanted people to come away with the feeling if you are faced with problems in life, ask questions. … The system doesn't want what's in your best interests, it wants to move on to the next case."
Dumont, who was finally acquitted in 2001, reached an out-of-court settlement with the city of Boisbriand but lost a $2.5-million lawsuit against the Quebec and Canadian governments in 2009 when a judge ruled that the prosecution had done its job. He lost again on appeal last year and is now waiting to hear if the Supreme Court of Canada will hear the case.
Meanwhile, the reaction in Quebec to the film has centred more on Dumont's family drama and less on the miscarriage of justice. When the film premiered last September, the television channel TVA interviewed several of the women involved on a popular talk show: His ex-wife, who is portrayed in the film as unstable and an incompetent mother, disputed this characterization and said Dumont had asked her to tell the court that he suffered from erectile dysfunction when he didn't. Most puzzling of all, Lechasseur, whose media interviews reporting her doubts had finally helped Dumont win his release, complained that the film depicted him and his wife as heroes and reversed herself again, repeating that he was her assailant.
In an interview with the Quebec news agency QMI, Dumont's lawyer, Jean-François Longtin, responded by pointing out that the case was closed when his client was acquitted in 2001 and that he had successfully passed a polygraph test in 1997.
Meanwhile, the film's producers issued a statement saying the film was faithful to the legal documents associated with the case and politely pointed out that Lechasseur was contradicting details of testimony and media interviews she gave in the 1990s.
"There are a lot of victims in this story and they wanted to be heard … but TV is not a good place to deal with it," Grondin said. "His struggle with the system is important to tell; what is happening in their kitchen is not."
Of course, TV shows stage things just as surely as a movie director does. Grou proved that point in the film when he used actual television footage of an encounter between a tearful Lechasseur and a forgiving Dumont as he left prison in 1994. On camera, she wondered how anyone with such a kind face could have committed a crime.
"To me, that was an incredible scene: If I were to dramatize it, I don't know if people would believe it," Grou said, explaining his decision to insert the real footage into his dramatization. "One of the themes of the film is truth: Is it more true if journalists are showing it to you? Is it more true if I stage it it with actors?"
CineFranco runs from April 5 to 14 at the Royal Cinema, 608 College St., Toronto; L'Affaire Dumont screens April 9 at 6 p.m. Actor Marc-André Grondin will attend and take questions.