Fifty years ago, Quebec was in the throes of a secessionist movement, its French-speaking majority venting long-accumulated resentment at the dominant Anglo minority. In Canada, “the October crisis” signifies not the 1962 global confrontation over Soviet missiles in Cuba, but the domestic strife triggered in the fall of 1970 by the Front de libération du Québec (FLQ), which committed a pair of high-profile political kidnappings. Envied today for its political serenity, Canada back then seethed with anger stirred up by the FLQ, whose eloquent, impassioned leader was Paul Rose. Rose’s life and times form the subject of Félix Rose’s documentary film Les Rose, or “The Rose Family.”
While most children at some point discover something about their parents in a happenstance way, few can match what Rose heard from a cousin: “Your dad kidnapped a cabinet minister and killed him.” The idea for his film began with this shocking revelation. Who is a freedom fighter and who is a terrorist—and who gets to decide? How do we judge political violence committed in pursuit of justice? Rose addresses these abstract questions implicitly while pursuing concrete, personal ones: Who was his father, and how did he do what he did? “My dad wouldn’t hurt a fly,” Rose recalls thinking upon learning of his father’s revolutionary past. But a political hostage? Perhaps.
Rose père died in 2013, and the film opens at his memorial service, with family and friends paying tribute as a voiced-over news pundit comments discordantly on “the felon, the terrorist, Paul Rose.” The film deftly contrasts the private person with the political one: the older man we see in his living-room easy chair, bantering fondly with his son, versus the young man being led out of a courtroom, head bowed and fist raised in a classic pose of revolutionary defiance.
Les Rose is cobbled together from home movies, news footage, tape recordings smuggled out of prison during Paul Rose’s incarceration, and interviews his son conducts with family members, especially his uncle, Jacques Rose, a former FLQ member. We get an account of a hardscrabble Montreal childhood, both brothers working as teens at the Redpath sugar refinery where their father and grandfather had worked before them—for “starvation wages,” Jacques recalls, paid by “English bosses [who] got rich at our parents’ expense.” A deep class animus lay behind the separatist movement, a bitter sense of exploitation and marginalization that was more than working-class solidarity. French Canadians felt colonized within their own country.