The French version of the movie Polytechnique was released in Quebec on Feb 6 and it has already caused quite a bit of controversy. It was directed by Denis Villeneuve.
Quebec actress Karine Vanasse says she became involved in Polytechnique, the first film to be made about the Montreal Massacre, to tell a side of the story she believes hasn’t been heard — that of the male survivors, who watched as gunman Marc Lépine walked into a classroom at the city’s prestigious École Polytechnique engineering school, told the men to leave, and then shot 14 women because they were, as he put it, “feminists.”
Each year on December 6th, Canadian women mourn the deaths of Geneviève Bergeron, Hélène Colgan, Nathalie Croteau, Barbara Daigneault, Anne-Marie Edward, Maud Haviernick, Maryse Laganière, Maryse Leclair, Anne-Marie Lemay, Sonia Pelletier, Michèle Richard, Annie St-Arneault, Annie Turcotte, and Barbara Klucznik-Widajewicz. It is important to honour their memory with the full knowledge that they paid the ultimate price for having the misfortune to be born women with the drive to believe that they deserved an education.
To ensure that there was no confusion as to why he felt the need to enter École Polytechnique and massacre 14 women, Marc Lépine left behind a detailed three page letter in which he blamed feminists for being “so opportunistic they neglect to profit from the knowledge accumulated by men through the ages. They always try to misrepresent them every time they can”. He considered himself to be “rational” and therefore felt his rage against feminists was justified. He went on to state in his suicide note, “why persevere to exist if it is only to please the government. Being rather backward-looking by nature (except for science), the feminists have always enraged me. They want to keep the advantages of women (e.g. cheaper insurance, extended maternity leave preceded by a preventative leave, etc.) while seizing for themselves those of men.” Lépine was so angry at the loss of unearned male privilege due to the advances of feminism, his letter also included a list of nineteen other women that he also wished to see dead.
It was with horror that I was to learn that this massacre which has come to symbolize violence against women in Canada had been filmed from a male perspective. Villeneuve the director justified this by saying, “We have talked a lot about how this drama has affected women, as we should have, but men were hurt as well. It had a major impact on them,” the 41-year-old director says. “I wanted to explore and illustrate the humiliation and shame that [those] men lived.” 14 women died but we must remember that men were hurt as well.
I am in no way denying that the men who witnessed this event were traumatized however, the first time that this story is told on the big screen should not be from the male perspective. These 14 women died because of sexism and patriarchy and it dishonours their memory that this movie is not told from their perspective. To imply that we have talked about them enough is even more disgusting. While he rightfully shies away from glorifying Lépine, focusing on men who were not the target of the violence or amongst the list of victims reifies the idea that female suffering should be understood by the ways in which it effects masculinity.
The guilt and shame that male witnesses felt stemmed from their inability to protect the 14 women. Deeply written in our social script regarding gender roles is the idea that women are helpless victims awaiting a knight in shining armour. Somehow the connection between women as fragile creatures and men as strong failed to register in the mind of Villeneuve as contributing to the violence that ended the lives of these 14 women.
His ability to make the connections between what happened and the role of sexism in our society manifests most when he speaks about Lépine.
“There are so many reasons why he probably did what he did. His father abused him. He had never slept with a woman. ( emphasis mine) It’s impossible to say why he did it. I didn’t want to try to explain it. It would have been reductive. I think it’s more powerful to embrace the enigma.” Either that, or it’s easier.
Of all of the twisted facts that came to make up Lépine’s life, it is telling that Villeneuve pointed out the fact that he had never slept with a woman. It is as though he is victim blaming. Oh, if only women had known their place and slept with this deranged murderer, he would not have had to slaughter so many of us.
To truly tell this story you need to understand how systemic sexism is in Canadian society. Each time we turn a blind eye to the violence that women face, we in reinforce the idea that unless a woman is properly submissive, a man has the right to discipline her. December 6 is not about men, it is about women and chronicling the dangers that we face.
Right after this incident many letters to the editor were written in newspapers claiming that Lepin was simply a lone gunman thus effectively denying the ways in which sexism is daily reinforced. Though his actions would fall into the extreme category, women being assaulted is hardly a rare occurrence in Canada. Our entire society is still very much a reflection of male needs, and thought and if we cannot in case like this demand that women be made a priority, we have no hope of ending the patriarchal stronghold under which we live.