Monday, March 8, 2010

Filmmaker Interview - Sophie Bissonnette

Recently, DOC-Quebec (Documentary Organization of Canada, Quebec Chapter) held a special screening in Montreal to mark the 30th anniversary of Une histoire de femmes (A Wives’ Tale), a remarkable documentary film about the importance of the wives and the women workers during the strike at Inco nickel mine in Sudbury from 1978-79. Shot on 16mm film, the film goes behind the scenes into the meetings by the woman and into their homes. The women, some of whom were quite young and naïve, became instrumental in resolving the strike favourably. It was a watershed moment in Canada for both the labour movement and the women’s movement. Sadly, they're currently embroiled in another bitter strike.

In honour of International Women’s Day, here is an interview I conducted with Sophie Bissonnette, one of the movie's three filmmakers.


How did Une histoire de femmes (A Wives’ Tale) and the filmmaking team of you, Martin Duckworth and Joyce Rock come together?

The Inco strikers went out on strike in September 1978. It was a very important strike, a major strike in Canada. There were 12,000 workers and their families on strike. There was a benefit evening that was given in Ottawa where some of the wives of the miners – these were the miners that were on strike against the multinational corporation Inco – organized in a committee to support the strike. And they went out on speaking engagements and benefit evenings to raise money for the families so that they could survive.

Martin Duckworth, who was a filmmaker doing Candid Eye documentaries at the NFB (National Film Board), had just left the NFB. He had the idea of making a film about the involvement of the women in the strike because it was a very new phenomenon. At the time, this was the rising women’s movement in Canada and Quebec. The women had decided to organize in an autonomous, independent organization instead of the usual auxiliaries that international unions organized for women. Martin contacted me and Joyce Rock. We were two young women, very keen on making film and interested in film. For Joyce and I, it was our first experience making a film. So it was a collaborative project, which was not uncommon in the 70s. A lot of film projects or artistic projects were often collective projects, so the three of us set out to do the film.

Documentary filmmaking at the time was much more of a craft than the industry that we know today. Martin had his own camera, so he was shooting with his own camera. We got a microphone from the Sudbury hospital. They would lend it to us six days out of seven because they needed it one day a week. And we would basically bum film stock from the crews that were coming in from CBC and Radio-Canada who were covering the strike for news. We’d ask them for their leftover film stock because everybody in those days was shooting in 16mm.

And so much of the shooting of the film – we filmed the last five months of the strike – was done like that. We lived in the families' homes with the strikers, to be there and really follow the whole process of how the women got involved, how they organized, and obviously the resistance they met from the union that was very male-dominated – from their husbands also. I must say that the men were a bit pissed off that we were making a film about the wives instead of about the men. But it turned out to be a very important strike and a long strike that lasted nine months. And it turned out that the role of the women was quite crucial and instrumental in actually getting a much better work contract, as a result of the women getting involved in the strike and supporting the strike.

Was it a complicated shoot? Did it make tough demands on you as filmmakers?

It was quite a demanding shoot because we didn’t have any money. I was working, teaching film in Montreal and so travelling almost every week or every two weeks to Sudbury because that was a way to bring in some income for all of us, to be able to continue filming. Also, understandably, the women were initially reluctant to let us film because they had had very negative experiences with the media, like with the CBC and the news crews. So when we approached them to make the film, they put quite a number of conditions; among others, that at each meeting, they needed to vote and to decide whether they would let us film the meeting. But I guess over the weeks and the months that we were there, a lot of trust developed between us and the women who allowed us not only into the meetings but into their homes, to be able to film a lot of the intimate discussions that were going on around the issues of the strike. We had to be on our toes constantly. We never knew when something would be happening. It was demanding in terms of time and energy. On the other hand, it was so thrilling and so exciting to be in the middle of history in the making. I think for the three of us, it was a real passion to be part of this event.

Also, I think it’s one of the things that struck me when I saw the film again recently now that it’s been digitized is just how much hope there was in those years, of being able to turn things around and change things. Today, the battles that we lead are so lengthy and difficult and more unlikely to succeed. I think the 70s were a wonderful time in that respect, that there were a lot of strong social movements and strong social movements that were making gains. So that was a very uplifting part of being part of that process as filmmakers.

So after we shot a lot of the film, we got money from the Canada Arts Council. Then we approached a production company in Montreal. Arthur Lamothe who’s a well-known documentary filmmaker here, took on the project and then he got the money we needed to be able to go into editing – from l'Institut québécois du cinema, which was the Quebec provincial body that financed films, and from the educational television here. You can just see how in those years, the financial structures to film were a lot lighter and easier to deal with. You didn’t need to have a broadcaster before you went out and filmed. In this case, the broadcaster came in at the end and bought the film and aired it.

In your relationships with the families, did they invite you into their homes or was that something you had requested early on?

