Tales of the Village Fool

Here in Quebec, a new Christmas film just came out.  Called Babine, it is based on the stories told by a very famous storyteller (yes, this is a culture where traditional storytellers can become big stars).  The stories are a mix of archetypal myths, local legends, and melodrama and are set in a real village, but in a imaginary time.  The main character is the village fool, who is wrongly accused of burning down the village church.  Other characters include the woman who has been pregnant for twenty years, the farmer who raises flies, the Old Priest and the New Priest (the villain).

What I find so interesting about the film and the stories (some of which I have heard) is that they are so clearly ways of imagining an ideal (time-out-of-time) local world.  Quebec has worked very explicity towards greater openness, and twoards promoting immigration.  As in many places, this has created tensions around who is a Quebecer and what Quebec culture means.  But as much as Babine explicitly imagines a settled, French-Catholic interpretation of what is Quebec by focusing on the village and church as opposed to the hunting camp or river (and certainly not to the Algonquin village), it also does some less insidious cultural work.   This kind of story, where grand myths play out in a real local place, helps people re-imagine belonging to somewhere in particular. In a post-modern reality of balancing multiple identities, it provides a simple pre-modern idea of belonging to where you are.  Furthermore, it suggests that great human dramas and inspirations come from those places, and belong to them even as they develop universal themes.

Of course many people don’t want to go and live in villages.  And people who live in villages are also connected to other people in many places, telling stories and making myths and negotiating complexity.  Quebec and Canada are more diverse and urbanized than ever, with all the complexity and promise that that implies.  But as the trope of the network society loses its luster amid financial collapse and postmodern ennui, films and stories like Babine are imagining the local as the place to belong.  We should attend to the promise – and pitfalls – of this cultural turn.