The documentary “Réveil” traces the loss of Franco-Americans’ language and culture and attempts to regain their French heritage. It will be shown in Lewiston on Saturday.

LEWISTON – “Réveil: Waking Up French,” a documentary film about the repression and renaissance of the French in New England, will be shown at 7 p.m. March 20 at the Franco-American Heritage Center on Cedar Street.

Starting with two French families, one in Lewiston and the other in St. Georges, Quebec, Ben Levine filmed them for 24 years beginning in 1979. The film explores why the French kept their language and culture for so long, and why they are losing it now.

With 30 to 40 percent of Maine’s population of French-American, it’s estimated that, in New England, there are more than 2 million descendants of the 1 million who came from Quebec and New Brunswick in the early 1900s, according to Levine.

As many as 500,000 people still speak French, with an equal number of people who lost it growing up or later.

Educators once regarded heritage language retention and bilingualism as a detriment. But research sociologist Sandra Kouritzin, author of “Facets of Language Loss,” shows that loss of a heritage language at any age means disconnecting from a deep part of yourself that can not be translated into another language.

The central question of the film is why a million French speakers in New England, who lived a short ride from 7 million of their French Canadian brethren, suddenly lost their language.

One of the film’s sequences traces the story of the Ku Klux Klan in New England. Levine has found actual footage of the KKK in Maine to explore what their role may have in the suppression of the French culture.

Bilingual again

Five years in the making, the documentary has a structure that Levine calls an “analytical documentary…. It is trying to describe and account for the ’emotional history’ of a people, looking for examples of cultural and personal emergence that can lead the culture to a renaissance.”

It also explores a number of people in New England who have successfully “awakened” their lost French. Some young people in towns like Maine’s Madawaska, for example, are bilingual, speaking French in public as a natural part of their lives.

After each showing, Levine facilitates an in-depth audience discussion. That discussion is also filmed and sometimes becomes part of the ongoing filmmaking process of exploring a culture in transition.

According to Labbe: “The film is a powerful and long overdue portrait of a people fighting for a basic right to be who they are.”

Audience reactions from Francos and Anglos alike seem to bear out Labbe’s feeling, with some viewers calling it “a realistic view of what growing up French Canadian was like,” “quite emotional for me and my wife.. .captured the essence of what we have become” or “could feel the pain of young people who couldn’t speak the same language as their grandparents.”

Tickets can be purchased in advance [$7.00] at Victor News, or at the door [$8.00]. Doors open at 6:30 PM. For inquiries, please contact The Center at 783-1585.

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