Some say Denis Villeneuve’s film, Polytechnique, about the Montreal Massacre of 1989, opens old wounds. But for many of us the wounds have never fully healed. We carry this event with us in different ways, especially, but not only, on the sixth day of December. This is true for many people, but it is particularly true for women. And it is even truer for women who had even a passing acquaintance with, or connection to, the education system in the late 1980s. Ask an educated Canadian woman over the age of 40 what she was doing December 6, 1989. We remember these events as vividly as others recall the Kennedy assassination or September 11.
Scholar Sharon Rosenberg has written thoughtfully about what she terms the “ambivalent public memory” of the Montreal Massacre, so perhaps it’s no surprise that two new interventions in the long conversation about this day have also raised controversial questions. Villeneuve’s film was preceded by Marc Lépine’s mother’s memoir Aftermath, and both tell the story we thought we knew in new ways.
How does one represent the horrific? This question consumes artists, academics, and film makers the world over. Villeneuve and his collaborators, including the actor-producer Karine Vanasse, have opted to combine a documentary sensibility with something more akin to TV-drama-of-the week clichés to fill in the characters.
To me, it feels like those Hollywood movies about the civil rights movement, or apartheid-era South Africa, in which the murder of black people becomes a prop for the emotions of white people.
Aside from Lépine, who barely speaks, there are two main characters in Polytechnique. Vanasse herself plays a composite, everywoman engineering student. At first, she promises a bit of complexity. She needs help transforming herself from jeans-wearing student to skirt-and-heels-wearing female for a job interview, and at the interview she endures the casual sexism of a middle-aged professional man who questions her commitment to femaleness and its sacred signifier, motherhood. Yet at the end, she dissolves into one of the most banal clichés of our day: the woman who “has it all.” She survives a massacre but is redeemed by her engineering job, snappy haircut, husband, and baby-to-be. She declares her intention to teach strength to her daughter and love to her son. I’m not one to spurn the happy ending, but can mass murder really be resolved by such a trite redemption story?
Polytechnique also introduces a new character, the male engineering student consumed by guilt and remorse. This character is based on one we’ve heard less about, a Polytechnique engineering student named Sarto Blais, who killed himself after the shootings. At Villeneuve’s hands, this young man becomes another cliché: the good German, the guilty survivor. When ordered out of the classroom by Lépine, he casts a long, brooding look at his female classmates. We witness the results of the rampage through his pained eyes: he dashes to the emergency first-aid cabinet for band-aids (band-aids!), he grabs the hand of a female friend on a stretcher and murmurs, “I’m sorry.” Later, after a strangely cleansing scene in his mother’s kitchen (eating pie), he kills himself. At the end of the film, the credits pay tribute to the 14 women killed that day, and the name Sarto Blais is included on the list.
I don’t believe women own this grief. Sarto Blais belongs on a casualty list, but does he belong on the same list as the 14 women? Of course Lépine’s actions extended beyond the deaths of 14: his own sister died of a drug overdose some years later, and Sarto Blais’s parents killed themselves after the death of their son. But my concern isn’t just practical; that is, where do we end the list of the victims. It’s also political. This is the first major depiction of this story in Canadian popular culture. What are the implications of narrating the emotional impact of the day through the eyes of a guilty male survivor? To me, it feels like those Hollywood movies about the civil rights movement, or apartheid-era South Africa, in which the murder of black people becomes a prop for the emotions of white people.
Ironically, Villeneuve’s depiction of Lépine’s rampage undermines his own argument about the equivalence of horror. The strength of this film, and the reason I could imagine using it in the classroom (under the right conditions, i.e., small classes) is that Villeneuve has a documentary-like, razor-sharp eye for detail. It’s filmed in black and white. It looks like a university in 1989: people smoke indoors, familiar ‘80s music sounds occasionally, students line up to pop dimes in photocopy machines. When Lépine starts shooting, we see on the screen what has been in our collective imagination for 20 years. I didn’t realize how powerful this was until a few days after I’d seen the film, when I was meeting a student in a Queen’s café housed in an engineering building. As I walked through the building and saw students milling in common areas and heading towards classrooms, images from the film, and with them a jolt of fear, came back. I don’t think this would have resurfaced in, say, a humanities building, but even more so, this is a deeply gendered fear. Villeneuve shows that Lépine went hunting for women. His rifle eschewed some people, men, in favour of others, women. When women ducked, or ran, he chased them. He didn’t chose people wearing red sweaters or carrying blue backpacks and he didn’t choose everybody. He chose women, and he left a note to tell us why.
For 20 years feminists have argued that this was an extreme but “emblematic,” to use Rosenberg’s phrase, act of patriarchal violence. But Monique Lépine’s harrowing memoir raises another issue, which potentially adds another layer of complexity to this story. In the film Lépine is not named. But neither is Gamil Gharbi, Lépine’s birth name, inherited from his Algerian Muslim immigrant father, Rachid Liass Gharbi. According to Monique Lépine, Rachid was a violent, destructive man who “survived” the Algerian War. I think it’s worth considering this.
Most people who want to talk about Gamil Gharbi live in the right-wing blogosphere. Right-wing Canadian males seem eager to name Lépine as Gharbi, because to them this means he was a product of North African, not North American culture. This proves the foreignness of Lépine/Gharbi’s misogyny and tells us everything we need to know about Algerians, Muslims, and the rightness of the War on Terror. ”Canadian males in general resemble Mr. Lépine,” writes one such blogger, “about as closely as we do the September 11 terrorists.”
This logic is absurd, but there is, I believe, a reason to consider Gamil Gharbi’s history. Monique Lépine gave Marc a legal name change as a fourteenth birthday present. Certainly he wanted to put distance from his abusive father, who abandoned the family when Lépine was young. But, according to his mother, he also suffered the stigma of “foreignness” in 1970s Montreal. “He was,” she writes, “fed up with being called an Arab by some of the kids at school.” The story is further complicated by Rachid Gharbi’s history. According to Mme. Lépine, her ex-husband had been the victim of electric shock torture during the Algerian War. Students of decolonization will recall that this conflict provided psychiatrist Frantz Fanon with the inspiration for his classic The Wretched of the Earth, which outlines how the brutality of torture dehumanizes both the torturer and the tortured. I don’t know what happened to Rachid Gharbi, in Algeria or in Canada. But when Fanon, after listening to testimony from torturers and the tortured, argued that wars of national liberation can become a “breeding ground for mental disorders,” and when contemporary feminists argue that militarism promotes narrow, aggressive hypermasculinities, I think men like Rachid Gharbi are who they have in mind.
Let me be clear: I’m not suggesting that the Algerian Civil War, or racism in Quebec, caused the Montreal Massacre. But perhaps this is a bigger, more global story than we’ve imagined. Perhaps it began in the complex history of colonization, anti-colonial war, and torture and was carried, as surely as skin tone, “funny name’’ and accent, by an immigrant to a country – Canada – with its history of racist intolerance and which was, and remains, a contributor to a violent world. That this man visited his demons upon his family, who in turn visited them upon themselves and many others, is an old story. What remains to be explored are the connections between the generalized violence of war, the violence within Lépine’s family, and his own specifically misogynist acts. In trying to imagine the trail from the bodies of tortured Algerians in the 1950s to murdered young women in Montreal three decades later, we can use Fanon’s analysis of colonization and racism. But we also need, crucially, the analysis feminists have provided about war and gender. Wars are, as Cynthia Enloe has written, never just “over there.” AM
Karen Dubinsky is professor of history at Queen’s University.