‘Waking up French’ - documentary film explores emigration

‘Waking up French’ - documentary film explores emigration

WOONSOCKET – A new documentary showcasing the immigrant experience that was filmed, in part, in Woonsocket, will be shown this Sunday, Sept. 10 at the American French Genealogical Society.

At a separate event at the Earle Street museum that same evening, the filmmaker will lead a session on how to regain spoken French.

The events will complement the annual French Heritage Festival and Soirée, making the upcoming weekend a two-day exploration of local French culture.

“Reveil - Waking Up French,” is a documentary by Ben Levine exploring the French-Canadian emigration and assimilation in New England beginning at the turn of the century.

According to AFGS publisher Sylvia Bartholomy, the film examines the immigrants’ struggle to enter a new society while attempting to maintain their own identity through holding on to culture, language and faith.

“It will touch the hearts of today’s French Canadian descendants whose parents and/or grandparents made the difficult decision to leave their beloved homeland in the hopes of a better life for themselves and their children,” said Bartholomy.

But Bartholomy notes that the film has much to offer to those of any background.

“While the focus of the film is on the French Canadian experience, it is much more than that,” she said. “It speaks to the heart of anyone whose family has had to leave their country and struggle with the fears, uncertainty, and loneliness entering another culture with its perplexing ways and strange language. In this respect the film is a window into the life of everyone’s immigrant ancestors who faced these challenges.”

“It’s to make people think about their own heritage and what kind of sacrifices their ancestors made,” she said.

The documentary was filmed in Maine, New Hampshire and Rhode Island, and includes a segment on a Woonsocket resident.

Levine’s journey to the northern Rhode Island city, it seems, began with the filming of a different project some 20 years ago.

In 1997, Bartholomy and her friend, Anna Sidibe, a woman who had recently moved to Woonsocket from Senegal, were asked to participate in a documentary by the French government.

Levine, who at the time was already working on his own documentary about immigration of French Canadians, saw the film years later, and was intrigued by Sidbe’s story.

“He’s very interested in different cultures, but particularly French and Senegalese,” Bartholomy said.

Reveil features Sidbe’s experience as a modern refugee coming to the city from a French-speaking country in West Africa. She arrived alone in 1996 with little money, no welcoming relatives or friends, and not speaking English.

“Through her eyes we feel her abject fear supported by her deep faith that God is by her side guiding her to succeed,” Bartholomy said.

Bartholomy notes that Sidibe was among the first from her country to come to the city, which now has a growing Senegalese population.

The film also explores the lives of Sidibe’s six children as they assimilate in the new country, and shows how well they’ve done. Several, Bartholomy notes, now have a master’s-level education.

“This is a big, big difference from what would have happened to them as women in Africa,” she said.

The documentary also aims to examine why so many aspects of French Canadian culture were lost over time - a topic that originally inspired the film.

Bartholomy said that filmmaker Levine began the process by asking descendants of French Canadians if they knew why their ancestors came to America.

“People didn’t know why they had left, and why they had chosen specific places,” she said.

Bartholomy says Levine made the documentary, in large part, to help French Canadians resolve the issue of why they know so little about their history.

“It was because they were not accepted by the English and the Irish that were here,” Bartholomy said, pointing to persecution by Ku Klux Klan. “It made it very difficult for them to maintain their history and their culture. They had to bury it, so that their children would be able to move ahead.”

Bartholomy notes that the film does much to dispel modern bias against immigrants.

“They think because they can’t speak the same language as the immigrant, that they’re unintelligent and uneducated, and that they’re going to be a drain on our society,” she said.

She recommends that people from all nationalities talk to their grandparents and find out what brought them to the U.S.

The film will be shown on Sunday at 1 p.m. at 78 Earle St. A donation is suggested.

On the same evening at 7 p.m., Levine and his partner Julia Schultz will be showing a 30-minute film about what other communities have done to regain/maintain their French language. An audience participation session, focused on what French Canadians can do to regain spoken French, will follow.

The evening program is open to everyone and is free.