Film as a Mode of Expression and of Experience: A Conversation with Nadia Louis-Desmarchais

By Shannon Constantine

Scenes of childhood laughter and play shift into darker scenes of abuse and trauma, framed by the tranquillity and beauty of nature, the enjoyment and camaraderie of the day passing into something altogether darker in the night. Shot with tenderness, intimacy, and care, Dors-tu (2021) is both beautiful and painful in its unfolding.

The poignancy of its content and its affective pull makes Nadia’s favourite of her films both unforgettable and deeply moving. The story is a window into the lives of two cousins, portraying their relationship and its darker undertones in both childhood and adolescence.

According to Nadia, this particular film is based on relatable incidents that take place in the lives of many young girls. To her, the image is a powerful means of transferring feeling and evoking a direct connection with the viewer. Filmmaker Nadia Louis-Desmarchais finds that the short film becomes an ideal means of conveying a story in a comprehensive and captivating format. 

One of the things that stood out to me about Nadia’s oeuvre is its versatility—Dors-tu, for instance, is completely different from her other works like Urban (2020) and Rated X (2019), in terms of genre, mood, and content. Urban follows a group of young girls learning freestyle dance, while Rated X offers a glimpse into the working lives of women in the porn industry.

To Nadia, documentary and fiction feed into each other, and are inseparable as genres, allowing her to draw on elements from both to complicate and nuance the other. Additionally, all of her films are united by common themes such as the female experience and her desire to foreground women’s stories and life experiences in ways that convey emotion and experience directly to viewers. To her, fiction that is grounded in real life can have a powerful impact on viewers and can make them aware of realities that would otherwise have been invisible to them, evidencing the tremendous power of film in its visuality. 

With most of her recent work having been produced during her time at UQAM, Nadia recalls that she learnt valuable lessons and made some of her best work over the last few years. The pressures of her programme and her own desire to present her vision on screen often meant that she had to justify some of her more daring choices (Dors-tu and Rated X being of course two of her most controversial films to date).

She emphasizes that part of her intention in creating films like these was to grant a sense of agency to the marginalized via the camera, representing female existence and realities that trigger conversation and educate viewers on social realities such as the experiences of BIPOC women. Films such as Raconte-moi mon corps (2019) foreground women’s perspectives, telling stories of resilience and creativity in ways that uplift and strengthen the women they depict and stand as a testament to the skill and sensitivity of the director herself. 

The creative process itself involves hours of work that goes into casting and directing, processes that are made even more complicated in the case of child actors and intimate scenes, as in the case of Dors-tu? Part of the challenge is also connecting her creative vision to the themes of the work and deciding how best to ensure that her message is conveyed through the shots—with Urban, for instance, Nadia wanted to convey the amazement and admiration she had for the young group of dancers she filmed, and wanted to highlight them in all their power and confidence. 

All of Nadia’s films display her directorial vision of advocating for justice through the camera. Speaking about her portrayal of women in her films, she had this to say:

“It's important for me that my films, that they educate people…I'm someone who's…always been fighting for justice”.

As such, filmmaking is both Nadia’s creative outlet and her way of speaking back to systems of oppression that go unnoticed in daily life. Her hope is that people will rethink and reframe their perspectives and preconceived beliefs when they view her films, a hope that emphasizes her relation to daily life and its portrayal in art.

In terms of her creative process, Nadia is very hands-on in her preparation, noting events, images, and incidents from daily life that inspire her in a notebook that she carries around with her. She also spends a few hours each day going through film stills and snapshots that she arranges and rearranges in ways that allow her to think through her narrative in new and provoking ways.

She  posts her material on a vision board in her room that she uses to lay out her plans for her projects. Nadia’s plans for her work are ambitious and detailed—she is currently directing an episode on Black History in Canada, and states that she would possibly like to explore a darker tone in future films, where viewers are confronted by and made to remain with silence, heaviness, and the painful emotions that the images bring. She also says that she would like to direct a play at some point, especially because she loves theatre and it would be an interesting exercise to work with its visuality. She hopes one day to work with the physical material of film, because of its tangibility and existence outside the realm of the digital. 


Here, she aspires to evoke a previous era in cinema and to return to the roots of film as a genre, working with a small crew, on a low budget, and with a simple camera setup. Both Nadia’s plans for her future work and the work that she has already completed highlight her versatility and resourcefulness as a filmmaker. In the words of Robert Altman, “Filmmaking is a chance to live many lifetimes”, a sentiment that Nadia embodies in the range and scope of the projects that she undertakes. 

You can check out more of Nadia's work at Vimeo.