Society Notebook: Film screening celebrates two Lewiston residents’ French connection

They seem like unlikely film stars. But the intersection of the lives of Cecile Thornton Desjardins, a retired woman from Lewiston who grew up the daughter of French Canadian immigrants, and Tresor Muteba, a 35-year-old asylum seeker from the Congo, is at the heart of “The Intersection ” (or “Le Carrefour”), a Lewiston-based documentary about Maine’s French speakers, past and present, that won the audience award for best short film at the 2021 Camden International Film Festival.

The filmmakers and cast were part of a panel discussion about bilingual documentary March 19 at the University of Southern Maine’s Portland campus. The free screening was attended mostly by supporters of Alliance Francaise du Maine, which hosted the event, and others interested in Maine Francophones, both those of French Canadian ancestry and newcomers from African nations.

“The new arrivals are always the ones to be the lowest step, so to speak,” said Desjardins, who grew up speaking French at home, at school and at church and, as a young woman, just stopped. “I became ashamed of being French.”

Decades later, Desjardins found herself wanting to reconnect with her mother tongue. She went to French-speaking luncheons at the Franco Center, where she was disappointed by how quickly conversation drifted back into English. Then she found another local French club where the members were more fluent. They tended to be asylum seekers from African nations.

“The Africans helped change my life,” Desjardins said. “And it’s all thanks to my French language. Language is the bridge.”

Before long, many of these newly arrived Francophones were calling her “Mama Cecile,” which may have started as a term of respect but has grown into something more familial. She even traveled to Rwanda in 2017 to witness the wedding of a club member whom she now calls her son. His three children, she says, are the only grandchildren she has so far.

Jessamine Irwin, a native Mainer who teaches French at New York University, occasionally brings her students to Lewiston to interact with native speakers, where she saw this intersection of cultures as a story worth telling. She collaborated with filmmaker Daniel Quintanilla, who says he was “drawn to the universality of the story.”

In the film, Muteba, who always wanted to be an actor, walks the audience through his struggles to find his way in this strange, cold place that can be welcoming but sometimes is not.

“It was like I was given a gift to be able to be an actor in real life,” Muteba said. “I was doing it with my heart open.”

The film screening and panel discussion was hosted by the Portland-based Alliance Francaise du Maine, a nonprofit that offers French language classes, film discussions and French-based instruction in cooking, art and fitness.

“I grew up in Lewiston-Auburn, and it’s incredible to hear and see it presented on the big screen and to talk about issues near and dear to my heart,” said Camden Martin, a French teacher and Alliance Francaise du Maine board member.

Film sponsors include Maine Humanities Council, TV5Monde, Points North Institute and Speaking Place. For more information, including about screenings, go to lecarrefourfilm.com.

Amy Paradysz is a freelance writer and photographer based in Scarborough. She can be reached at [email protected]


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