A few weeks ago I found myself rifling through my desk, looking for a stamp. I came across one of the series Canada Post had issued, in 2014, in tribute to the National Film Board. The five-stamp series included one dedicated to Claude Jutra’s landmark 1971 film Mon Oncle Antoine, widely regarded as one of the most important films ever to be made in Canada and, up until this year, the film most likely to make it to the top of critics’ rankings of the best Canadian films ever made. It all seemed a bit paranoid: could Canada Post actually cancel a stamp? Would they?
The postage panic might not seem all that crazy when one considers what took place in February of 2016, when new allegations emerged that the late filmmaker Claude Jutra had sexually assaulted boys. Film critic and author Yves Lever had released his new book (Éditions du Boréal) about Jutra, who died in 1986, at the age of fifty-six, after taking his own life rather than face worsening early-onset Alzheimer’s. Lever confirmed what many who knew Jutra had long known: he had an active sexual interest in teenage boys.
In his initial interview with Radio-Canada, Lever went on to call Jutra an “inspiration to everyone” in the international cinema milieu, adding, “I am not writing a book about pedophilia.”
But it was too late. That televised interview set off a media firestorm, one that led to further investigation, including a La Presse interview with an unnamed man who claimed Jutra had repeatedly sexually assaulted him when he was only six years old. The accusations had now escalated, suggesting Jutra had crossed the puberty line and actually raped young boys. The charge was no longer that Jutra simply had an interest in teenage boys – the age of consent at that time was fourteen – but that he was a pedophile. And that set off a devaluation of Jutra’s name that was astonishing both for its scope and its sheer velocity. Consider that the entire media circus that ensued, from the first interview to its widespread fallout and conclusion of guilt, lasted approximately seventy-two hours.
Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre described the charges against Jutra as “indefensible,” – this, despite the fact that Jutra had been dead for thirty years and had no way of defending himself – and began the call for stripping the Jutra name off of various landmarks throughout Quebec: Croissant Claude-Jutra and Claude-Jutra Park, in Montreal; Place Claude-Jutra, in Repentigny; Claude-Jutra Street in Quebec City; Claude-Jutra Street in Levis; Claude Jutra Street in Saint-Bruno-de-Montarville; Claude-Jutra Street in Blainville; Jutra Street in Candiac; the Jutra Film Awards, given out annually every year since they were established in 1999; the award given for best first feature at the Canadian Screen Awards (formerly the Genies); the main cinema in Montreal’s Cinémathèque quebecoise; and the removal of a statue dedicated to Jutra in Montreal (which was left up just long enough to be defaced with anti-Jutra graffiti).
Rather than embark on a complex and difficult discussion about youth, sexuality, and pedophilia, Quebec politicians, artists, and community leaders felt it best to scrub the Jutra name off of everything it apparently maligned, thereby erasing the memory of his existence – a cruelly ironic act, given that Jutra was losing his memory when he took his own life in 1986. Jutra had gone from iconic cultural father figure to pariah in less than three days.
While some in the film milieu were furious about the attempt to wipe Jutra from public memory, others argued the film community had little or no choice, citing a respect for the victims of Jutra’s alleged crimes. “It’s not simple,” Oscar-nominated filmmaker Philippe Falardeau told me in an email in the weeks following the scandal. “I really think Quebec cinema made the right decision for this year’s gala [the Jutra name was taken off all of the awards just weeks prior to the awards presentation]. They had no choice considering the turn of events. We had to show clear and unconditional support for the victims … at the end of the day, a heavy feeling of sadness is left.”
