Farewell Montreal! Reflections on My Fulbright Year

Wilensky's Light Lunch

Wilensky’s Light Lunch: my favorite Montreal hole-in-the-wall.

Hello dear readers!

Since my last blog entry, I have eaten my final plate of poutine and careened in a rental truck through sheets of rain back across the border to the United States.  Sadly my Fulbright experience is drawing to a close — but new adventures await us in our homeland.  My husband and I are now ensconced in our second new city of the year, Providence, Rhode Island, where I will begin a PhD in American Studies at Brown University this fall!  (And for those who know of it, yes, I will be participating in the Public Humanities program — it was one of the main attractions of Brown for me!)

Looking back on my time in Montreal, I’m pleased with how things unfolded.  I gathered a vast trove of material on Goose Village and the history of the land.  Hours and hours of oral histories.  A huge stack of archival documents.  Hundreds of photos.  And my job this summer is to finish editing all of this into an interactive web documentary.  Editing is my favorite stage of filmmaking, so I’m glad to be at this point.

Along the way I did encounter a few challenges, which I’ll mention here in the interest of helping anyone else who is starting out in digital storytelling or conducting a public history project in a foreign country.  These were the things that were hardest:

  • Being a “one-woman band,” the sole person running video/audio and conducting interviews.  I imagined having professional-level production value in all the segments I filmed…but my interviews have turned out to have a scrappy DIY quality as I had to monitor a great deal of technical equipment while also holding a decent conversation with someone.  It’s okay!  Scrappy & DIY are overall positive characteristics in my book, and as long as the viewer can hear and see, the footage is adequate.  But probably if I were going to do this again, I’d stick with audio only while interviewing, then take lots of still images to go with the sounds.
  • Being an outsider striving to tell a new local story in a public history context.  When I arrived in Montreal last fall I imagined uncovering some city history tale that had been untold for decades or centuries…but the  public history community is very strong in Montreal, consciousness of the past is high (Quebec’s motto is je me souviens/ “I remember,” after all), and many topics that caught my interest (like the story of Mary Gallagher, the evolution of the Griffintown neighborhood, or the industrial ruins along the Lachine Canal) have been mined again and again.  Meanwhile the Centre d’Histoire de Montreal was engaged in precisely the type of urban history/place-based work I imagined carrying out, so I began collaborating with them to tell the story of Goose Village in more depth, in a different way.
  • History documentaries are a visual medium, demanding heavy use of archival photos and video.  But of course, some time periods are not well-documented with images.  Two events spurred obsessive photographic documentation of Goose Village: the construction of the Victoria Bridge in 1859 and the city’s decision to demolish the neighborhood in the early 1960′s.  I do have a few odds and ends from other time periods, beginning with an engraving from the early nineteenth century.  But it’s a bit disquieting that my documentary will be shaped by the extremely uneven record of images, with public works projects having a much “louder” archival presence than anything else.  Editing video clips about those sparse periods will be a challenge unless I choose to pan across newspaper headlines the whole time. (Fortunately I do have a wealth of oral history videos about everyday life to use — but huge gaps remain beyond living memory.)
  • Dealing with copyrights and permissions.  Putting together a multimedia project like this means one must devote considerable time to legal or institutional rules concerning how archival images or other material may be used.  I was very grateful to the McCord Museum for having a straightforward, Creative Commons-based policy for its photo collections.

Overall it’s been a huge privilege to experience life in Canada and get to know a brilliant city like Montreal.  I’ll miss leisurely walks up the serpentine trail of Mount Royal, fresh baguettes at the Jean-Talon Market, the musical swings, and of course the excellent group of people I got to know through my project, especially my advisor Steven High.  (I have a long list of people and institutions to thank — but will save all of that for when the project is complete and we can all bask in its glow!)

Legend has it I will return to Montreal next year to give a talk on my project — so we will meet again!

Bonne journée!

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Filed under Quebec

2 responses to “Farewell Montreal! Reflections on My Fulbright Year

  1. Julia

    Oh, cool! I really enjoyed the Quartiers Disparus, and I’d be excited to hear more updates about your project.

    • Yes! Wasn’t that exhibit amazing? I saw it when I first arrived in Montreal and was just blown away. The staff there is great, too — they’ve been very generous and supportive of this project.

      Thanks for reading (& twitter-following)!

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