Bissonnette, Sophie

Sophie Bissonnette, director, writer, producer, editor (b at Montréal 18 Sept 1956). Raised in Ottawa, Sophie Bissonnette studied film and sociology at Queen's University in Kingston, graduating in 1978 with a bachelor of arts.

Before Québec movies struck gold with box-office hits like the Les Boys franchise (1997-2005) and Bon Cop Bad Cop (2006), they were known mainly for their cinematic innovations and political activism. Sophie Bissonnette, whose first documentaries appeared in the early 1980s, exemplifies a time when many filmmakers assumed a responsibility to reveal social injustice and prompt demands for change.

After settling in Montréal, Bissonnette co-directed the 1980 DOCUMENTARY, Une histoire des femmes (A Wives' Tale), with Joyce Rock and legendary cinematographer/director Martin Duckworth. This film signals Bissonnette's concerns, documenting the historic 1978-79 miners' strike against Sudbury's Inco Company, but from the point of view of the strikers' wives, who engage in battle while grappling with marital tensions and other dilemmas. A winner of the Québec Critics' prize for the year's best film, it was the first of several documentaries in which Bissonnette told women's stories.

Quel Numero (1985), which Bissonnette co-produced with Jean-Roch Marcotte, also depicts the impact of the workplace on women's lives. Subtitled The Electronic Sweatshop, the documentary is an early exposé of job conditions in the burgeoning digital age. The women in the film are telephone operators, supermarket cashiers, secretaries and postal workers oppressed by the machines they use, and the prying surveillance technology that monitors their efficiency. In a somewhat different mode, Bissonnette's L'amour...à quel prix? (1988) recounts the disappointing love stories of three women, exploring how naïve dreams of a happily-ever-after life with "the perfect man" can lead to crushing economic dependency. The movie's feminist thesis, one that seems outdated now, argues that many women spend their lives relying on their fathers, their husbands, and eventually, government assistance agencies.

Among other feature, medium-length, and short documentaries, Sophie Bissonnette directed Le plafond de verre (1992), a short film dealing with the barriers women face at work; Près de nous (1997), which portrays the role of midwives; and Un Souffle de colère (1996), a film about a 1949 asbestos workers' strike. With Des lumières dans la grande noirceur (1991), the filmmaker shifted her focus from groups of women to a single protagonist. The documentary honours an 86-year-old activist called Léa Roback, through whom the documentary traces events in Québec's social and political history, as well as touching on Roback's experiences growing up Jewish in small-town Québec. Madeleine Parent (2002) also depicts a politically committed woman. A celebrated union organizer and feminist, Parent was so despised by the authoritarian 1950s Québec premier Maurice Duplessis that he ensured that she was constantly harassed by the police.

Partition pour voix de femmes (2001) is one of Bissonnette's most ambitious projects. In it, she tracks the World March of Women, which in the year 2000 protested against poverty and violence in almost 30 countries on five continents. The movie takes viewers from Burkina Faso to the US, portraying the activism of women ranging from Lebanese housewives to Québec sex-trade workers.

In a Québec film milieu very different from the heyday of feminist documentaries, Sophie Bissonnette and moviemakers like her struggle to fund their work. Through her involvement with the Association des Réalisateurs et Réalisatrices du Québec, her work for the now defunct independent distributor Ciné Libre, and as a founding member of Montréal's documentary film festival, Les Rencontres internationales du documentaire de Montréal, Bissonnette has been a forceful advocate of committed filmmaking aimed at telling stories that might otherwise be ignored.