That heavy feeling of sadness is to be expected when one considers the epic place Jutra occupies – or occupied – in the dual canons of Quebec and Canadian cinema. Jutra’s many documentaries and fiction films garnered awards and accolades at film festivals as well as invitations to collaborate with the likes of François Truffaut. His oeuvre has clear, overriding sexual overtones. His 1963 film À tout prendre is considered a breakthrough for its frank depiction of a character dealing with his emerging gay sexuality. But it’s his most famous film, Mon Oncle Antoine (1971), that left the most enduring mark on Quebec cinema. A nostalgic, wistful, at times painful account of a boy growing up in rural Quebec, the film set the standard for what is arguably Quebec cinema’s most enduring sub-genre: the depiction of a rapidly evolving Quebec as seen through the eyes of an innocent child. It’s a template we still see, from Lea Pool’s Maman est chez le coiffeur (2008, set in 1966), Falardeau’s C’est pas mois, je le jure! (2008, set in 1968) and perhaps most notably in one of Quebec’s biggest box-office successes, Jean-Marc Vallee’s C.R.A.Z.Y. (2005, set from the sixties to the nineties), in which a boy’s emerging (queer) sexuality reflects Quebec’s own coming of age: the Quiet Revolution. It is not overstatement to suggest that, with this one film, Jutra changed the entire course of Quebec film storytelling.
That Jutra was a gay man was no secret, though he had been far more muted in discussing it publicly than, say, Michel Tremblay, Quebec’s internationally renowned playwright. In 1981, Concordia film-studies professor Thomas Waugh called Jutra the “E.M. Forster of Quebec cinema,” a reference to the British author who only came out posthumously (with the publication of his gay novel Maurice), an obvious swipe at Jutra. But if he didn’t want to discuss it, it was there in his work, especially in one of his later English-language films, By Design (1981), a comedy in which Patty Duke starred as one half of a lesbian couple trying to get pregnant. (The dramedy drew mixed reviews. The New Yorker’s legendary critic Pauline Kael called it a “Lubitsch sex comedy stripped of the glamour but not the fun,” while a critic for the Toronto-based magazine The Body Politic described it as “Laverne and Shirley have a baby.”)
That Jutra was yet another prominent gay figure in a place that was becoming renowned for its acceptance of queer people can’t be overlooked. In 1979, the PQ government brought in legislation that prohibited discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, becoming the first place in Canada to do so. Polls and surveys have shown a significant difference between Quebec and the rest of Canada in regards to LGBT rights. When I met up with an American reporter from The Advocate who was visiting Montreal in the late nineties, he marvelled at what appeared to be the widespread acceptance of same-sex marriage in the province. He was especially tickled to note that there was no French translation for the term “family values,” which had been excessively bandied about in the US and Canada since the eighties as thinly veiled code for anti-gay, anti-choice politics.
Given this context, the charge of pedophilia seemed that much more complex. Homophobic activists had long argued that homosexuality was inextricably linked to an attraction to children, both for the means of sexual satisfaction as well as recruitment. In the radical sixties and seventies, some argued pedophiles should have rights and were in fact a persecuted minority themselves, arguing, among other things, for the abolition of all age-of-consent laws. LGBT activists sought to distance themselves from this stance in the eighties, when rights movements went international and the term “consenting adults” became the universal proclamation of LGBT activists.
Pedophiles, or “boy lovers,” had a political lobby group, the North American Man-Boy Love Association (NAMBLA), and demanded the right to have floats in pride parades throughout the US (with varying degrees of success). Arguably the most controversial article in the group’s history came in 1977, when The Body Politic published Gerald Hannon’s “Men Loving Boys Loving Men.” In it, the journalist interviewed a number of men and boys who were in inter-generational relationships, with the boys indicating they saw nothing wrong with the relationships and that they were consenting. Hannon was charged with obscenity (but later acquitted), and the furor galvanized many in the LGBT community who saw, for ethical, legal and moral reasons, the identities of homosexuality and pedophilia as two entirely separate things. Many in the NAMBLA camp still maintain they were abandoned by a larger community desperate to be embraced by the mainstream.
But Jutra wasn’t merely gay, he had an obvious and intense interest in children, and the adoring representation of boys and young men in his films is unmistakable. I was actually quite surprised by the pronouncements of some of my peers upon the Jutra scandal. It’s all pretty obvious, from his 1966 NFB skateboarding documentary The Devil’s Toy (“dedicated to all the victims of intolerance,”) to Mon Oncle Antoine to Dreamspeaker (1975), about a relationship between a pubescent boy and an adult man. Waugh analyzed these images in detail in his 2006 book The Romance of Transgression in Canada, his opus on the history of LGBT screen images in Canada, where he refers to a recurring “intergenerational eros” in Jutra’s work. That’s basically a film academic’s way of describing a pedophilic gaze.
