Director Caroline Monnet blurs boundaries between film and fine art

The Algonguin-French multimedia artist's work explores the complexities of Indigenous identity

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      Caroline Monnet is speaking over Zoom from her Montreal studio while keeping an eye on Quebec’s COVID-19 announcements. The Algonquin-French multimedia artist, whose work is featured on both international screens and galleries, is preparing her latest solo show, which is set to open at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts on April 21.

      The pandemic has already delayed the premiere of Monnet’s debut feature film, Bootlegger. The film, which won a screenplay prize at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival’s Cinéfondation, stars Kawennáhere Devery Jacobs as a young woman returning to her reserve during a referendum on prohibition laws. Principal photography wrapped in December 2019, but COVID-19 stretched the postproduction schedule.

      “We tried to edit at a distance, but it was just too difficult,” Monnet says.

      She’s a hands-on artist, as the installations behind her attest. She tends to discover her films in the editing room, so the virtual-collaboration thing isn’t exactly her tempo. “It stops all spontaneity, just being able to sit in the same room as my editor and share and jam with ideas.”

      Bootlegger, which is now complete, also feels like a huge divergence from her other work, just because of the nature of collaboration. The film had Monnet working with the whole film-business apparatus (producers, distributors, etcetera) on a feature that is relatively conventional compared to her other work.

      Her film and fine-art career were forged in the same fire—experimental video shorts and installations like Ikwé (2009)—but Monnet says they splintered into two callings. Hypnotic and exhilarating films like “Roberta” (2014), “Mobilize” (2015) and “Creatura Dada” (2016) were playing film festivals like TIFF and Sundance while taking on more narrative qualities along the way. Meanwhile, the fine art became sculptures and installations that would show in galleries.

      “It’s two very different brains and industries,” Monnet says. “They don’t really mix.”

      Video: Caroline Monnet was filmed as part of the RBC Emerging Artists Project.

      But Monnet’s entire career has been about bridging disparate identities. Her installations merge modern art with Indigenous tradition. For her 2017 exhibition Memories We Shouldn’t Speak Of, Monnet made sculptures from hair dripping with tar—a nod toward the tar sands and Indigenous beliefs that hair holds onto memories. Her short films often feature Indigenous people going on a journey of some kind, reaching back into their heritage in modern times, or connecting their history with their future.

      For Monnet—whose father is French and whose mother is from the Anishinabeg First Nation’s Kitigan Zibi in Quebec—these are expressions of the space she occupies and a reclamation, finding a sense of pride in her identity and heritage.

      Even Bootlegger, which is the first feature to be shot in Kitigan Zibi, was an opportunity to connect with the distant cousins and community she only visited during family occasions and powwows.

      “It was really, really important for me to spend time there,” Monnet says, “to work with the community, for them to get to know me better, for me to know them better.”