In an ethical human rights documentary, the relationship between filmmaker and subject is one based on a mutual desire for justice and truth-telling. This shared commitment builds the trust that allows subjects to retell their experiences on camera. With a craft honed over more than 40 years, Raymonde Provencher has produced, written and directed a masterful, compassionate and unflinchingly honest body of films about human rights in conflict zones around the world. Her decades of experience have given her the ability to listen deeply, to empathize and to politically engage with her subjects, creating a kind of alliance that is unspoken yet palpable on screen.
In an interview for the book Documenting Gendered Violence: Representations, Collaborations, and Movements, Provencher said, “I have been making work on human rights abuses for 30 years…but I am never very well prepared by the end because you never know what people will tell you.…I am in the story with her, through my eyes, through the support I’m trying to give her.”
Provencher began working in the 1970s as a journalist and researcher for Télé-Québec and Radio-Canada, collaborating on a number of public affairs programs and initiating an important study of international reporting in Quebec media. In 1983, she and two colleagues created Nord-Sud, an award-winning international documentary program for television. Over the following 12 years, she travelled to over 30 countries to report on complex social and political conflicts and bring the realities of people in other countries to Quebec audiences.
In the 1990s, Provencher founded Macumba International Productions in Montreal with colleagues Patricio Henriquez and Robert Cornellier. The company afforded her the ability to produce, write and direct self-generated television series and in-depth political point-of-view feature documentaries that have garnered numerous awards, been broadcast at home and abroad and screened at festivals around the world. As well, many of the films have been widely screened at conferences and events to assist the work of human rights and social justice organizations.
Provencher’s years as a media journalist and current affairs creator have given her a background in research and a wealth of on-the-ground observations from multiple nations and cultures. As such, she refuses to construct her films in ways that contribute to western stereotyping or stigmatizing of a single religion or country.
We’re honoured to screen four of her powerful films in this retrospective program. They focus on women’s and children’s rights, gender violence and sexuality, and feature testimonies and activism by people whose lives have been traumatically impacted by war, rape and violence, often arising from and exacerbated by a combination of historic inequity imposed by colonial regimes and brutal present-day neoliberal economic policy.
Winner of four Gémeaux, as well as the Hot Docs Audience Award in 2003, War Babies follows a young man adopted by an Ontario family who travels to Bangladesh in search of his birth records. The film goes on to profile four women in different countries, all who have children born from rape used as a weapon of war. 2012’s Crimes Without Honour is a film about gender violence legitimized by family power structures. The women featured in this film belong to different religions and ethnicities and live in different countries, but all share a history of violence based on notions of family honour enforced by male supremacy.
Both of these films offer a profound critique of entrenched patriarchal systems that cross borders, nationalities and faiths. But while her films do not flinch from the violence her subjects have experienced, they are also hopeful and inspiring, showing how many women are now speaking out, organizing and actively working for change.
Provencher mixes classic observational and participatory documentary approaches. On-camera interviews, verité scenes, B-roll footage and archival images all convey the specific contexts of subjects. Rather than using re-enactments to illustrate a story, she adopts the conventions and language of cinematography and sound to evoke memory, bringing viewers more empathetically into subjects’ experiences. All of these techniques are powerfully deployed in Grace, Milly, Lucy…Child Soldiers, a film about three of the thousands of girls abducted by rebel forces in Uganda.
Finally, Café Desirs, set in the ancient city of Constantine, beautifully explores the repressed desires of three single Algerian men as they negotiate their sexuality in a post–civil war culture that rigidly separates men and women.
First as a journalist bearing witness to events around the world, and then as a filmmaker sharing powerful and in-depth stories, Provencher and her steadfast commitment to social justice has brought us a lasting legacy of powerful non-fiction media. Lynne Fernie