The Intersection/Le Carrefour, directed by Jessamine Irwin and Daniel Quintanilla, 2021.
reviewed by Erin Trahan
From its first few scenes, the documentary “The Intersection / Le Carrefour” establishes a visual relationship between language and space, belonging and exclusion. The opening shot traverses a city block, passes a church, then cuts to two people walking toward large brick mill buildings. In French, an older woman tells her younger companion that the neighborhood used to be called “Little Canada.” Yet, she shrugs, “Even up in Canada there are people who don’t know we are here.” They throw up their hands and laugh.
The remark hangs subtly in the background as the film proceeds with an otherwise genial introduction to Cecile Thornton and Trésor Mukendi. Now in her 60s, Thornton grew up in Lewiston, Maine, where the film takes place. Mukendi recently immigrated there from the Democratic Republic of Congo. He represents a small but growing community of Franco-Africans who stand apart, not only because they are Black in a predominantly white state, but also because some are Muslim. A relatable on-screen pair, Thornton and Mukendi bond as French speakers in New England.
For the most part Thornton plays a welcoming Francophone host. Alternating between French and English, she leads viewers on a tour of the landmarks of her idyllic childhood, like the Catholic parish across the street from her family home, a sanctuary for their tight-knit community. Title cards explain how beginning in the 1840s nearly one million French Canadians settled in the industrial towns of New England. But since mill closures in the 1970s that population has precipitously shrunk. Thornton remarks that Lewiston is now a shell of its old self. “It’s not a city that people say, ‘Oh Lewiston!’” she beams. “It’s like, ‘Lewiston,’” she says, her cadence falling. On screen a backhoe topples a structure and fills a dump truck with scrap.
Indeed, directors Jessamine Irwin and Daniel Quintanilla do not filter Lewiston through rose-colored glasses. Irwin, a Maine native, is a French-language academic who teaches an immersive course on “living in French” in North America. She told the French-Canadian Legacy Podcast that she first met Thornton while taking students to Lewiston as part of that class. Quintanilla, a filmmaker born in Mexico and living in Maine, has a particular interest in language preservation. In the podcast he explained his curiosity about whether the negativity associated with places like Lewiston relates to why some Franco Americans feel shame or disconnected from their past.
An update, of sorts, to the 2006 documentary, “Réveil - Waking Up French” (filmmakers Ben Levine and Julia Schulz both advised here), “The Intersection” touches upon the history of Franco ostracism and how a similar cycle recurs with every new wave of immigration. One way the film underscores this message is by showing the physical marks left by industrialism. For example, overhead drone shots show a grid of streets lined with run-down apartments and natural areas cleaved by railways and bridges. Mukendi narrates his story, interwoven with Thornton’s, often walking along the tracks while on his own. (“Most people come seeking refuge,” he says about his request for asylum.) Divided exteriors add visual texture to the film’s core image of two things meeting or crossing. These crossings have two-way potential, too. Thornton and Mukendi’s intersection symbolizes the hopeful promise of an America that opens her gates and welcomes everyone, anyone, in.
However, we learn that wasn’t always so for Thornton. In public school she realized that her peers looked down on all things French. Like many impressionable teenagers, she followed along. “I started being prejudiced against French people,” she says, matter-of–factly, confessing she even joined in the put-downs. She tells how she relished replacing her given name, Desjardins, with her married name, Thornton (cleverly depicted with an erasure on a chalkboard) – a name her mother could not pronounce. She gave up French altogether until a late-in-life change made her reconsider her roots.
While not in any way trivialized, about two-thirds into the film one wonders how to place Thornton’s troubles in the scheme of American bigotry. A viewer could brush her story off as a quaint tale from a bygone era, a grain on the beach of human prejudice. She is, after all, white, raised in the shadow of a crucifix, with a grandmother’s warm smile. What opposition could she face?
Deftly edited and worth seeking out, “The Intersection” counts on an audience that either doesn’t know or has set aside New England’s troubling history as a hotbed of hatred. Wise to such obliviousness and curious about his new home, Mukendi discovers that in 1893 the Ku Klux Klan burned crosses on a Lewiston hilltop for all to see. Their target? French Catholic outsiders.
By leaving the indictment to the film’s last minutes (it runs about 31 total), the comfort a viewer may have felt that the discrimination faced by Thornton has come and gone, or that Mukendi will be safe in his new home, comes throttling into present tense. Mukendi explains to a younger newcomer that what happened to George Floyd could happen to them; that they should join the Black Lives Matter movement. Peering directly at the camera lens, Mukendi says in English, “I wish you would look at me as if you were looking at your child, your brother, your mother.” It’s a bold and memorable decision; one wonders if it was his idea. The camera cuts even closer. “Look at me with love,” he says, adding, “avec amour.”
From its first frames “The Intersection” carves a pathway for Mukendi to climb that hilltop and tell us what he sees and how to proceed. He may be an obvious target for today’s white supremacists. But someone who speaks English with an accent, does not worship the “right” religion, wears a mask to protect others from disease, or has a grandmother’s smile and a French last name… is never far behind. We’ve been here before, this film effectively insists. We shouldn’t be shocked. But who are we if we remain unmoved?
With “The Intersection,” Jessamine Irwin and Daniel Quintanilla have made their best effort to assure that Mukendi’s message becomes part of the greater record of Franco-American history. By understanding what it means to be Trésor Mukendi today in Lewiston, Maine is to understand that no matter what happens, one can always choose amour.