Montreal’s Caroline Monnet blurs boundaries between film and fine art

Caroline Monnet is speaking to NOW 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 Montreal’s Museum of Fine Arts on April 21.

Behind Monnet, I can see her first architectural installation: a structure built from construction materials like gypsum and chipwood and featuring a latticework familiar to anyone who has seen her work. In front of Monnet is a screen showing Quebec officials discussing rising variant cases and a potential lockdown, which would put the filmmaker and artist’s spring exhibition on ice. Her attention is being pulled in multiple directions, which is totally on brand for Monnet.

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

“We tried to edit at a distance, but it was just too difficult,” says Monnet. 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, etc) 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,” says Monnet. “They don’t really mix.”

A photo of Caronline Monnet standing on a log in the forest

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 in tar – a nod towards 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 mother is from Kitigan Zibi, 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,” says Monnet. “To work with the community, for them to get to know me better, for me to know them better.”

Lockdowns meant we couldn’t host the usual photoshoot our annual Canada’s Rising Screen Stars feature. So we sent this year’s actors and filmmakers disposable cameras to shoot themselves. Photos by Caroline Monnet

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