Synopsis: Documentary about the conflicts that, for nearly sixty years, pitted the Catholic Church and the government of Québec against cinephiles and defenders of artistic freedom. With the participation of Denys Arcand, André Lussier, Roger Fournier, Fernand Dansereau and André Guérin.
eyelights: its revelatory look at the power of censorship.
eyesores: its brevity.
‘Les ennemis du cinéma’ is a 2008 documentary film about the history of censorship in Québec, a francophone Canadian province that was under the Catholic Church’s thumb for centuries. It traces the Church’s influence on cultural affairs, how it used its political clout to ensure that it could shape the production and screening of cinematic oeuvres.
Armed with tons of clips, archival news footage and interviews with notable filmmakers and critics, the film paints a not-so-rosy picture of the extreme control the public was under until the sixties. Although censorship exists in many forms in many countries, the state of affairs in “La belle province” was rather extreme, with the morality police interfering all-too-frequently.
Starting at the turn of the 20th century, the Church began by trying to have Québec cinemas closed on Sundays. There was one important dissenter: cinema owner Léo-Ernest Ouimet, who bypassed being forbidden to sell tickets by selling candy instead and offering a “complimentary film” with each purchase. Eventually, he had to take his case all the way to Canada’s Supreme Court – and won.
A censor board was started in the ’20s and, although no clergy was officially on it, they had so much political pull that they were able to ensure that films were edited before being screened for audiences. Films that would be laughably inoffensive now would be chopped into incoherent messes because they featured themes that would bring about the degeneration of québécois society.
On January 9, 1927, a catastrophic blaze tore through the Laurier Palace in Montréal and killed 78 children, aged 4 to 18. The repercussions of this disaster would be felt for decades: fanning the flames, the province’s religious leaders managed to have cinemas restricted to children under 16 years of age. This would hold true for a four decades!
With Maurice Duplessis elected as Québec’s Premier, the Church had a significant hold on the province. In power for most of 1936 to 1959, he was extremely sympathetic to their cause, so it wasn’t until his death that religion began to weaken its grip. Until then, countless films were censored or not shown at all; QC culture reflected the Church’s values.
Unfortunately, their effect is felt even to this day. Marcel Carne’s 1939 film ‘Le jour se lève’, for instance, will never be seen in its entirety; its truncated scenes are lost forever, destroyed for morality’s sake. In fact, many films were irrevocably altered this way, as it was customary to burn all the excised footage every six months. Only stills remain of those scenes, if anything at all.
Even imported motion pictures were censored: it was a common practice to replace scenes with new ones that were filmed in Québec to make the final product more acceptable. This means that, for decades, québécois filmgoers not only viewed wholly incoherent films, but sometimes unwittingly saw films that were severely changed from their original composition.
One of the most censored films in québécois history is ‘Le blé en herbe’, a 1954 film about a summer love affair. But the worst of them all is Claude Autant-Lara’s ‘Le rouge et le noir’, which tells the tale of an ambitious man in Napoleonic times. His romantic liaisons and the anti-clerical themes ensured that the film was cut from its original length of 185 minutes down to 99 minutes.
In 1958, Henri Verneuil’s ‘Maxime’ was to be screened, but censors insisted that it be cut. In protest, the presenter refused to show it. This was a turning point. Soon thereafter, in 1960, the first Montréal Film Festival took place, and the organisers purposely played ‘Hiroshima mon amour’ to push the boundaries and provoke discussion on censorship.
With censorship already spotlighted because of a diplomatic incident that involved the French film ‘Les enfants du paradis’, Québec Premier Jean Lesage put together a commission of inquiry which resulted in the banning of censorship and the creation of a Ratings Board – the first in Canada. By that point, Québec was a ground-breaker for freedom of expression.
But battles were still waged on various fronts: In 1968, ‘I, a Woman’ got picked up by the police after being passed by the Ratings Board, causing a stir. And the Church attempted one last gambit, taking ‘Pile ou face’ and ‘Après-ski’ to court in 1971, trying to have them banned. This instead garnered the films notoriety and made them even more popular.
Politics also played a part in censorship, of course.
The National Film Board, for one, sometimes refused to allow films being made under their wing to be released based on content. For instance, ’24 heures ou plus’, which was filmed in 1971, wasn’t seen until 1976. Because it promoted subversive political ideals, and given the tense political climate at the time, it was judged imprudent to release it.
Québec is now at the forefront of artistic freedom, but it wasn’t always so. ‘Les ennemis du cinéma’ does a decent job of providing audiences with a good account of what led québécois cinema to where it is now. It is slightly brief, however, and it quickly skims through the ’70s and ’80s, pretty much skipping the ’90s to talk about the current state of affairs briefly.
Still, all in all, it’s a terrific overview of what led Québec out from under the shadows of the censors.
Date of viewing: March 25, 2014