I had a very bad day yesterday. I woke up with a cold, was late for work, spilled a drink on my pants, wasted most of my work day on a fruitless exercise, got stuck in the elevator and decided to wear just a t-shirt on such a cold day. But worst of all, I forgot my keys at home.
As soon as I found out, I called my roommate to save myself the trip home. As luck would have it, him and my other roommate, his sister, were going to their parents' house for dinner and would not be back until around 8:30pm. It was about 6:30pm, so I had to figure out an activity until then. Since I had no books on me, hanging out at a coffee shop and looking intelligent was, unfortunately, not an option.
So I headed back to my office and looked up a movie theater I just heard about earlier that day, Ex-Centris. There is not a strong enough modifier in the English language to suggest just how excited I was about the prospect of seeing a movie there. I was hoping to get there in time to see The Secret Life of Words, but further unlucky delays -- including seeing my subway train leave right in front of my eyes -- prevented me from doing so. Instead, I had to settle for a local fringe documentary (and this is in on an art-house scale) called Nestor et les oubliés.
The film is centered around Louis-Joseph Hébert, alias Nestor, who is a Duplessis orphan. His mother was unwed and likely very young when he was born, unable to take care of him, and so he was put in a Roman Catholic orphanage, as was the practice in Quebec at the time. Most girls, as we are told in the film, were quickly adopted, but nobody wanted the boys. Years upon years of abuse followed. We get the story from the angles of the orphans, the unwed mothers, and one expert.
One orphanage Nestor stayed at for a few years "has a room devoted to the Bogeyman" where nuns would literally make eerie sounds and grab the 5 year-old kids in the dark. Later, around the time he would hit puberty, Nestor spent time in another orphanage where the boys were molested and literally beaten to a pulp if they tried to escape. About ten years ago, the Quebec government reached a settlement with a large group of Duplessis Orphans, but Nestor and his friends were not part of it, and he is leading the fight.
Nestor et les oubliés does a very good job of avoiding the cliches of tragedy documentaries; exploitation is at a bare minimum. We don't see Nestor struggling at a task most would find trivial. The camera doesn't linger over any crying faces. Better yet, when the various people interviewed recount their stories, none of them are hysteric. Instead, they retell their tales with the sort of composed amazement you would expect from people who spent 50 years living the horrors down. When Nestor recounts the one and only time he had a piece of candy in an orphanage (which he found behind the radiator), I felt his triumph where a more sensationalist director would have me feel pity.
When the film ended, it was as if I personally knew Nestor. I went in wanting to add another line to my collection of bragging rights, but I got a lesson in both history and human will. Before, I knew nothing of the struggle of the Duplessis Orphans, having only possibly heard the term once during Grade 10 Canadian History, but just over an hour later, I was passionate about it. Coincidentally, Nestor happened to actually be in the movie theatre, and I suspect he personally knew most of the other 10 or so viewers. He stood in the exit, shaking everyone's hands. He shook mine and I told him that I hoped he does well. He asked me if I understood the film. Perhaps he meant the French language (I personally read the subtitles), or maybe the historic context. But I felt that I did understand it, and I told him so. Due to the asymmetry of our acquaintance, this was the end of the conversation. Only later did I realize that I really wanted to know if he was ever interested in seeking out his mother.
Leaving the theater and having spoken to my roommates again, I had about 20 minutes to waste before they got back. Since I was already home, I decided to make the inevitable visit to Dawson College, mere steps from my house. As I walked up Atwater avenue past Alexis Nihon, I was planning my strategy. Not wanting to seem like a tourist gawker, I was going to rush past whatever shrine was enacted, giving it a quick glance, and just continue up the street. Approaching the intersection, I saw a whole corner of the fence surrounding Dawson completely covered in bouquets and hand-made placards. It was stunning. Not wishing to divert from my plan, I rushed past it, fervently trying to improvise something. When I reached the end of the block, I just turned around and walked back to the improvised memorial. I was going to let it impact me no matter how silly I looked. A man that initially looked like a bum was searching for something amidst the bouquets. Having what he was looking for -- a poster with a large photo of Anastasia de Sousa, the sole casualty of the shooting -- he dug it out and planted it squarely in the center of the shrine. I didn't have the heart to ask him if he was related to her. Walking back home, my pace was much slower.
My day was not so bad after all.