Considering the Claude Jutra scandal, one week later
Film journalist and academic Matthew Hays on the 'sheer velocity' of events that transpired since last Tuesday
It was one week ago today that news spread of a new book about Quebec filmmaking icon Claude Jutra. And yet, it feels almost like an eternity. If the scandal has now placed Jutra's personal legacy into the trash bin of history, perhaps the most amazing thing about the way things unfolded is the sheer velocity of the scandal. On Tuesday, we learned of Jutra's alleged penchant for teen boys. On Wednesday, La Presse posted an interview with a man claiming Jutra molested him from age six.
Forget that the person making the charges was anonymous. Anonymous sourcing is extremely contentious among journalists, for obvious reasons — it allows the interviewee to say or charge anything, without fear of cross-examination or recourse (though notably, one named person has come forward with allegations since). Forget that Jutra has been dead for 30 years so can't face his accuser, and forget that newspapers famously can and do get all sorts of things dead wrong. Once a six-year-old entered the picture, that was it.
By about the 72-hour mark, the defenses of Jutra had stopped, the Mayor had declared his intent to rename the Montreal streets and park named after the filmmaker, and the people behind the Jutra Awards were scrambling for a new namesake. The pace of the affair had me taken aback.
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But the charges didn't. If anything, I'm a bit dumbfounded by the tone deafness of numerous colleagues, many who called or emailed me to say they'd "never heard of" Jutra's notorious interest in young men or adolescent boys -- and nor, apparently, had they bothered to look at his work. If you do look at many of his most famous films, they show a clear affinity with and love for children, especially boys. There's The Devil's Toy ("dedicated to all the victims of intolerance"), a 1966 documentary about boys skateboarding in Westmount; Mon Oncle Antoine (1970), Jutra's most famous film, which set the template for the nostalgic, wistful Québécois film featuring a young protagonist struggling against the province's history; and Dreamspeaker (1975), an English-language film that has a relationship between a barely-pubescent boy and an adult man as the basis for its story.
Concordia film professor Thomas Waugh analyzed these images in detail in his book The Romance of Transgression in Canada, pointing to what he refers to as "intergenerational eros." That's a film academic's way of suggesting Jutra's work had pedophilic overtones. Funny how many journalists and film critics somehow managed to miss this book, written by one of Canadian and Quebec cinema's most pre-eminent scholars and widely reviewed upon its 2006 publication.
The change in the name of the awards was probably inevitable, even if people had given it a bit more time (as NDP leader Tom Mulcair was urging). Awards are about promotion and getting people out to buy tickets to movies or rent them from home. As such, awards have to project a positive image, and the stain of pedophilia is something most will find beyond acceptable.
Since all of this has come down, I've been asked repeatedly if I will continue to screen Jutra's films in my film classes at Concordia University. The answer is obvious: yes. As my colleague Will Straw (a communications studies professor at McGill University) said when we appeared on CBC Radio last week, "I'm not teaching a history of saints." We don't stop teaching Roman Polanski in film classes, just as I wouldn't expect art history classes to sidestep the work of Pablo Picasso because of his messy personal life, nor opera classes to neglect Wagner for all of the obvious reasons.
In fact, as the scandal was unfolding, filmmaker and film professor Richard Kerr chose to show his students The Devil's Toy, which he said had new meaning given the breaking revelations about Jutra's personal life.
The public image has indeed been changed. And while the publicists will have to look for new iconic trailblazers for their award names, the canon will remain the same. Jutra's films are crucial landmarks in the evolution of one of the most robust national cinemas in the world. The scandal will become part of the historical context in which Jutra's films are placed, but that won't — and shouldn't — detract from their artistic merit.
Matthew Hays is a Montreal-based journalist. He teaches film studies at Marianopolis College and Concordia University.
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