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Hochelaga, Land of Souls makes Western Canadian debut at WFF

Fascinating movie explores Montreal's colonial history



A new film set to play the Whistler Film Festival is an ambitious and imaginative project. Within a couple hours, it transports the viewer through Canada's past, highlighting strands of Montreal's colonial history.

Directed by acclaimed French-Canadian writer-director François Girard, Hochelaga, Land of Souls uses a unique narrative structure to tie the past to the present.

When a sinkhole appears in a Montreal football stadium (swallowing a player whole) an Indigenous doctoral student explores the site, revealing fascinating artifacts.

The movie uses flashbacks to depict early interactions between Indigenous and European groups and the sometimes violent divide between the French and English that characterized early Quebec.

For Raoul Trujillo, an actor with a long list of television and movie credits, including a lead role in Mel Gibson's Apocalypto, it was the gig of a lifetime.

"It became my favourite, in terms of the work I've done," he explains from his home in New Mexico.

"It's a little closer to my life than the other ones."

In the movie, Trujillo plays Le Prophète, a spiritual figure who is cut to at various points, recalling an extended prayer amid the aftermath of a brutal battle.

The prayer is called the "Great Law," explains Trujillo.

"It talks about how humans must exist in the world."

Having it in the film lends weight to the story.

"I think one of the reasons it's so powerful is because my character is invoking this law," he says.

Trujillo, who is Indigenous and steeped in Native American culture and history, says he worked closely with a Mohawk actor to get the prayer right.

It was a very "old-style Mohawk" that very few people speak. Like all languages, Mohawk has changed over time, he explains.

"We worked for a month prior to shooting, just on pronunciation and learning it," says Trujillo.

It's not the first time Trujillo has learned a new language for a film. He estimates he's spoken around 16 distinct native languages in his acting career.

For the role, he was able to draw on personal experience. "I've spent a lot of time with different shamanistic cultures, especially in Mexico and even the Amazon."

Working with Girard was a delight. adds Trujillo.

"I think he's one of the most prolific film directors. He's such a consummate artist.

"His vision is so clear. When you work with him, he knows exactly what he wants."

Girard encouraged improvisation and let things play out for extended periods of time, says Trujillo.

"I had to have people haul me up because my legs were falling asleep," he says with a laugh. In the end, some of that improvised material made it into the film.

Trujillo's performance, which features elegant movement, drew on his extensive dance background.

"It's theatricalized so that we convey the grace and innate nature of spirituality," he says.

One of the most stunning elements of the movie is the striking visuals. At one point, French explorers, led by Jacques Cartier, visit an enormous Iroquois village.

It looks spectacularly real. "Because of CGI, they're able to replicate a lot of buildings that weren't there," says Trujillo.

In another scene, Cartier and some Iroquois look out at pre-contact Montreal from its iconic mountain, Mount Royal.

Instead of a development, there is a sea of trees, rendered in brilliant fall colours.

"They just got rid of Montreal the city, and that's just incredible," says Trujillo.

Hochelaga goes as far back as 1,100 AD.

For Trujillo, it was an honour to bring Indigenous culture and history to the screen.

"There's rarely movies made that are pre-contact, that give you a sense of how old our presence has been in North America... You don't really ever see that," he says.

Being involved with creative projects is in Trujillo's DNA. At 14 years old, he knew he wanted to be an actor.

"It's always been apart of my life, to be around creativity and abstractions... It's always been who I am," he says.

Trujillo will be interviewed from 3 to 4 p.m. on Nov. 30 at a special WFF event at the Maury Young Arts Centre.

Hochelega, Land of Souls will make its Western Canadian premiere at 8 p.m. on Dec. 1 at the Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre. It screens again at 9:30 a.m. on Dec. 2 at the Rainbow Theatre.