On Dec 6, 1989 fourteen young women were killed at the Ecole Polytechnique, in Montreal, by twenty-five year old anti-feminist mad man Marc Lepine. He stormed into a classroom, separating the men from the women and proceeded to shoot all nine of the female engineering students. Into the crowded halls, he took as many women with him as he could before turning the gun on himself. The events rocked the country and created uproar in discourse surrounding violence towards women.
Twenty years later, the wound still feels relatively fresh for the victims who survived the attack, and this is why Director Denis Villeneuve, along with Producers and cast members set out to make a film from the point of view of those who had lived through the massacre. Actor Karine Vanasse, who plays the lead role of Valerie, believes that if the controversial film “makes the event a little less taboo”, then they will have succeeded.
Growing up in Quebec, Vanasse had always been aware of the tragedy but it was when she was asked to read a text, at age fifteen, during one of the commemorative ceremonies that she began to hear emotionally what people had gone through, “..It became clear in my mind that I wanted to become involved in that film” says Vanasse. Interviewing the survivors a few years later, it was obvious that “their story had never been told”.
Why had their stories never been told? 1989 was a very different landscape for women in the Canadian workforce than it is today – especially so in the industries of Engineering, Science and Technology. At that time, the dominating objectives of feminism were to rally for equal rights, illuminate sexual discrimination in the workplace and seek justice for violence against women. Of course, all of which are still issues today, but were far more prevalent, and new, in the late eighties. Many would say that the Ecole Polytechnique tragedy became clouded and overshadowed by feminists who used it as an opportunity to reveal widespread anger towards women, while others argued that it was a one-off attack by a sick man and did not represent the general feelings of Canadian males towards females; therefore an unjustified catalyst for a cause.
The intellectual debate and mixed emotions surrounding the massacre is perfectly understandable but as Vanasse points out, “we also have to think about the ones who survived”.
It would have been easy to create a sensational film full of blood and gore but instead the result is poetic, poignant and very true to reality. There were several creative decisions made to maintain integrity but the two most notable being the use of black and white film and the decision to not emulate the main characters after one particular victim. “We heard from so many of them (surviving victims) and they hadn’t been recognized….we wanted to make sure that they would all feel a bit of their own story in the two main characters. All the facts are based on truth but the characters are fictional”, explains Vanasse.
Many of you will see yourself in Valerie. She was maybe 21 years old, just on the brink of self discovery and an exciting career. Vanasse recalls her own experience of this tender age: “You don’t know who you are, you don’t know how to carry yourself, you respond to a way you think you should act, but you haven’t found your own way to describe yourself and to express yourself.” Looking at the victims she recognizes, “for those women to be in engineering school, it took a lot of character and personality to be there but at the same time I don’t think they realized what it represented. They were kids.” This is why the story is particularly affecting. Killed for being feminists…did they even know what that word meant? They were just girls going to school and growing up.
Vanasse admits that when she was first asked the question, “Are you a feminist?” she felt uncomfortable answering and couldn’t articulate why there was this associated shame. However, self evaluation revealed that she had in fact been making choices throughout her entire life that were indicative of being a feminist, but the way we express it now is different than in decades past. Being a part of this project re-evaluated what that term meant for her and watching this film will likely raise similar questions for you. For those of you who are unaware, being a feminist is simply the belief that women should have equal political, social, sexual, intellectual and economic rights to men. Not having ever used the term ‘feminist’ to openly describe myself, I walked out of the film wanting to embrace it; it made me feel proud to be a feminist.
For the surviving victims, the idea of feminism got pushed on them at an early age and accelerated their maturity as women. The result for the majority of victim survivors was quick pregnancy. Vanasse recalls that they found themselves asking “what kind of woman am I?” earlier than most. Having children was a way of expressing their feminity and defining themselves outside of the labels they were overwhelmed with during and following the massacre.
We don’t typically see films at the theatre in black and white as for a distributor this is a red flag that audiences will be cut in half, but for Polytechniqe the decision seems inherent to telling the story. “…you aren’t distracted by the blood and I think you really focus on the characters”, says Vanasse. Further she describes, “…when you walk into a university…l don’t know what they are like here but in Quebec they are run down – and its not beautiful, it’s grey. It was easier to make it look beautiful in black and white. There’s something much more poetic.”
Certainly a process of self discovery, but the most challenging part of making the film for Vanasse was,” Always having in mind the testimonies of the girls that had to go through it. Having their voices remind me to be as true as possible to their story and memory of event.” This sentiment certainly comes through; everything about this film seems accurately re-created from the hardwood hallways of Montreal student apartments, to ordinary interactions at a hectic school photocopier and their reactions to violence. Remarkably cast, you will be moved by Vanasse’s performance and understand the pain of her character Valerie, while also seeing parts of yourself. Although a horrific time Venasse believes “there’s something positive that grows from it (the film).” It brings back awareness and evokes new discussion, and will make you examine what being a young woman is all about.
Polytechnique is a breathtaking film that ought to be seen by all Canadians but will especially resonate with young women, like you, who are in a process of self-discovery.