It’s a day forever burned on this country’s consciousness. On December 6, 1989, Marc Lepine walked into Montreal’s Ecole Polytechnique armed with a semi-automatic rifle and, fuelled by a hatred of feminism, gunned down 14 women in cold blood before turning the weapon on himself.
Quebec actress Karine Vanasse was just six years old when the Montreal Massacre occurred, and it would be another nine years before she’d fully grasp its impact not only on those directly involved but on all Canadians.
“I was invited by members of the Foundation of December 6, mainly members of the families of the victims, to read a specific text,” recalls Vanasse of the time she was asked to speak at a memorial event. “I think it’s really there that I realized how you could have a different point of view of the event. It was a really emotional evening, as you can imagine, but it wasn’t heavy. It was really inspiring in a way — you could feel that everybody wanted to go through it as a community. Gather, talk about it, and share their sadness, but go through the grief together.”
Around that time, Vanasse realized she wanted to make a film about the events, not only as a tribute to the victims and their families but to educate those unfamiliar with what occurred.
“It was unifying in the way that you had men, women, people who were involved directly in this tragedy, people who experienced it in a different way, or just people who were touched emotionally by the event, who weren’t actually there. They all felt that connection to the event,” she explained.
“I just thought eventually I would like to do a film about it that would tell the story from that point of view, from that perspective. Not the intellectualized one, but the emotional one.”
Approaching Maxime Remillard, producer at Remstar, the Drummondville-born actress outlined her idea for the film and Remillard immediately suggested Denis Villeneuve as a director. The award-winning Maelstrom filmmaker was inspired by Gus Van Sant’s interpretation of the Columbine tragedy, Elephant .
Polytechnique , starring Maxim Gaudette, Sebastien Huberdeau, and Vanasse, who also serves as producer, opened in Quebec in early February and hits Toronto theatres Friday. Vanasse, who plays a surviving student, admits it was a trying film to make given the subject matter, but nothing in comparison with what students went through 20 years ago.
“It’s just a movie, but at the same time we knew that it was important and that we wanted to be true to the people who had to go through it,” she remarked. “But we knew that what we were experiencing and going through was nothing in comparison to what they experienced.”
Vanasse adds it was crucial to everyone involved that the story be told respectfully and truthfully, in a way that would have an impact without resorting to gore. To accomplish these goals, Villeneuve opted to film Polytechnique in black and white, and to change names. Gaudette’s character, the one based on Lepine, isn’t given a name. In the closing credits his character is listed simply as ‘The Killer.’
The actress says the filmmakers made sure to speak with the victims’ families before embarking on the project.
“They were the first people we approached when we had the idea. We didn’t have a chance at the beginning to talk to all members of the families, and some of them were a bit more private. But the ones really involved in the Foundation (of December 6) were quite open to the idea of the film,” she explained. “I think that for them it was, in a way, a continuation of the work they’d been doing for the past years, trying to commemorate the event, trying to tell the story to new generations. And they were at the end of their term because they wanted to end the foundation, so for them it was something quite natural.”
Before it opened for the public, the filmmakers held a series of private screenings for family members of victims, Ecole Polytechnique students past and present, and others affected by the tragedy. Vanasse says she knew they had the potential to be the harshest critics and says she knew if the film passed the test with them, it could be shown across the country to all Canadians.
“Their reactions were very different from one group to another. I think that family members that came were moved,” she explained. “We had some people saying that they got closer to their sister that night when they watched the film. Most of them are at peace with the event, at least the ones that showed up, I know that for others it’s more delicate. But we had really good comments from the families.”
She adds, “I’m not saying that everybody thinks that it’s the perfect moment, but, is there a perfect moment to talk about something like that?”
Photo of Karine Vanasse in Polytechnique courtesy Alliance Films.