Before the Streets: A story of struggle, healing and redemption

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Chloé Leriche’s breakout film Avant les rues (Before the Streets), which garnered headlines across the globe since its premiere at Germany’s Berlinale international film festival last February, is set to debut in select Quebec theatres Friday, April 15.

Shot on location in Manawan in 2014 entirely in the dialect of Atikamekw, a mix of Algonquin Cree and French, Leriche’s first full-length movie features a cast mainly of local, non-professional Atikamekw actors.

Plot summary

Before the Streets tackles the reality of life on a First Nations reserve head on through the character of Atikamekw teenager Shawnouk, played by Rykko Bellemare of Wemotaci.

The film follows Shawnouk and his internal struggle as he deals with his resentment toward his stepfather Paul-Yves (a local police officer) and his frustration and lack of fulfillment from day-to-day life in Manawan.

While Shawnouk and his sister Kwena (played by Bellemare’s real sister Kwena Bellemare-Boivin) share a strong connection, he has little other reason to live.

Angry and vulnerable, Shawnouk meets Thomas Dugré, a shady visitor from out of town who suggests that Shawnouk help him pick out cabins owned by the more wealthy residents of the region to target them for burglary.

When a robbery goes terribly wrong Shawnouk flees into the forest, running from the consequences of his actions and battling with his guilt.

After returning home and contemplating suicide he makes a conscious decision to face his inner demons. Thus begins a journey of cleansing and healing during which Shawnouk discovers himself and his connection to the land by following traditional activities.  

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Shawnouk and Kwena

Interview with director Chloé Leriche

A self-taught filmmaker, Leriche’s foray into the industry has seen her go from working alongside youth in the streets of Montreal with Video Paradiso, producing several independent short films, to working with Wapikoni Mobile in communities across Quebec. She started fundraising for her first full-length feature after her encounters with Quebec’s First Nations over the past few years.

The Nation sat down with Leriche to discuss what inspired her to produce the first film ever shot in the Atikamekw dialect.

“The first time I put a camera in a young person’s hands [in Obedjiwan] I told him, ‘Here, let’s go make a film, grab your friends who want to help and I’ll follow you and you can shoot whatever you want,’” said Leriche.

“They were speaking in Atikamekw and at one point I realized that their tone and the things they were saying were very serious. When I stopped them to ask what they were talking about he told me he was bringing me to all the different places where his friends and people close to him had taken their own lives. That was my first day over there, in 2003.

“That’s where the idea for this project was born,” Leriche continued, “I was shocked and I wanted to do something for these kids. The subject of suicide is something that touches me deeply.”

While the question of life and death and the struggles of life in remote First Nations were the starting point for Before the Streets Leriche was quick to point out that that’s not what she sought to depict in her film.

“That’s sort of where the project started but that’s not what the film is about,” she said. “I wanted to create dialogue between First Nations and non-Natives and give First Nations youth strong role models to identify with. I also wanted to see how they understand the problems they face and how they hope to find solutions, which happened to be in the woods, in nature and in tradition.”

Leriche said that one of her main goals on set was to give her actors the freedom to work with the script as they adapted it into their language.

“I accepted that my actors had their own natural rhythm,” she said. “I gave them the text a few days ahead of time and they were able to translate it into their language and their own words. They knew they could go away from the text and I wanted to give them the space to express themselves. There’s a lot of First Nations culture that made it into the film organically.”

Bursting with Native talent, Before the Streets confronts the stereotypes while also showing Aboriginal youth that it’s possible to create films and produce art in their own languages.

Rykko Bellemare is a dancer, drummer, singer and manager of Northern Voice, a Wemotaci musical group that performs at powwows across Canada and has collaborated with A Tribe Called Red.

Bellemare’s sister Kwena is a singer, dancer and member of Northern Voice who practices both traditional and contemporary art forms and acts in La Brigade des Nations and Le Rhythme on the Aboriginal People’s Television Network.

Jacques Newashish, who plays Paul Yves, is a painter, sculptor and story teller who produced two short films of his own with Wapikoni mobile.

“When Atikamekw people see the film they say they feel well represented,” noted Leriche. “The music, the rhythm, the language, it’s all meant to be authentic.”

Newashish agrees that the film is very accurate in its portrayal of life in the Atikamekw communities and said that Leriche did a great job managing the project and working with her cast, many of whom were new to acting.

“It was like I was a kid again,” said Newashish. “I really enjoyed the experience, especially working in Atikamekw. Chloe did a great job leading us and helping us channel the emotions of different scenes.”

“It’s amazing that Chloe was able to translate that magic onto the screen,” he added. “The film is really close to reality, it was shot in an Indigenous community with Indigenous actors. It gives a real picture of who we are as a people and what it’s like to live in our communities. I’m proud to have played my role in our language and I’m happy to know that our language is still present and still alive.”

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Jacques Newashish as Paul-Yves

Committed to creating a better understanding of Quebec’s First Nations, Leriche believes her film can show non-Natives what life is like in Canada’s Indigenous communities.  

“I hope that the story touches people,” she said. “I hope that people who are prejudiced against First Nations are able to see the culture in a different light. I’m excited to start talking about the positive side of things.

“The most important thing for me is that people in Quebec and in Canada have so much to learn about Indigenous peoples,” she concluded. “How important nature is to them and the respect they have for it. The lifestyle and the social structure of First Nations, there’s so much we can learn from that.”

Before the Streets is screening at select cinemas in Montreal, Longueuil, Laval, Quebec City, Sherbrooke and Trois Rivières. For more information:

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