Hochelaga, Land of Souls (Francois Girard, 2018): USA

Reviewed by Kimberli Wong, AFI Fest 2017

Hochelaga, Land of Souls is the first film by Francois Gerard which has specifically touched on something personal to the Red Violin director.  It explores the history of his home, Montreal, specifically a plot of land that is now Montreal’s Percival Molsoon Stadium.  As Gerard said in the Q & A after the film’s screening at AFI Fest 2017, he “can see the stadium from his apartment window.”

Gerard wanted to explore the history of this piece of land, through its settlers, through the interactions they have, and through the artifacts they left behind.  Much in the same way that he explored the history of the red violin in his previous film as it is passed from owner to owner.  Gerard interweaves real history with fictional characters, beginning with the Iroquois nation that inhabited the area of modern day Montreal before the first European settlers ever arrived.

The movie opens to the bodies of slain Iroquois warriors all strewn out in the forest, in a dreamy sequence where one of the elders pays homage to them.  It is a powerful image and reminder of the history of the land that is North America, and the people who were its original inhabitants.

From this image the film cuts to modern day Montreal, where Mohawk archaeologist Baptiste Asigny has been searching for the famed and mythical remains of the Iroquoian village Hochelaga.  The residents of this historical landmark met with French explorer Jacques Cartier in 1935.  After a deadly sinkhole opens up one rainy evening in the Percival Molsoon Stadium during a game, Baptiste is called to excavate the sinkhole to determine if this could possibly, quite possibly, be the actual site of the legendary Iroquoian village.  Which up to this point, though documented, has never been found.

Gerard expertly bounces back between past and present to create a truly seamless narrative that reveals the history of the land in 4 periods, 1535, 1687, 1887, and modern day.  He tells three different stories at these three years, each which tie in to the objects Baptiste finds at the digging site.  Through all of this, Hochelaga, Land of Souls exhibits stunning cinematography, recreating far less populated landscapes, and utilizing natural elements such as sunsets, rainstorms, snow storms, and lush vegetation and bodies of water.  Visually it is quite expansive, cathartically so.

Through all of this is the underlying but obvious tension between the indigenous people and the European outsiders.  That is something that very much exists still today in Montreal.  As Gerard noted, this film is an attempt to give voice to the people who were here first, to tell their story despite the lost and fragmented history, and to firmly root the present in its rich and tendriled past.   He does a masterful and sensitive job, and only at the end do we as an audience realize how invested we are in the stories of the past, and the people who lived them, that all happened in that one spot, Hochelaga, Land of Souls.


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