Interview with Paul Tana

Paul Tana and the Italian immigrant experience in Canada

by Fuad Alnirabie, Michael Vesia Volume 5, Issue 1 / January 2001 17 minutes (4128 words)

From the commercially successful Caffé Italia, Montréal (1985) to the box-office failure La Déroute (1998), Paul Tana’s artistically prolific body of work sheds a rarely seen light on the Italian immigrant experience in Canada. Raised in Canada since age 11, Tana’s formative years as a filmmaker were firmly entrenched within the documentary-realist tradition. Yet Tana’s chosen style is far removed from conventional documentary form, mixing an eclectic blend of talking heads and archival footage with dramatizations. His most popular film, Caffé Italia, Montréal stirred controversy by broaching issues such as the Fascist presence in Montréal, and Italian internment during World War 2. In between Caffé Italia and La Déroute Tana made La sarrassine, a moving reality-based account of French-Italian relations in turn of the century Montréal. We had the privilege of sitting down with Tana, as the Montreal based artist shared with us his previous experiences and optimism toward his upcoming project.

Caffé Italia

Can you talk about your memories of growing up in Italy and how those memories influenced you as a filmmaker in Canada?

I arrived here in Canada at the age of eleven in 1958, therefore I completed my elementary school in Italy. Italy was and remains for me something very important because once settled here at the age of eleven, I experienced, like other immigrants, the cultural complexity involved in such a change. I wanted to disappear somehow in order to become like the others, but after that, at around the age of twenty-five or thirty, I had the capacity to accept reality and to say: “Well, I was born in Italy and I am both Italian and Canadian”. That is something I have lived with and through which I have made my films. So, has Italy the nation been important in the films that I have made until now? Not through my own experience of living there as a child, but certainly yes through the memories of my own family who are in Canada. Yet, these are immigrant memories, immigrants here in Canada. It is possible that in future films I might touch upon the dimension of Italy itself.

You graduated from a French university with a major in literature, yet you decided to become a filmmaker. How were you introduced to filmmaking, and were there any schools in Montreal that offered a film program?

I finished in 1970, so thirty years ago in Montreal there were no cinema schools. There were programs that were structured in a more improvised manner, like here (UQAM, University of Quebec), which was not a real cinema program. But literature and art in general always interested me. At first, I thought that I would always remain interested in theory more than practice, and I never would have imagined myself as a filmmaker. I didn’t believe that I would have the temperament for this kind of work. In fact, I was never given any real technical training in filmmaking. It was something that I learned on the job. Later on I realized that my studies in literature helped me enormously in my reflections -reflections on what is problematic in humanity. Who are we? Why do we exist, and where are we heading? Yes, filmmaking is a skill, but it is these types of personal interrogations from which stories stem.

So how did you learn the technical aspects of filmmaking?

In university we were able to make student films because we had some cameras. This permitted me to become a member of l’Association Coopérative de Production Audio-Visuelle (ACPAV) in Montreal, which at the time was a collective of filmmakers who were just starting in cinema. Eventually, that is where I met various people with whom I began to make films. My very first short film – which I paid for with my own money – was made with the help of l’ACPAV. We did make that one film, but I can still remember how poor my technical knowledge of filmmaking was. And, the film was not very good anyway…

Do you believe it was easier in those days for filmmakers who were just starting than it is today?

No, I am not sure that it was really any easier, because we had fewer resources in those days. There was also much less production compared to today. I mean, someone graduating from university or from a particular film school these days is equipped with a greater background; moreover, the quantity of audio-visual production (films, television, advertising) is much more important. There is a greater mobility, that is to say that people can study in Montreal, go to Toronto, go to New York, or even Vancouver if they like. Toronto for example is a very large production city but it is not necessarily easier… certainly not. It is not an easy profession!

The central theme of your films is the Italian immigrant experience. Does such a sociopolitical theme create an obstacle in getting financing for your films?

Oh, maybe, because I am a kind of ethnic filmmaker, which I think is a cultural problem that we have here in Quebec/Canada. So it could be that those types of themes make it problematic for me to get financed. But the reality is that my films did not make money, that is the problem, and that is why I do not make many films. They give me money and the films I make are critically acclaimed in a sense. So I am an esteemed and respected filmmaker, and they know that I can make a film on my own terms. But the problem as far as cinema goes is one of economics. Commercially those films just did not do well. La Sarrasine did better than La Déroute, my last film, but I think that it remains a major problem.

Do you think that part of the problem stems from the lack of an adequate international distribution?

