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Books & Theater

The late Jewish Anglophone Mordecai Richler (1931-2001) inveighed against the excesses of Québec's separatists and language zealots in a barrage of books and critical essays in newspapers and magazines. Richler wrote from the perspective of a minority within a minority and set most of his books in the working-class Jewish neighborhood of St. Urbain of the 1940s and 1950s, with protagonists who are poor, streetwise, and intolerant of the prejudices of other Jews, French-Canadians, and WASPs from the city's English-side Westmount neighborhood. His most famous book is The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (Pocket Books, 1959), which in 1974 was made into a movie of the same name starring Richard Dreyfuss. A film version of Richler's Barney's Version, starring Dustin Hoffman and Paul Giamatti (who won a Golden Globe for his role as Barney Panofsky) was released in 2010.

Legendary singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen (b. 1934) wrote two novels set in Montréal: 1963's The Favorite Game (Vintage, 2003) and 1966's Beautiful Losers (Vintage, 1993).

Playwright Michel Tremblay (b. 1942), an important dramatist, grew up in Montréal's Plateau Mont-Royal neighborhood and uses that setting for much of his work. His Les Belles-Sœurs (The Sisters-in-Law), written in 1965, introduced the lives of working-class Francophone Québécois to the world. It was published in English by Talonbooks in 1992.

Music

In 2008, the Putumayo World Music record label released a compilation CD called Québec in honor of Québec City's 400th anniversary. It's a collection of 11 songs that reflect the province's rich musical diversity, and it provides a great introduction to Québécois music. Highlights include the upbeat, angelic-voiced Chloé Sainte-Marie (b. 1962; "Brûlots"); the pop band DobaCaracol ("Etrange"), which fuses a reggae groove with African rhythms and French-language pop; and the Celtic folk of La Bottine Souriante ("La Brunette Est Là"), the preeminent representatives of traditional Québécois music, which has its roots in French, English, Scottish, and Irish folk traditions. Samples of the songs can be heard at the Putumayo website (www.putumayo.com).

Montréal has a strong showing of innovative musicians who hail from its clubs. Singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen is the best known. He grew up in the Westmount neighborhood and attended McGill University. He was inducted into the U.S. Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008.

Rufus Wainwright (b. 1973), a popular singer-songwriter (and son of folk great, and Montréal native, Kate McGarrigle [1946-2010]) grew up in Montréal and got his start at city clubs. Alternative rock bands Arcade Fire and Wolf Parade are both from the city. (The band Of Montréal, however, is a U.S. band from Athens, Georgia.)

Film & Television

Many U.S. films are made beyond the northern border for financial reasons, even when their American locales are important parts of the stories (Brokeback Mountain, for instance, was filmed in Alberta). Québécois films -- made in the province, in French, for Québec audiences -- can be difficult to track down outside the region. The Cinémathèque Québécoise (tel. 514/842-9763; www.cinematheque.qc.ca) is a great resource for fun and research. It's located at 335 boul. de Maisonneuve est in Montréal.

Recent Québec-made features worth seeking out include J'ai tué ma mère (I Killed My Mother), a breakout hit at Cannes in 2009 by 20-year-old auteur Xavier Dolan (b. 1989). A minicontroversy ensued after Dolan's film, despite international acclaim, was snubbed by the Genie Awards, the Canadian equivalent to the U.S. Academy Awards. The film that swept the 2009 Genies, Polytechnique, was the first movie made about the 1989 Montréal Massacre, in which a young man targeted and murdered 14 female engineering students. The event remains a sensitive part of Canadian history. Other noteworthy new Québec-made films include Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, The Journals of Knud Rasmussen, and Before Tomorrow, a mythic trilogy made by a collective of Inuit people.

Alanis Obomsawin (b. 1932) is an important documentarian of the region. A member of the Abenaki Nation who was raised on the Odanak Reserve near Montréal, she began making movies for the National Film Board of Canada (www.nfb.ca) 40 years ago and has produced more than 30 documentaries about the hard edges of the lives of aboriginal people. In 2008, "the first lady of First Nations film" -- as the commissioner of the National Film Board termed her -- received the Governor General's Performing Arts Award for Lifetime Artistic Achievement. A major retrospective of her work was shown at New York's Museum of Modern Art and Boston's Museum of Fine Art that same year.

Obomsawin has documented police raids of reservation lands, homelessness among natives living in cities, and a wrenching incident in 1990 that pitted native peoples against the government over lands that were slated to be turned into a golf course. That last event, detailed in the 1993 film Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance, took place about an hour west of Montréal and included a months-long armed standoff between Mohawks and authorities.

"The land question and Mohawk sovereignty have been issues since the French and English first settled the area," Obomsawin has said. "A lot of promises were made and never kept. What the confrontation of 1990 showed is that this is a generation that is not going to put up with what happened in the past."

In 2007, the CBC television show Little Mosque on the Prairie began offering a peek into the religious and cultural issues faced by Canada's large immigrant population. It remains a popular program and is in its fifth season in 2011.

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