When the rush to rip the Jutra name off of every award, road, and park in Canada was in full swing, the obvious question about his legacy came up. I was invited on a local CBC radio show, along with McGill communications professor Will Straw, to discuss our views. Will and I looked at each other, incredulously, as the questions were posed. Would we still screen Jutra’s films in our classrooms? The answer from both of us was clear: you don’t throw out the art, even if the artist’s reputation, as a person, has been called into question. The obvious examples were brought up, from Wagner’s operas to Roman Polanski’s films to instances where the artist didn’t have a messy personal life but the film had a terrible impact (most notably D.W. Griffith’s 1915 feature film, Birth of a Nation, which helped to breathe new life into a then-dormant organization known as the Ku Klux Klan). The idea that people teaching the history of cinema could erase the influence of Jutra as easily as city officials had changed the names of streets and parks is nonsensical, and we said as much that day.The Jutra case is a strange one in that he died decades ago, so it does leave one with the queasy feeling that he’s been convicted without any opportunity to defend himself. When I approached one colleague for comment for this article, he responded bluntly, “No thanks – I’m not interested in being part of a posthumous lynching.” But for the people who have stated unequivocally that they were sexually assaulted by Jutra, this is a living memory. And it would be very hypocritical for progressives to argue we should believe women who speak of being sexually assaulted or harassed while dismissing the claims of men who say they were molested as children. We either commit to hearing victims out, or we don’t.
As Falardeau says, the Jutra scandal was intensely sad. It was depressing for the shock and horror many felt about Jutra’s actions of decades ago. But I found it distressing for what it didn’t lead to: any kind of discussion of pedophilia. Instead of grappling with a profound issue, politicians and artists felt they could somehow rid themselves of the indefensible by erasing the Jutra name. Out of sight, out of mind never really made much sense as a means of addressing something complicated and wildly problematic, and it didn’t here either. Not only did it not do Jutra’s memory any good, I can’t imagine it helped those who say they were victimized by him either. Rather than having a discussion of what intergenerational relationships are, how attitudes towards them have changed over history, and what the images Jutra created actually mean, we just swept all of that under one giant rug.
And, as we’ve seen time and again, when we do that as a culture it serves no one very well at all, and solves nothing.
If we’re truly committed to removing the names of historical figures who have done things that are “indefensible,” it’s time to start compiling the list. This will require a good deal of work. Before anyone gets defensive, consider that it’s not the plot of a sci-fi novel or anything remotely ridiculous. In September, Georgetown University announced it would be attempting to make up for the slave trade it profited from centuries earlier by bestowing preferential status in the admissions process for descendants of slaves and by renaming two campus buildings (the new names will be those of slaves the university “owned”). Meanwhile, Halifax is still debating whether a statue of city founder Edward Cornwallis should come down, Cornwallis having once offered a bounty for killing Indigenous people. And in Montreal, some are suggesting the name Queen Isabella be removed from public places, given that she was a key player in the Spanish Inquisition. [ED NOTE: The firestorm regarding the place of Confederate statues in the US that led President Trump to refer to neo-Nazis as “fine people,” erupted in the summer following the original print publication of this piece.]
By that logic, Lionel-Groulx’s name should be removed from its namesake Metro station, given his virulent anti-Semitism. McGill University is named in part for James McGill, an entrepreneur who profited from, among other dubious things, the slave trade. McGill also has a prominent statue of Queen Victoria, a monarch who ruled over a significant stretch of British colonialism marked by slave trading, pillaging, and the deaths of thousands. Jeffery Amherst, 1st Baron Amherst (1717-1797), who proposed infecting Indigenous people with small pox as a means of wiping them out, has a Montreal street named after him*. And while her place in helping to secure women’s rights is undeniable, Emily Murphy (1868-1933) also believed strongly in eugenics, and advocated for the Sexual Sterilization Act of Alberta, which led to thousands of men and women being sterilized without their consent or knowledge.
The name game requires time, energy, and money, but it may well force us to reckon with significant aspects of our history.
*[The street was renamed in September 2017: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/jeffery-amherst-montreal-denis-coderre-1.4287673]
—From CNQ 99, the Film Issue (Spring 2017)