A Memory of Forgotten Children By Francine Laurendeau
Montreal filmmaker Benoit Pilon’s previous documentary, Roger Toupin, épicier variété, gave us an unsentimental glimpse into a bygone slice of working-class Montreal life, in which the last survivors of a largely vanished world reminisced with soon-to-be retired grocer Roger Toupin. A secondary but compelling presence in that film was the feisty sexagenarian Nestor, whose passion left a deep mark on the film. It comes as no surprise that Pilon decided to make this man the subject of his next feature-length documentary, Nestor et les oubliés.
Looking at today’s open, liberal Quebec society, it’s almost impossible to understand the not-so-distant obscurantist reign of a petty tyrant like Maurice Duplessis, supported by the Catholic hierarchy. In the 1930s and 40s, an unwed woman who got pregnant was forced to make the product of her sins disappear; if she was poor, she had no choice but to deliver her baby in a hospital run by nuns, and leave the child behind. At Montreal’s Miséricorde (Sisters of Mercy) Hospital alone, 156,685 births were recorded between 1848 and 1944. With a lot of luck, and especially if the baby was a girl, adoption might follow. But in most cases, the children, mostly boys, spent their infancy with the Sisters before being sent to orphanages run by the Brothers. These are the basic facts behind this film, in which we meet Nestor and his friends—men who, like him, did not experience maternal love, family life, significant education or social integration. Nestor’s group, the Association des orphelins d’Huberdeau (the Huberdeau orphans’ association), is demanding apologies and compensation for the wrongs inflicted on the orphans, particularly sexual abuse. Their placards read: “The Brothers of Mercy are pedophiles.” We also hear the stories of women who gave birth in shame and secrecy, forced to abandon their babies. Taken together, these revelations add up to a shocking exposé.
It’s easy to imagine how tears and bitterness could have dominated such a film. But Nestor et les oubliés is, in fact, admirably understated. Captured by Michel La Veaux’s attentive camera, these unpretentious men deliver their testimonials with modesty. The archival documents are terrifying not because of what they show, but because of what they can only suggest, such as the photograph of very young children whose blank stares reflect utter despair. Nevertheless, these lives were not without fleeting happiness. In one scene, Nestor recalls how, as a toddler, he found some stray candy behind a radiator one day, then secretly savoured it for as long as he could. This touching and dignified sequence deserves to be counted among the most noteworthy in documentary film.
As a director, Benoit Pilon knows how to approach the people he’s filming and also knows, in an inventive and relaxed way, how to take a step back and revisit the places where they lived. His first feature, Rosaire et la Petite-Nation (1997), a sensitive portrait of a great-uncle and the people of his region, already bore the hallmarks of the filmmaker’s style: a keen sense of observation and a deep affection for his subjects. In this type of film, the score is often intrusive. In Nestor , Robert Marcel Lepage’s evocative music punctuates the film carefully, emphasizing its emotion. Looking towards the future, Pilon’s next film, the highly anticipated Des nouvelles du Nord, documents the lives of the last 400 residents of the remote, forgotten town of Radisson, in the James Bay region. One to watch for.