Réveil: Waking Up French

By Juliana L’Heureux

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Film maker Ben Levine of Rockland asks why a million New England French speakers living a short ride from seven million of their French-Canadian brethren in Quebec and New Brunswick, Canada became invisible and suddenly lost their language?  After all, it’s not as though the French-Canadians traveled across the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans to immigrate to the US.  A culture located so close in proximity to its roots shouldn’t be so removed from its native French language or the relatives of its ancestors.

Levine just completed a documentary film about the social structure of the Franco-Americans titled, “Réveil: Waking Up French”, focusing on what it means to loose a language. Levine calls his film an analytical documentary. Funded in part by the government of Quebec and the Maine Council on the Humanities, it’s a story about New England’s largest minority population, why they came here and what happened to them. “I describe and explain the emotional history of the Franco-Americans.  I looked for examples of cultural and personal ways to lead the culture to a renaissance,” he says.

The film starts with two French families, one in Lewiston, ME and the other in St. Georges, Quebec.  In their stories, the families explore how the French were not part of America’s traditional melting pot because the Canadian immigrants initially kept their French language and culture long after most other groups lost theirs, says Levine.  Nevertheless, they are losing it now. 

About 2 million New Englanders are descendants of the one million who came from Canada at the turn of the century to find work, says Levine.  Perhaps as many as 500,000 people still speak French in their homes today.  Those who lose their language, at whatever age, claim to be disconnected from a part of themselves, because their innermost feelings cannot be translated into another language.  Levine feels the film can help Franco-Americans and others to understand the sense of loss experienced by an entire culture when language is lost.  “It’s how the culture becomes invisible,” says Levine.  “I hope the film helps Franco-Americans to re-acquire their language,” he says. There’s also evidence of Franco-American discrimination in the documentary in footage showing a street demonstration against the French-Canadians by the Ku Klux Klan during the 1920s.  “I had no idea about the power the KKK had in Maine until I made this film,” says Levine.

Levine will present a program along with the film on February 14th at 7 PM at Portland’s Center for Cultural Exchange on Longfellow Square.  Eventually the film will be shown in Lewiston. Perhaps it will be shown in Biddeford if people are interested in hosting a viewing.  Those who attend the showing may find themselves in the next film.  In fact, Levine films the audiences watching “Waking Up French”, because he will use the footage in a follow up documentary on the same cultural topic. 

Although not a native speaker, Levine became somewhat fluent in French over the years.  “I can express myself in my travels to Morocco, France, Senegal, Guadeloupe and, especially, Quebec. By the way, Montreal is a terrific film city,” says Levine.  His interest in the disappearing French-Canadian culture probably began when he observed the Quebec referendum to separate from Canada in 1995. 

For information, check the website www.geocities.com/wakingupfrench/ or write to Ben Levine at PO Box 905 Rockland, ME 04841. 

Maine showings schedule - Courtesy or The Franco-American Women's Institute

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Copyright 2003, Juliana L'Heureux