TORONTO – Quebec filmmaker Philippe Falardeau says that through the four-year process of making his new docuseries about the Lac-Mégantic trail derailment disaster he had to be talked down from abandoning the project more than once.
“I often thought about quitting if I’m being honest, because maybe I’m a sponge…if someone is hurt I’m suffering,” said Falardeau. “It took a toll on me, but the people from Lac-Mégantic told me not to quit and my co-writers told me not to quit, and they were right.”
Drawing on the harrowing first hand-accounts of victims as well as interviews with railway and town officials, “Lac-Mégantic — This Is Not an Accident“ traces how the small town in eastern Quebec became the site of one of Canada’s worst rail disaster on July 6, 2013. The series is screening Saturday at Hot Docs festival in Toronto and will premiere Tuesday on Videotron’s French-language video-on-demand service Vrai.
Members of the Lac-Mégantic community detail the decisions and conditions that they allege contributed to the derailment of a runaway train carrying 72 tank cars laden with Bakken shale oil — causing an explosion that killed 47 people, displaced 2,000 residents and spilled more than 7.7 million litres of crude oil.
“The main voice had to be the people of Lac-Mégantic or else it wouldn’t have made sense for me because most of the other work into this tragedy had been done,” said Falardeau, the Oscar-nominated director behind films including “Monsieur Lazhar” and “My Salinger Year.”
“Speaking to them and explaining to them what I wanted to do made me feel as if I had this unwritten permission to tell this story as it happened for a generation that also might not be aware of this tragedy.”
Falardeau points to a moment some years after the event during a biking run with his daughter as a period when the building blocks of a docuseries formed.
“I kept seeing all these tankers parked and kept thinking, that in a post-Lac-Mégantic world, surely now, it’s a safer place. So I read Anne-Marie Saint-Cerny’s novel ‘Megantic’ only to realize that not much had changed,” said Falardeau.
“Anger started to build inside of me, an anger directed partly at myself for being so naïve and for assuming that things would change in a world where you deal with the rail industry that plays such a very important role economically.”
To that end, Falardeau said he wanted to highlight the combination of factors that contributed to the disaster.
An investigation by the Transportation Safety Board identified 18 causes and contributing factors, including a “weak safety culture” at Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway — whose former chief executive is interviewed in the doc — and “inadequate oversight of operational changes” at Transport Canada. Other issues noted by the TSB include excessive train speed and mechanical problems with the locomotive.
Many of the residents of Lac-Mégantic who were interviewed hold a belief that the rail industry as it stands right now is incapable of making the changes necessary to prevent another tragedy.
“Ministers of transport will always tell us this fabricated sentence, ‘Safety is our top priority,’ which is what I believed before, but not anymore,” said Falardeau.
“I know they also have a mandate to promote the economy through transportation, so how do you reconcile profits with safeguarding the safety of Canadians? I think they will prioritize profits every time.“
Many residents spoke to how unhappy they were when train engineer Thomas Harding and two other MMA employees were acquitted in 2018 of criminal negligence in the disaster, and criminal charges were dropped a few months later against the company.
Falardeau, whose 2011 film “Monsieur Lazhar” was nominated for an Oscar for best foreign-language film, said he was tempted to fictionalize the tragedy, but that the surrounding elements that pointed to an unresolved problem altered his direction.
“I was super worried about making a spectacle out of this and their pain and grieving, and I often told everyone that they had to find their own personal reason to be in this film,” said Falardeau who met with residents during the production.
“We’ve seen so many horrible images of Lac-Mégantic in the media, but here they are telling us their story and not the other way around. We are not subordinating their story to the image.”
During the three-plus hour total runtime, only seven minutes from the tragedy can be seen in the series.
This treatment was also demonstrated in moments like that of a visibly emotional Pascal Charest, who spoke about the loss of his long-time partner Talitha Coumi Begnoche and his daughters, nine-year-old Bianka and four-year-old Alyssa.
Falardeau said that it was important for them to avoid the worst visual elements of a tragedy and instead focus on the system that caused deaths.
“I was afraid that this docuseries would divide people … but it had the opposite effect. For the first time in a while, some were reminded through an understanding of who the real culprits were,” said Falardeau.
“This was something that the victims of Lac-Mégantic wanted to make clear. That this was not an accident and to make sure that audiences knew that this was preventable.”
While this isn’t Falardeau’s first documentary — in 1997 he made “Chinese Dough” about Chinese immigration in Canada — this will mark his first time at Hot Docs, an event he says he’s excited about, although he looks forward to getting back to fiction.
“I realized most that I’m more of a fiction filmmaker through this process,” said Falardeau who still found the experience rewarding.
“You are inviting all these people into your life and I don’t know what my heart is capable of because my actors don’t call me at night like they did here.”
Still, he’s not saying no to another docuseries.
“If it happens, the subject will choose me, not the other way around.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 29, 2023.
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