• Viveka Melki

    Viveka Melki. (Photo: Stephen Thorne)

As an exhibition on conflict, War Flowers is unique in that it focuses on vulnerability rather than valor. Through sculpture, scent, sound and the Victorian art of floriography, the touring exhibition paints an intimate portrait of 10 Canadians’ experiences in the First World War.

Curator Viveka Melki, a Quebec-based documentary filmmaker who was born in Senegal and witnessed clashes with the Gambia before immigrating to Canada as a teenager, was interested in exploring, to paraphrase Leonard Cohen, “the crack where the light gets in”: human resilience in the face of suffering. Here, she discusses her gratitude to Canada and the healing power of storytelling.

On why she’s drawn to war stories

I know what it is to lose freedom. When you’ve lost your freedom, you really know what they’re talking about when they say, of war, “We did it for freedom.” It’s not just some cheesy line. It’s happening every day around us. At the same time, you have to talk about hope. The beautiful writer Warsan Shire said, “No one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land.” And we do. We come for something better. I have a seven-year-old daughter, and she says to me, “Mummy, what is war?” And I say to her, “This is war – what you’re seeing in this exhibition.” It’s a mother’s love and it’s solitude and it’s devotion. It’s insanity. But it’s what we do.

On how her personal experience with conflict influences her storytelling

I’m never going to compare my story to a veteran’s story, someone who’s been through a war in that way. But I take the things that I’ve lived, the things that I’ve suffered, and I make them into something that I hope will be cathartic for other people so that they will actually be able to touch history. The point of all of this is to make history intimate. When we make history intimate, when we attach people to a story, then we can teach others. The story has to touch something in the audience, or else they’re not going to understand Julia Drummond, they’re not going to understand John McRae.

On the importance of seeing Canada

I was lucky that when I arrived here, my family took a train across the country. I’ll never forget the combine harvesters in Saskatchewan, going across a field in the middle of a storm, it was fantastic. I’ve been honoured to live and go to school in British Columbia, I’ve filmed in Manitoba, Nunavut, Ontario, Quebec. The government of Israel offers a ticket to any young person of Jewish descent who wants to visit Israel; heavens, can we just pay for a train ticket for everyone who wants to go across this country? You can’t expect people to feel an attachment to this land if you don’t let them have their own experience with it.

On her gratitude to Canada and Canadians

I wouldn’t want to brand all Canadians as empathetic, that’s a lot of pressure to put on people, but I do think we have something unique here. You know, we chose Canada, my sister and I. We felt that if we came here, we wouldn’t have to lose a part of ourselves to be Canadian, that it was a place that would be accepting of what you were. We have to keep fighting for that.

On her experiences as a woman in film

I’m really lucky, I’ve not had sexual harassment as a woman filmmaker, thank God. I was a producer, I had my own company, Tortuga Films, so being the boss, having control, I could lead the narrative of how we would treat employees. But I am a #MeToo, and that doesn’t come from film, it comes from my past. It was hard to say, but I did, because I felt people needed to know. You have to stand up and say it, because if you don’t, then the woman next to you doesn’t stand up and say it.

On the healing power of storytelling and the importance of mental health supports

I wish we could actually ask refugees and immigrants in Canada more about their experiences of conflict. I wish we could help them heal. Where I come from, you don’t become a filmmaker. I became the person I am because I was supported by a society along the way here in Canada that nurtured that and gave me the freedom to heal. If we don’t do that for people, how will they ever move away from their ghosts? Let’s make mental health a priority so that the veteran, at 96 years old, can finally tell his story, so that the refugee from Somalia can tell her story and move on from it. Because what I don’t doubt is the human capacity to move on from it. We are incredibly resilient, and we are constantly hopeful.