Oscars: Canada's 'Hochelaga, Land of Souls' Chronicles Over 750 Years of Montreal History

Courtesy of TIFF
'Hochelaga, Land of Souls'

Director Francois Girard's unique drama stars rapper turned actor Samuel Tremblay as an archeologist investigating an ancient settlement in the heart of Quebec's largest city.

In 1988, director Francois Girard saw his drama The Red Violin earn composer John Corigliano the Academy Award for best original score. Now the Quebec director wants his latest movie, Hochelaga, Land of Souls — about a fictional Montreal archaeological dig — to secure a nomination after being chosen by Canada as its best foreign-language film Oscar contender.

"It's always a tough race, but we've done a film that's deeply rooted in our culture, and it speaks honestly about who we are," says Girard, an Academy member himself, of the movie's Oscar chances.

The indie drama, which stars Vincent Perez and Raoul Trujillo, had its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival. The plot of Hochelaga sees a sudden sinkhole in a Montreal stadium during a football game reveal 750 years of ancestral history via an ancient settlement beneath the field, uncovered by Mohawk archaeologist Baptiste Asigny, played by rapper Samuel Tremblay (also known as Samian).

The archeologist's experience of stumbling onto the long-vanished village of Hochelaga, where his Iroquoian ancestors met French explorer Jacques Cartier in October 1535, mirrors Girard's own quest to understand his ancestral roots in Montreal. "If you want to know who you are, look at who was there before you," he says.

Girard has examined history and epic narrative before, including Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould (1993), the Samuel L. Jackson-starrer The Red Violin and Silk (2007), which starred Keira Knightley and Michael Pitt.

After having shot movies all over the world, Girard has for the first time showcased his hometown of Montreal. Percival-Molson Stadium, the setting for Hochelaga, can be seen from his loft balcony in the shadow of the city's Mount Royal, which gave Montreal its name. "I not only see the stadium, but when there's a football game, I hear the crowd. It's my backyard — literally," Girard says.

The hole dug in the stadium for the film shoot symbolically reveals buried secrets investigated in six languages: French, English, Mohawk, Algonquin, Latin, Arabic and Creole, fitting for an Oscar best foreign-language film contender. "These are the languages spoken on that land over 750 years," says Girard. 

Canada has a good track record in the Oscar's foreign language category, with nominations in recent years for Denis Villeneuve's Incendies (2010), Philippe Falardeau's Monsieur Lazhar (2011) and Kim Nguyen's War Witch (2012), as well as a nomination for Agnieszka Holland's 2011 release In Darkness, a Poland-Germany-Canada co-production.

Deny Arcand's 2003 indie drama The Barbarian Invasions was the last Canadian feature to win the foreign-language Oscar. Girard recently walked the AFI film fest red carpet as part of the Oscar campaign for Hochelaga, but he doesn't want to take chances in predicting an Oscar win

"As for any award competition, there are so many factors beyond my radar," he says. "I don't want to make any guesses. But we're proud of the film, and we hope we go all the way."