Art for the downtrodden
Film looks at the benefits and the price of radical activism
Action terroriste socialement acceptable dumped a burned-out SUV in the middle of Calgary.
A white-tablecloth dinner with foie gras for the homeless. Hundreds of plastic bags speared on brittle tree branches. A burned-out SUV dumped in the heart of Canada’s biggest oil town.
To Pierre Allard and Annie Roy, the subjects of Magnus Isacsson’s documentary Art in Action, these are virtuous acts of terrorism.
“They want to do things directly, start a real social debate,” said Isacsson, who directed the one-hour French-language film.
Through their organization Action terroriste socialement acceptable, Allard and Roy have made bold guerrilla statements about what they see as Montreal’s most pressing social issues of the past 12 years. Their projects have included “État d’urgence,” an annual tent city set up for the homeless, “Zone épineuse,” where yellow tape was wrapped around all of Parc Avenue’s elm trees as if they were about to be chopped down, and many others.
Isacsson said he grew to see the pair as pragmatic people with an ability to raise real awareness.
“They have a way for finding formulas to capture public attention,” he said. “Their installations are very cinematic and have had a big public impact. The more creative you can make your protest or your activism, the more it’s going to have an impact, even beyond your own borders. Even a couple of advertising agencies have been interested.”
Isacsson and assistant director Simon Bujold took four years to produce Art In Action, taking advantage of the fact that they lived in the same neighbourhood as Roy and Allard.
“It was great because we could just come over with the cameras. And as time goes on you can see them getting a higher and higher profile,” he said.
To Isacsson, the film isn’t about tactics, or about idealism, but “l’intensité de l’engagement.”
“It’s about investing passionately in something you believe in,” he continued, “but it’s also about the consequences, about the costs of working so hard at something until you neglect the other parts of your life.
“They didn’t really think about what it would mean to have a film crew around for several years,” he admitted. “We ended up filming a lot of things where we wished we weren’t there.”
There are moments where frayed nerves come through on camera: Allard and Roy sometimes had fierce arguments, and the latter broke down during one event for the homeless.
Even though Allard and Roy deal in direct action at times, like when they hand out blankets to the homeless, ATSA’s focus is different, he said.
“They do want to do something that’s useful to people in a direct way, but really the main thrust of their work is to create a social debate, to try and attract people’s attention to issues,” Isacsson explained.
Critics who see ATSA as idealists trying to solve social issues through art are missing the point, Isacsson insisted. “It’s nice that they’re having a holiday week for homeless people with all this food, but I think their most significant usefulness is on [...] calling attention to the media.”
After the long production process, Isacsson said he looks back at the finished product with an admiration for ATSA’s work.
“They’re very fascinating characters; they’re not paper cutouts,” he said. “They’re full of contradictions [...] always coming at things from different perspectives. They’re very lively.”
Art In Action, presented by Cinema Politica, screens in room H-110 of Concordia’s Hall building (1455 de Maisonneuve Blvd. W.) on March 29 at 8 p.m. The filmmakers will be in attendance.