Moyra Davey, i confess, 2019, HD video, color, sound, 56 minutes 46 seconds.

Moyra Davey, i confess, 2019, HD video, color, sound, 56 minutes 46 seconds.

Moyra Davey

It’s unusual to find oneself on a London evening immersed in French Canadian politics of the 1960s and ’70s, but this was where Moyra Davey’s new film, i confess, 2019, placed me. I felt like I had been jettisoned from the streets of Kennington back to Ottawa, where I spent my childhood, or to Montreal, where Davey spent hers. These cities are shaped by conflicts of inheritance, origin, ownership, identity, and language—primarily French and/or/versus English. Much of i confess (which takes its title from Alfred Hitchcock’s 1953 film of the same name) is filmed, like many of Davey’s works, inside her apartment in New York. Within this familiar space, Davey conjures another world entirely, along with its political and historical concerns: the province of Quebec and its French-speaking borderlands. The film also acts as a province of memory—a reckoning?—so that watching it is like being squeezed through the inner folds of a mind, where past and present collapse, expand, and contract. 

Who is confessing, and to what and to whom, is left productively, elliptically, seductively ambiguous. Moments of embarrassment recur: vivid childhood memories of loss, religious shame, the linguistic displacement of growing up in the Anglophone minority of Montreal. Davey, who narrates on and off camera, recalls visiting an ex-boyfriend, Louis, at the home of Pierre Vallières, the Québécois-revolutionary writer who was involved in the early years of the separatist movement. Looking back, she suspects that Louis was having an affair with the older man. “I don’t think Louis and I slept together on that visit,” she says. “I remember sobbing unashamedly. . . . ” Her voice falters and trails off before she pauses and begins again. During the brief moment of silence, we hear a tinny voice in the background: It is a recording of Davey speaking the text that she now recites, listening to it through headphones as she walks back and forth across her apartment, pacing through memory and the essayistic movements of her thoughts. Davey often uses this technique, a kind of auto-simulation, to produce carefully structured oral narratives that are at once familiar and distanced, intimate and rote. Her treatment of images and subjects is likewise layered and reflexive, with tender attention to how information is revealed to the viewer.

In i confess, the personal and the anecdotal mingle with the literary, political, and historical. Reading James Baldwin’s Another Country (1962) leads Davey to Vallières’s controversial 1968 autobiography, Nègres blancs d’Amérique, in which he likens the struggle of the Québécois working class to that of blacks in America. Attempting to understand his controversial argument, Davey consults other voices: writers Hubert Aquin and Ann Charney, her longtime friend the translator Alison Strayer, and the political theorist Dalie Giroux. Each individual is revealed in fragments and splinters, and all are connected by Davey’s metonymic shifts. Photographs are held up to the camera, leafed through, taped to a wall. YouTube videos play in the background—Baldwin’s 1965 debate with William F. Buckley Jr. at the Cambridge Union in England, Giroux lecturing on “repetition and ruins,” clips of Aquin’s documentary about the first day of school in a working-class district of Montreal. We also see pages of a Petit Larousse with disparaging terms for North American French, described as a “langue bâtarde,” “contaminé”—an index of the colonial history of linguistic oppression that is central to the artist’s assembled web of subjects. Events of the film are described before and after they unfold on-screen, scrambling the time and space of i confess along with its indexical referents. “Certain things are only imaginable in the third person,” says Davey. Confession is a channel that passes through different hosts to reflect aspects of a shared experience, twining the individual with the collective. As Giroux tells Davey, “Revolution has no ideal place. It’s not somewhere you have to get to. Life becomes a process of learning—in situ.”