‘Les trains de la vie’ reveals how friendships can reach beyond enemy lines

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les trains de la vie_keesLes trains de la vie
Written by André Mélançon
Directed by André Mélançon
Canada, 2013

Time and space can both be inconsequential when it comes to the unshakable bond between people. The reasons for said bond might be due to the smallest of circumstantial details to the most powerful, life altering events. Local Québec filmmaker André Mélançon found a remarkable example of one such friendship that still holds strong despite that the individuals involved only recently met for the first time in over 60 years. They are the subjects of his most recent film, the documentary Les trains de la vie.

Kees Vanderheyden is a Dutch immigrant to Québec. Having lived in the province since his childhood he has adopted the culture and language just like any other native to the region, yet his early life tells a much different story when he, his siblings and parents had to deal with the Nazi occupation of their home village back in Holland. He shares his experiences with the children of an elementary classroom while the film cuts to the second chapter of his tale: the search for a German woman, Traudi, to whom his family gave shelter in the months following the war.

Les trains de la vie takes the simplest approach in conveying the rich ideas its story has to share with the audience while avoiding as much as possible the classic reliance on the talking heads technique. Director Mélançon’s decision to have the majority of Kees’ past experience related through his classroom presentation ends up being the smartest and most effective. Kees is a brilliant storyteller, brimming with vim and verve and capable of dialling the exact tone to help the children appreciate the danger and amazement of the episodes of those dark days long ago when Holland was stomped on by the German army. For all intents and purposes, he is telling the story through the eyes of his childhood. Kees is so charismatic in doing so it becomes impossible not to grow increasingly invested in his family’s plight, just as the children in the classroom are, whose eyes are riveted onto the magnificent speaker, mouths agape. Even though as a whole Les trains de la vie is not explicitly about about the power of storytelling, the film ends up proving that point nonetheless, albeit indirectly. However good the movie is a a whole, the scenes in the classroom are clearly the most engaging. No directorial tricks, save perhaps a few cuts to old films and archival footage from the war to help visualize some of the raconteur’s descriptions, just a man telling a story exceptionally well.

The film shifts from the school setting to an interview directly with Kees as he explains the process of how he went about searching for Traudi via the Red Cross, culminating in their emotional conversation via Skype. While not as enthralling as the portion of the film which concentrates on his presentation to the students, these scenes do speak to the preciousness of the emotional attachment that will forever link the two people. Everything about how they connected as children will remind audiences, just as Kees himself discovered as a child, how important solidarity is in times of need, even between former enemies. Thankfully, the presentation never feels didactic in any way, with the honesty of the emotions easily felt, thus carrying the film towards its very modest yet satisfying conclusion.

If one were being picky, it would seem fair to point to the usage of another voice as a narrator for the brief sequences featuring the aforementioned archival footage. The voice itself is perfectly fine, the contentious issue being that it is telling snippets of Kees’ story. Kees himself is such a fantastic storyteller that to replace him with another man is a bit disappointing. It creates a slight disconnect of sorts from the movie’s real heart. In fairness, there may have been a number of reasons why Kees did not participate in the narration: incompatible scheduling, lack of experience (although seeing how good he is in front of the children, this seems unlikely), fear that it would appear as a vanity project, etc. Still, it feels like a missed opportunity.

None of that takes away too much from the qualities many will surely recognize. Les trains de la vie is an easy, quick watch (52 minutes) that is well worth it for anyone with an inclination for some of the more human stories cinema can tell.

-Edgar Chaput

The 31st Rendez-Vous du Cinéma Québécois runs from February 21st to March 3rd 2013.

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