One of the most captivating aspects of a short documentary is its ability to capture moments of transition, those fleeting instances of change that might never occur again. Case in point, Hervé Demers’ impressive documentary short Once the Dust Has Settled (Une fois la poussière retombée), which introduces us to the former Quebec mining town of Asbestos – once home to the largest mine of its kind – and its residents who reflect on the changes which have come to their once thriving home since the mine was closed. Touching on themes of deindustrialisation and community, we spoke to Demers about his 16-minute film and how he used the cinematography and edit to create an intimate short with a global message.

Your film is centred around the Canadian town formerly known as Asbestos and how it’s changed since the mine, central to its community, has closed. Although the story is very specific to this area, the film has broad appeal due to the themes it explores. When making the film, was there a particular message you were hoping to convey through your narrative?

Industrial decline has been affecting cities in North America and Western Europe since the early 70s. We often think of the consequences as mainly economic, but the outcomes of deindustrialisation also had a profound effect on cultural identities within communities: it has impacted their sense of pride and purpose. This is the key issue my film seeks to explore. The town of Asbestos used to operate the biggest mine of its kind in the world for over a century. Its community developed around this single purpose; a mining culture that prospered over five generations. The sudden cessation of all its activities seriously undermined the social fabric of this town and questioned its very existence.

The outcomes of deindustrialisation also had a profound effect on cultural identities within communities: it has impacted their sense of pride and purpose.

Additionally, what sets Asbestos apart from other deindustrialised towns is how its main resource, over time, became a universal symbol of public health disaster. I found this ethical paradox fascinating from a documentary standpoint: is it possible to value the perspective of a community whose entire history was devoted to the exploitation of a now feared and despised natural resource?

Herve Demers Once the Dust Settles documentary

Can you tell us a little about the shoot – when did you film? How long for? How big was your crew? What equipment did you use?

My film crew was as minimal as it gets: DP Hong An Nguyen, me and my father, a retired truck driver who was more than happy to drive us around. Back then, Hong happened to own a Panasonic Varicam35 and a kit of Zeiss lenses. He was generous enough to bring his own gear, allowing me to produce the film at a lower cost.

All in all, it was a seven-day shoot, including two days of audio interviews and a day of additional drone footage. I held out from using a drone until I realized only an aerial view of the town could convey how dangerously close it was built to the perimeter of the pit.

Only an aerial view of the town could convey how dangerously close it was built to the perimeter of the pit.

I really enjoyed the cinematography of the film and in particular how it contrasts with the audio interviews. Was the plan always to avoid more traditional talking head interviews and use the audio underneath these images of the town and inhabitants? And what do you think this adds to the film, over a more conventional approach?

I really wanted this documentary to be more about a ‘community’ rather than ‘characters’ we would identify with on an emotional level. Thus, the plan was always to record the interviews without a camera. Not only was it less intimidating for all participants, but it also allowed my sound recordists to install their microphones a lot closer than usual, thus crafting more intimate voice recordings and an overall deeper sound.

I also love to think of oral histories as both narrative and aesthetic components of a film. Of course, testimonies are the most effective way to communicate human experience, but the voices’ sonic properties also are an incredible source of beauty in itself. When a person speaks, it vibrates; consequently, each voice in a film adds a unique form of musicality, which is a central part of the way I envision the design of my soundtrack.

herve demers filmmaker

Another thing that struck me about the film was the pacing. There’s a very contemplative, measured speed to how the story unfolds, which allows the audience to consider both the words of the interviewees and the images of the town. I know you edited the film yourself; can you talk a little about your process and whether the pacing came very organically or if it was something you had to work on?

My editing strategy was built around a dichotomy: while oral histories would tell us about the past, images would tell us about the present. I am fascinated by how oral histories deepen the way we look at the world; the same goes for how images often shed a new light on how we understand the past. In my film, this dichotomy became a dialog of sorts; an editing strategy that allowed me to both document and communicate experience-based knowledge in a relatable way. It’s a storytelling approach that is not so different – in its inherent logic – from oral tradition.

Each voice in a film adds a unique form of musicality.

That being said, I could not further explain the pace of the film; it’s definitely not premeditated or conscious, but it is faithful to the rhythm at which I like to look at the world. When everything goes too fast, I feel like I remain at the surface of things and I tend to forget myself.

What would you say was the biggest challenge in creating this film?

All remnants of the former asbestos industry were being dismantled right in front of my eyes as soon as I started to develop this documentary project. It was a race against the clock. I had to prepare the production fast enough to make sure we could document the abandoned industrial buildings, the idle 200-ton trucks and the various machines before everything disappeared for good.

I don’t think the film would have rendered the course of time so palpably if it were not for the physical presence of those abandoned objects and buildings.

Of course, one could have used archive images to compensate for this loss, but I really believed there was a unique narrative quality in the way time – and human activity especially – altered the material surfaces of this place. I don’t think the film would have rendered the course of time so palpably if it were not for the physical presence of those abandoned objects and buildings. Their silence and their stillness were strongly expressive.

The narrative of Once the Dust Has Settled feels like one you could easily return to, especially since the town has changed its name, do you have plans to do anything else with this story?

After the premiere of the film at Hot Docs and its ensuing festival run, I continued to engage with the community of Asbestos, presenting the film to citizens, holding discussions, reconnecting with past collaborators and developing new relationships along the way. Since 2021, I continued to explore the deindustrialisation of Asbestos through the language of still photography, with the aim of publishing a photobook following the 125th anniversary of the town. In the long run, my aim is to reinvent this documentary body of work into other iterations that will complement both the film and the photobook: installations, for instance, composed of photographs, videos, material objects and texts.

What else are you working on?

I am currently in postproduction on another short documentary film titled En pays froid (Cold Comfort). This project tells the story of West African francophone immigrants, who chose to start a new life in Eeyou Istchee James Bay, the most Nordic region in the province of Quebec. As they all grew up in a tropical climate, they are now discovering – as adults – both the wonders and the harshness of Canadian winters. The project seeks to explore the cultural implications of such a geographic disparity.

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