Well, the first thing that we did was to get the authorization of the Wives Supporting the Strike Committee, of the overall group. And then they agreed that we could make a film about them, and put the condition that at each meeting they would decide whether they would let us in. And then we chose some of the characters that we wanted to follow, who were more key characters, important characters. And as I said, it didn’t take that long to gain their trust. Very quickly, they saw that we were their to support them as allies in the struggle that they were leading.

We needed a place to stay and didn’t have money to stay in hotels. And we would much rather stay with them to be able to give them the money as renters, which they badly needed because they had no salaries from being on strike. So that’s how we ended up living with the families and giving them some money for board as we were staying there. That became a plus for the film because that’s how we got some of the sequences where the union person calls one of the women and reacts to the fact that they took a stand. We were right there in the house at that moment, at that time, because one of us was living there. We were able to just pick up the camera and shoot what was going on. So I think it gives that very inside look into a strike, instead of just the more public and visible events. We really got that inside process.

Have you stayed in touch with any of them?

Yeah, I'm in touch especially with the woman I stayed with, Cathy. She was one of the very few women working for the company, because there were 12,000 workers but only 30 women at the time. And she’s somebody who got very involved in defending women in non-traditional work and also in democratization of unions. So yes, I have stayed in touch with her and know about what’s happening to the women now from her.

What was their reaction upon seeing the film?

That was really interesting because that was part of the deal with them, that because it was their story we agreed that they should see the film and vote on it, to let it out. We would have respected if they told us, “you can’t bring it out” we would have respected it. It’s a chance we took. But because we knew that we were working to support what they were doing, we didn’t expect that it would be a problem. It was thrilling. I guess basically their response was, “yes, there are some things. I would rather you hadn’t put that shot of me because I don’t look at my best.” Or, “you didn’t put everything I said.” But in the end, they said, “you’ve been so truthful to the whole process and you showed all of the discussions and the conflicts between the women.” Because I think that’s what’s interesting; because we got that inside look, we see how a struggle like that is not easy. There’s all kinds of debates constantly going on to come to a consensus. But that’s also what the film documents is this incredible way that women have to be able to get together. In spite of their differences, they were able over nine months to always come to a consensus and the film documents that process. Especially that incredible prise de conscience, coming to awareness, of these women who as one of them says, “I thought I was just a housewife, and then I discovered with the strike that there was a whole world out there that I was part of – and not just part of, but that I could actually have a say, and that I could actually change what was happening there.” So there's this kind of political consciousness, which was so typical of the 70s. I think the film, watching it recently again thirty years later, is such a beautiful testimonial to the women’s movement – how much of a grass-roots movement it was and it still is. It wasn’t just a middle class movement. A Wives’ Tale is a beautiful example of just how it was very rooted in working-class realities also.

I’ve made other films. In the following years, I made one film that was about the women’s movement in welfare, women’s welfare organizations. It was interesting because my daughter was at this [DOC-Quebec] screening, who is seventeen. She just couldn’t believe how much women’s situations had changed in thirty years. She said it was so startling to see women not thinking they were equal. For her, it’s so much taken for granted. It’s wonderful that my daughter can now take for granted that she has equality.

And the labour movement, how has that changed over the last thirty years?

I can’t speak for the situation directly in Sudbury. I’ve kept mostly in touch personally with Cathy, but I wouldn’t be able to make a statement about what’s happening now in terms of the union in Sudbury. What I can say is that they’re again on strike in Sudbury and it is again a very bitter and difficult and very long strike. As Joan Coulliac – who’s another person both Martin and I have stayed in touch with, who’s a community organizer and one of the women responsible for initiating the women’s group – as she explained about the strike that’s going on now, Inco has been bought out by a Brazilian company. It’s a very huge multinational company. And now the unions are dealing with a very globalized situation and, can you imagine, the workforce has gone down from 12,000 to 2,000. So the leverage that you have when you go out on strike is much weaker than when there’s 12,000 people who are out on strike. I could comment in a more general way. I think A Wives’ Tale says that one of the reasons the strike was actually won was because the women were involved and also people from the community were involved. I would certainly plead that unions today need to continue in that perspective of being very open to community needs and not closed off and very corporatist.

I made another film called A Vision in the Darkness on a woman militant called Léa Roback. She was a communist in the thirties and forties and organizing in unions in Montreal. And it’s very striking how for her it was evident that if you were a union militant in the thirties and forties, you not only took care of labour issues and wages in the workplace, but she got involved trying to help raising housing issues in the community in the neighbourhood where the company was. She would get involved helping women get safe abortions, from Jewish doctors in the thirties and forties in Quebec. Her vision of being a union activist was that it was very political. It was a wider vision than just the shop issues inside the company. You were not just a worker, you were also a citizen. You were facing all kinds of issues that involve the whole community around you. So I would plead for that kind of unionism, very rooted in a community perspective.

For more information or to purchase a copy of A Wives’ Tale, Sophie Bissonnette can be contacted at or at (514) 776-6180.

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