Hot Docs review: Archipelago (Félix Dufour-Laperrière)

In Félix Dufour-Laperrière’s Archipelago, nameless characters, a man and a woman, talk to each other trying to prove their own existence to one another as sounds of running rivers, birds and the wind overlap their words. Are these characters real? Is the history they’re referring to? The viewer remains clueless, for this semi-fictional documentary never seems to be interested in providing answers. Maybe because they do not matter. Maybe because both Quebec and the islands on the St. Lawrence River, the actual subject of this film, are what they are because that’s what the people who live in that place make of them. Such is the idea that Archipelago‘s characters keep coming back to; people make places that make people who they are. One in the other, not as something that creates or is created but actually as something that engages simultaneously in both activities.

However, there seems to be more to these conversations than metaphysical ruminations. Man and woman, islands and river, nature and man, the possibilities are many, contemplating how as time passes the scars in that soil are getting deeper. For even if they might become a path for the water, in the grand scheme of things this same water will never be available to everyone. Archipelago‘s St. Lawrence becomes T.S. Eliot’s Thames, as “The nymphs are departed. / And their friends, the loitering heirs of city directors, / Departed, have left no addresses. / By the waters of Leman I sat down and wept… / Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song, / Sweet Thames, run softly, for I speak not loud or long.” Like the Thames in Eliot’s The Waste Land, Dufour-Laperrière’s St. Lawrence is a place of beauty but stained with loneliness, for as history passes so does mankind, and both rivers are still running their water, now salty from all the tears shared within their banks.

In Archipelago, many are the causes for those tears: heritage, colonialism, industrialization, pollution, and others. Many are also the films which have dealt with such topics before. Still, what sets Archipelago apart is how the film experiments with animation, poetry, and ethnography as it searches for a dreamy space in which to present its case; everything is moving however, and as time changes the velocity increases and man does not seem to be able to get a full picture of anything happening around him. There is always something going unnoticed, not being talked about, there never seems to be enough time to understand things and people for what and who they are. Hence it is as if they were not real.

The film begins with its two characters confronting each other on whether they are real, whether they exist or not, so it is only natural that at the end the same questions would reappear; the river runs but its water eventually comes back to the same place. It’s the eternal return many talk about. Perhaps it is always a matter of memory: things, people, and places do exist as long as they are remembered. Once again borrowing T.S. Eliot’s words: “What is that noise?” / The wind under the door. / “What is that noise now? What is the wind doing?” / Nothing again nothing. / “Do / “You know nothing? Do you see nothing? Do you remember / “Nothing?” / I remember / Those are pearls that were his eyes. / “Are you alive, or not? Is there nothing in your head?” There is always noise waiting to be heard.