Well, my films are seen all over the world, yet, only in the cultural circuits: important film festivals, cultural manifestations. We always have the same problem commercially. You can sell the film to two or three countries, but that is not enough. There is some critical acclaim, and people seem to like the films, but there are never enough spectators. To begin, there is a problem in Canada with the marketing and distribution of films. That is one of the obstacles that may not have helped my films. Nevertheless, we cannot say that La Sarrasine and La Déroute did not work only because they were not marketed well. La Sarrasine went to Toronto, and it played in theatres for fifteen weeks in Montreal, which was not bad.

I know that the films were shown at the University of Bologna in Italy.

Yes, during a conference. Undoubtedly Caffè Italia was my most successful film because we sold it a lot, and many people saw it.

How were the films received in Italy?

Strangely enough, Italy was the country in which the films were ignored the most. Interesting, eh? [Laughs] Fifteen years ago when I made Caffé Italia, I went to Switzerland with the film, and the Swiss bought it. People there were interested in the theme of cultural migration. Italy, on the other hand, had sent a big number of immigrants to the outside: sixty million Italians and Italian descendents outside of Italy. And yet it seems as though the people there were not necessarily interested in seeing, or even listening, to the stories of the people who had left Italy. They were not interested in stories that spoke about immigration. Today, however, I think the interest is much greater because Italy is also in the process of becoming a country, not of emigration but of immigration. There are many people who come from countries like Albania or Africa and settle down there. The society there is changing as well, and the problems dealt with in my films are also problems that people are in the process of living through, that is, in relation to the minority and majority. It is possible that there is a much greater interest for these films now. However, it is also possible that the limits of those films, or their weaknesses, lie in the fact that they specifically address Quebec and Canada. Nevertheless, the films were appreciated everywhere to a certain degree, so in the case of Italy…it is a mystery!

Caffé Italia

Do you think that as an Italian-Canadian filmmaker you are in an advantageous or disadvantageous position as opposed to being an Italian-American filmmaker?

Oh my God, it is a big difference, because in Canada we live in a country where we have a low-definition culture. Obviously, when someone makes a film in the United States, or even in France, or in Italy, they are guided by a culture. When they make a film in the United States, the act itself becomes more “important” then here. In making a film down there you are guided by their culture; you possess the possibility of being seen- a possibility that is realistically attained because you are in the United States. And aside from that you have guys like Coppola and Scorsese, who are people that possess extraordinary talents. But the stories that I tell in my films are not the same in the way that I treat them, and in the way that myself, Bruno Ramirez as a screenwriter and Tony Nardi as an actor make the films together. It has to do with that moment of immigration, when someone arrives and is not established yet, or the moment of that establishment if you like. The moment of that double identity, where the characters are both here [Canada] and there [Italy]. If you look at Scorsese or Coppola, they are Italian-Americans who in the end have assumed that identity.

Also, there is a generation difference!


Do you think that Italian-American filmmakers are more driven by commerce and consumption than the Italian-Canadian filmmakers like yourself?

I think that it is really a question of cultural context. We do not cross the horizon of our own culture, of the country in which we live. Coppola, even though he is Italian, inscribes himself in a tradition of American cinema, whereas I inscribe myself in the tradition of what we have done here in Canada up to now. So we live within the limits and scope of what has been done until now. That is why when I first started as well as many others I was extremely influenced by documentary because it was the big cinematic genre. In that sense the culture transcends and surpasses our own origins. So we must take that into account.

In 1980 you directed 8 episodes for the Radio-Quebec series Planète, which focused on people from the Italian Community in Quebec. Did the idea for Caffè Italia come as a direct result of you directing those episodes?

Yes, but also from Bruno Ramirez who at that time wrote a small essay on the first Italians in Montreal. We met and became friends, and then made Caffè Italia based on his book. I remember very well that at that time we did not expect all the success that we had because we were making a small film. Then, after it premiered there was a kind of strange dynamism at play; everybody was interested, and we were in the news. Maybe at that moment the film was representative of the fact that the majority of society was discovering the “other,” the immigrant, no matter what origin, Italian, Greek, Iraqi. They realized, “Oh, there are other people here besides us French-Canadians!” The film provoked a bit of a cultural shock.

In La Sarrasine, the image of Ninetta on the snow-covered Quebec landscape at the end of the film is very lyrical. Why did you decide to end the film that way?

That is a good question, maybe it is not a good ending, eh?

Actually I think it is a very good ending!

Well, it is because I am never really satisfied, you know.

So, do you always feel like you can go back and change some things?

Not change, but I tell myself that next time I will do better.

Well, what I meant was that it is an ending that can be interpreted in many ways.

