As Karine Vanasse raises herself from a pool of blood in a quiet university classroom, the look of shock on her face is genuinely frightening. Around her lie classmates who are dead or dying. Like them, she has been shot.
The scene is from Denis Villeneuve’s Polytechnique, a Quebec film about the December 6, 1989, massacre of 14 women at the University of Montreal’s í‰cole Polytechnique. The film, which has already opened in Quebec and topped the list of Canadian films at the box office for the last few weeks, opens Friday, March 20 in Vancouver.
Filmed in black and white, the blood covering the face of Vanasse’s fictional character, Valérie, appears as dark as an abyss.
Speaking from Montreal, Vanasse, who was also one of the film's producers, described the process of making Polytechnique as simply “intense”.
“It was completely different from my previous work,” she told the Straight in a telephone interview. “When you have in front of you people who are actually telling you how they reacted in real life and how it affected them, it is their story that you want to tell.”
In 1989, Marc Lépine took a semi-automatic rifle into the engineering branch of the University of Montreal on a mission to kill as many women as he could. A suicide note railed against “feminists” and blamed women for Lépine’s failings in life.
But Polytechnique is not Lépine’s story—his name is never even mentioned in the film—though much of it does follow his final hours before he shot himself.
“It was so clear in my mind what we wanted to say with this film and what we wanted my character to represent,” Vanasse said. “It became clear, right at the beginning...that it is their story, the students’, that we wanted to tell.”
Setting out to make the film, the first thing that the crew did was approach the December 6 Foundation—a since-dissolved group largely composed of the victims’ families—to explain their intentions and ask for approval. Vanasse said that once they had the group’s support, a four-year-long journey into the past began.
She explained that there were meetings with victims’ families, survivors of the massacre, policemen, ambulance attendants, staff at the morgue that cared for the victims, and anybody who had a story.
“It was pretty intense because it was so real,” Vanasse said. “People didn’t have any protection when they were telling their stories.”
She continued, “For many of them, it was the first time that they really took time to explain in detail what this felt like when it happened.”
Polytechnique focuses on the fictional characters of Valérie and a second girl, Stéphanie. But the film also delivers a sympathetic portrayal of some of the male students who survived the shooting, something that they have not always received in discussions of the massacre.
Lépine began his rampage in a closed classroom. He walked to the blackboard, fired a shot into the air, and ordered the men out of the room. They complied and the women who remained with Lépine were lined up against a wall and shot.
Speaking about all of the survivors, men and women alike, Vanasse said that she thought many still felt like they had never been recognized as victims of the tragedy.
“You cannot really judge how they reacted,” she explained. “You can’t judge anything. It’s about circumstances, it’s about how sensitive you are, and where you are in your life at that point.”
In the end, Polytechnique is not about how Lépine’s victims died, but about how the survivors lived.
“It was really impressive to listen to all the students that we met because all of them had a different way to deal with it and to continue their lives with the weight of that event in their life,” Vanasse said. “Of course you are affected by it. The question is: how are you going to deal with it afterwards?”
You can follow Travis Lupick on Twitter at twitter.com/tlupick.