Where I’m From (2014)
Editor’s Note: The following review is part of our coverage of the 2014 Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Film Festival. For more information please visit hotdocs.ca or follow Hot Docs on Twitter.
Claude Demers’ new film Where I’m From is intended to be a documentary about self-discovery on the part of the director, and in some places it is, but is uneven and a little difficult to merge the voiceover recalling Demers’ life and his postulations on the meaning of existence with the images presented and the people followed and their stories.
Demers structures the film around his not knowing exactly where he came from. He was adopted at an early age and really knows nothing about his birth parents and he treats that gap in knowledge as a black void from which he was sprung from. Over beautiful vistas and scenic shots of the Montreal borough of Verdun (formerly its own city), Demers uses voiceover a-la Werner Herzog to discuss his views on his life, God, the meaning of existence and the general state things. His voiceover is filled with flowery prose and philosophical musings, explaining that he could not grasp the concept of God having no beginning (the no end part was easy) because as far as he could understand everything has a beginning no matter how long ago it was. This thought mirrors his impression that he was born from blackness into a world he doesn’t understand.
The stories told outside of Demers’s voiceover are vivid in their depiction of the changes of the city and especially those kids are compelling in and of themselves.
When he’s not musing over vistas (which is a small portion of the film), he’s following a two separate youths that symbolically represent him. One is a consummate troublemaker who gets suspended from school for throwing a stink bomb into a classroom and spends lots of time wandering the streets of Verdun with his friend and alone. The other is a child with epilepsy who tries to remain focused in school but has a lot of trouble. He goes to hospitals for treatments and lights candles at the church, though he doesn’t know why. There are also others he follows that elaborate on how much Verdun has changed over the years with urban sprawl and the alteration of local businesses into chain restaurants.
With these two separate portions, the film feels wildly uneven. The two boys are meant to be surrogates who are navigating the world in the city he grew up in. Demers meant for them to show us the struggles of his youth metaphorically while he explicitly tells them to us in voiceover. The trouble is that everything is disjointed. The kids have their own stories that are interesting and heartbreaking in and of themselves and the attempt to create a false narrative over their own is ineffectual. The stories told outside of Demers’s voiceover are vivid in their depiction of the changes of the city and especially those kids are compelling in and of themselves.
There is a confusion of theme that alters the perception of the film. It could have been a wonderful exploration of the city where Demers grew up and how it has changed even with some voiceover about his life. What happens to it though is that the voiceover and the other aspects don’t ever seem to gel and it creates two separate films, each one with their own power. That’s the tragedy of the film, really. Each side of it could be a superb film but when forced together, the power is muted and the proceedings get confused. The main theme of the film, Demers trying to get a handle on where he comes from and how he wrestles with his own existence and the existence of humanity in general, gets lost and feels like he added it when he wasn’t sure what to do with the footage he’d gathered.
I admire the concept of Where I’m From quite a bit. As an attempt to go against the grain of contemporary personal documentaries wherein the filmmaker inserts himself onscreen and travels through whatever the theme of the film is in person, the film is a success. We don’t see him walking around Verdun pointing out his childhood home and his first school and the orphanage he was adopted from. Instead, we see contemporary youths struggling with school, one parent households, lack of discipline and a general unease of life at a young age. In that respect, his surrogates work perfectly. The aspects of change that are represented by a man sitting in a Dunkin Donuts recounting a restaurant that used to be there long ago and the duck hunters that say outright that there is no one to take their place when they go and how much urban sprawl has destroyed ecosystems and lifestyles work with Demers theme of time altering how we live.
[Demers’s] musings are profound and meaningful but would be better suited if they were the overt themes of what he is following.
The trouble is that by going against the grain, his own story suffers. His musings are profound and meaningful but would be better suited if they were the overt themes of what he is following. Instead, they take a back seat to other action that isn’t asking these questions. The kids are just trying to live as best they can and don’t seem to be concerned with the greater picture. The boy with epilepsy goes to a Catholic church with a friend to light candles, but when asked he states he doesn’t really know why. Where Demers would have postulated as to the reason and what the candles represent, the kid only goes about his business and then proceeds to blow out the lit candles seemingly for fun.
At the end of the film, Demers seems to have come to some kind of understanding and peace with his life, but we don’t know what transpired to lead him to his conclusions. The ending narration seems like he’s just trying to wrap up the film with some kind of resolution. What he says is meaningful, like most of his voiceover, but it doesn’t feel born out of what was just represented onscreen. It feels concocted and like we missed an entirely other movie. Like he was off searching for answers while we were watching these kids and he came back with his report. Where I’m From is a compelling film, but not for the reasons that were intended by Demers. The whole thing feels lost from itself like the meaning of the life Demers is trying to get a fix on.
Where I’m From is a compelling film, but not for the reasons that were intended by Demers. The whole thing feels lost from itself like the meaning of the life Demers is trying to get a fix on.