La Sarrasine

Oh, yes because the story of the film ends with her voice-over when we see the window. So, the story ends there, but after that there is a small allegorical epilogue. My interpretation of that is that she is in a new space. She is dressed in black and there is the white snow. She becomes a natural part of that space, but also remains in contrast to it. Which, in a sense, is how I feel; Part of me is here, but at the same time I am not.

La Sarrasine addresses the clash between the Italian immigrants and the Quebecois, who have trouble accepting the idea of integration in their society. What happens when this struggle shifts to Italian immigrant vs. “other” immigrant, as in La Déroute?

Well, it is part of the same reality. I think that if there is racism or xenophobia from the majority towards every minority, then the minority at one moment also becomes xenophobic towards other immigrants. It is a sociological fact, a reality. For instance, when the Italians talk about the “Nigerians” or “Haitians.” Go to St. Leonard and you will see it. Go to an Italian father and watch his reaction when his daughter tells him that she is going out with a black guy [laughs]. That man Joe Aiello in La Déroute is a man who does not want to be an immigrant anymore, a nobody in a sense, an uprooted man. That is why his reaction to all those people who are immigrating now is, “I’m a real Canadian côlline, you are not.”

In La Déroute, Joe Aiello’s torment and lack of identity seems to be a result of the detachment he has from his Italian roots -dreaming of unearthing a rootless fig tree!

Yes, but at the same time he also has a sort of attachment, a deep attachment.

La Déroute

Do you think this lack of identity and forgotten cultural roots are something that the Italian community must face today more than ever?

I think that the passage of time shapes the reality. People came here during the 1950’ s and at the beginning there was still a relationship with Italy. Then as time passed, and natural evolution took shape, with newborn children like my son, the original link fades away a little, and we get a culture which is a mix of Canadian elements and Italian elements. It is a sort of métisage, which is interesting. Therefore, it is a transformation. I think that nothing is disappearing, everything is transforming. Like the society here, you have a lot of ethnic French-Canadians or ethnic English-Canadians who want to stay pure, but purity is an old ideal in a sense, because it is an absolute ideal.

You mean it is a concept?

Yes. If you want to be pure, you just die because you do not accept life. You do not accept the transformation of life in a sense of the cultural movement. I think it was Salman Rushdie who wrote that maybe the 20th century would be remembered as the century of mass immigration. Never in the history of mankind have we seen such huge quantities of people getting on a boat or going by foot to reach another place, I mean millions and millions of people. Naturally that creates a new culture in a sense, and also impurity [laughs].

In terms of your aesthetic influences, you have mentioned in previous interviews that Eastern European directors have been a big influence on you.

Yes, I like them very much. Miklós Jansço during the sixties was very interesting, but thematically I was very interested in Milos Foreman when he worked in Czechoslovakia, before coming to North America. But at the same time it is true that I have always liked and been fascinated by the work done on the long take, as in Andrei Tarkovsky’s films. What influenced me a lot about Tarkovsky, or what I like about Tarkovsky the most is the relationship he has with cinema from the spiritual and philosophical point of view. When he speaks about the relationship between reality and beauty; and when he distinguishes between what is beautiful and true and what is true and necessarily beautiful. It is there where he joins the aesthetic with the esthetic. That is something, which I have to admit, I believe in enormously. The beauty in oneself, the beauty of a shot and of colours, or the elegance of a movement. If they are not true, if they are not part of some truth, then they achieve nothing.

Are there any Quebec filmmakers who are important to you? Like Jean-Pierre Lefebvre for instance?

Well, among the important Quebec filmmakers whose work I admire would be Denys Arcand with Le Déclin [Le Déclin de L’Empire Americain, 1986] and Jesus de Montréal (1989) of course. The films of [Jean-Claude] Lauzon for example, Léolo (1992) was extremely interesting. As for Jean-Pierre Lefebvre, yes, he did make some very interesting stuff that influenced me when I was young because he was a little older than I was and he had made many more films. Also, at one point he was a sort of superstar here in Quebec. If I look at the kind of stuff I’m doing today compared to the work that was done twenty or thirty years ago, I’m a little more critical -critical in the sense that we learn things. Of course, I still see the good qualities in my work from that time, as well that of Jean-Pierre Lefebvre’s and others, but I also see what was lacking. There was an energy that was extremely interesting, but from the point of-view of the craft and the tools of that craft, there was much missing.

The use of the long takes in La Sarrasine is very noticeable. What is the significance of the uninterrupted camera in your films?

