60th Ann Arbor Film Festival: The animated "Archipelago" traces the communities along the St. Lawrence River


A still from the animated film Archipelago featuring an abstract background with small bodies and a cow looking like they're struggling

What would you create if you wanted to convey the entire history of a place—the people with their personal struggles and giant conflicts, their loves and everyday lives, the music they listen to, and the story of the land itself?

Make a painting, write a novel, take pictures?

Archipelago, with its impressionistic mixture of animation and historic film footage, comes remarkably close to achieving the impossible task of capturing and reflecting the memories of a place on Earth.

Director Félix Dufour-Laperrière turns his attention to the islands and cities of the 800-mile-long St. Lawrence River to tell their stories and bring them to life. Admittedly, the St. Lawrence River, which originates in Lake Ontario in northeastern Canada, sounds like a dull topic for a feature-length film. But the vivid and wonderful expression of each stop in this fantastical travelogue is uplifting and hopeful.

As the viewer drifts downstream, in and out of time and from place to place, we hear the voiceover narration by Canadian actor Florence Blain Mbaye asserting that St. Lawrence island chain—the archipelago—exists. Another voice, aware only of each place on its own, refuses to acknowledge that each island is connected to the rest by the river. As the current pulls the viewer inexorably down the river and toward the sea, there are island stops at Perrot, Montreal, Bonaventure, and many others, finally reaching Percé Rock on the edge of the ocean. The archipelago exists indeed.

The animation is spectacular and joyful and is present in almost every frame of the movie. As varied as it is—including the animation of maps, overlays of film footage, views of landscapes through keyholes, and a remarkable scene of red churned water left in a swimmer’s wake—it all hangs together well. One scene brought to mind the stop-motion work of Eraserhead, while others had the feel of watching A-Ha’s video “Take On Me” only much more beautiful. It never occurred to me that 14 different animators contributed to the film until I saw the end credits.

There are frequent cuts to archival footage from 1941’s promotional film Les Îles du Saint-Laurent. Often, the animation in Archipelago fills in what is just off screen from the original, or adds color and texture to what is an otherwise flat image. While Les Îles is available to watch online easily, I preferred to leave it alone. I didn’t want to dissect Archipelago in the same way that I don’t want to take apart something living.

One scene, toward the beginning of the movie, is narrated in the Algonquian language Innu-Aimun, spoken by indigenous people of what is present-day Quebec. This passage was not subtitled in English or French, which only increased the sense of this movie as a tribute to all of the people through history who have lived on the land of the 1,000 islands.

Christopher Becker is a library technician at AADL.

"Archipelago" will screen in competition at the Ann Arbor Film Festival on March 25 at 5 pm at the Michigan Theater, or online starting March 22. Tickets are available here. Visit aafilmfest.org for the full schedule (March 22-27).