The long take is very important in the film because it gives it theatricality- a theatricality on which the film is founded. The film begins with the marionette battle: Tangredi and Claudine, that is, the Christians against the Saracens. In that small theatrical piece we summarize the entire film that is to follow. To further add to that idea of theatricality, working in long takes is also a formal attempt to say, “Voilà”. We always make films with parts that are specifically esthetic right from the start, and I had that [the long take] along with other qualities, for that reason of theatricality. But, it could also have been an attempt to instill within the film, which is mostly based on two characters, the idea of a corral, of the heart and the group at the same time. It is also a way to permit the actors to have a certain freedom within the scenes, because the long take allows them a liberty that is achieved through length, through time, which, when working with much shorter shots, is diminished.

La Sarrasine: The Opening Marionette Show

Do you rehearse and are you open to improvisation?

Yes. It is very important, because the moment of truth in a screenplay, in a scene, is the moment that comes from the actors. And, if the scene does or does not work, it is at that moment that you know it. That is very, very important. It was Stanley Kubrick who said that you have to have humility to admit that it does not work. Let’s try to find the problem! You rehearse, sometimes you improvise and among the small pieces you find in the improvisation, you construct a new scene and then it works. So you have to be open-minded. That is my point of view with the actors. You have to discuss things with them and listen to them. Naturally, you also have to know where to go. You need to set your path!

So you improvise but, with a direction?

The improvisation can only exist with a specific direction, improvisation is not possible without a sense of direction. So we improvise during rehearsal and then do the rewrites. But you cannot improvise in front of the camera and shoot it. At least that is my opinion, and this is the way that I work. The relationship with the actors is important because you create with these people, not only with the camera. In a certain sense the camera is secondary.

Does Tony Nardi offer you something special that allows you to commit to this belief?

Tony Nardi, yes, because we are very good friends, and we believe in the same things, we discuss a lot of things. But he is not the only one with whom I work like that, because it is such a fundamental thing. Tony has been important, naturally in that kind of step (initiative), but I think that kind of openness of the mind, that honest observation of what is going on during the rehearsal is very important for a director. If you force a certain reality upon the actors then things will be contrived.

Caffé Italia

How do you think your filmmaking has evolved since your beginnings?

When you are young you are a little bit presumptuous. You want to reinvent the world and then you discover that everything was already invented. You have to learn your craft very deeply. I was just learning my craft and trying to understand how to make a film, how to tell a story very well, in a classical way. I was struggling with classical forms, but I know them now.

As a filmmaker do you believe that someone who is just beginning as a filmmaker should start fresh, without having any knowledge of film history or literature?

No, you have to know the tradition if you want to do something, unless you are a genius. You are going to make clichés if you start fresh because you will be ignorant and will have the presumption of being a half-God, which is not true. We are dwarfs. It was an old monk, a philosopher, in the fourteenth century I think, who once said that we are only dwarfs on the shoulders of giants. So, the giants that came before us are very important.

What are your plans for the future? Are there any films in development?

Well, after recovering from the last film, because it did not do very well at the box-office, it was very hard [laughs]. I am just beginning two years after to have the energy to make another one. I have a few projects, one with Tony Nardi, but we are looking for a producer. One is a very interesting story about an RCMP cop of Italian origin. It is a film about identity.

Is it based on a true story?

Yes, he was the number one undercover cop; he was five foot four or five foot five and he became the first undercover agent for the RCMP. So, you can just imagine that small guy, with black hair, surrounded by all those tall blonde guys!

What is the hardest part of being a filmmaker? And why?

Well, the writing is very interesting and also directing, which is a wonderful job. The problem is maybe, how to find money and gain people’s confidence. That is what is difficult every time, the confidence, because in the end as filmmakers we would like a carte blanche. We would like someone to say, “Okay, do whatever you want”. The problem is that we do not always have that, there are always doubts, be it on the part of the institutions, the producers, etc. It is those doubts that are the most difficult to support. The problem also is that those doubts come from people who do not really know the craft very well. So, maybe the most difficult thing is fighting the ignorance of those people who have to decide “Okay, are we going to give him money or not?” That is a very hard struggle and its tiresome…very, very tiresome.

The Wall from Caffé Italia

Canadian Theatrical Films:

Les étoiles et autres corps (1973), 14 mins.

Deux contes de la rue Berri: Pauline (1975), 25 mins. Deux contes de la rue Berri: les gens heureux n’ont pas d’histoire (1976), 39 mins. Les grands enfants (1979), 83 mins.

Caffè italia, Montréal (1985), 80 mins. Le marchand de jouets (1989), 47 mins., La sarrasine (1992), 120 mins., La déroute (1998)

Volume 5, Issue 1 / January 2001 Interviews   canadian cinema   italian cinema   paul tana   political cinema   quebec cinema