Exovede in the Darkroom: The Films of Rhayne Vermette

“Exovede in the Darkroom: The Films of Rhayne Vermette.” Millennium Film Journal 78 (Fall 2023): 48-9.

Exovede in the Darkroom: The Films of Rhayne Vermette
Edited by Stephen Broomer & Irene Bindi 
(Winnipeg: ARP Books, 2023), 168 pages.

Exovede in the Darkroom is an edited collection of essays and personal responses dedicated to the moving image works of Rhayne Vermette. The book demonstrates how Vermette’s unique visions both embody and depart from the regional aesthetics inherent to the cinema produced in Treaty 1, the homeland of Métis Nation to which Vermette belongs. 

As co-editor Irene Bindi explains in her introduction, the title is in reference to Italian architect-designer Carlo Mollino’s book Message from the Darkroom —just as one of Venette’s major films, Domus (2017), is a response to Mollino’s life, work, and writings.1 The term “exovede” is a neologism coined by Métis leader Louis Riel, who founded the province of Manitoba in 1870 and led two resistance movements against the Government of Canada, for which he was eventually hanged, elevating his status from rebel to Francophone martyr. The term itself was inspired by a religious vision in which God spoke to Riel and means those who are “chosen from the flock” in Latin. Vermette’s work follows Riel’s lead by embodying a form of critical resistance and is a form of devotional cinema.2

About half of the book addresses Vermette’s feature length film Ste. Anne (2021). In Sky Hopinka’s beautiful essay, “Lost Thoughts on Ste. Anne,” he compares the film to a song in which you recognize the rhythm and motifs, but not necessarily the version. He further suggests that some referents might be too culturally specific for everyone to understand but “that’s alright, that’s okay.” He continues, “I’m drawn to respect what is beyond my cultural understanding and beyond a community of my own.”3 The film invites us to quietly listen and that’s okay too. 

Just as the book begins with a personal response to Ste. Anne, it ends with a fan letter from Winnipeg-based curator Jennifer Smith to Vermette aptly titled “Dear Rhayne.” While the letter showers praise on Vermette for providing much needed representation of Métis women and culture on screen, it also provides insight through Smith’s discussion of her personal relationship to the film and through her observations about community and invisible labor.

Curator and artist Suzanne Morrissette and moving image scholar Gwynne Fulton provide cultural context, approaching the work from very different perspectives. In “A Prescribed Burn,” Morrissette writes “I recognize myself in this story,”4 as a Métis artist and scholar with family histories tied to the region now known as Manitoba, but also as someone who left Winnipeg and desires to return. Her essay explores the unspoken conflict within the film including tensions between Métis/Indigenous communities, the church and French cultural traditions, and the impacts of colonial histories on different generations of Métis people. Fulton’s essay “Rematriating Land & Image,” solidifies Ste. Anne as form of colonial resistance, arguing that “the film circulates different ontologies of land: land understood as property in settler colonial law and land understood as a system of relations in Métis cosmologies.”5

The book also includes a few essays on Vermette’s short films. Architecture scholar Lawerence Bird’s essay “Burning Down the House” is an exploration of Vermette’s engagement with architectural concepts and space. While Bird’s essay effectively examines the architecture of the image through Vermette’s work, he also connects the architecture in David Byrne’s film True Stories (1986) to Vermette’s film Les Châssis de Lourdes (2016), a film which she diffusely references in her work.6

While Bird’s essay suggests the playful nature of Vermette’s work, Bindi uses her extensive knowledge of experimental cinema traditions to argue for a more serious, spiritual dimension, positioning Vermette as an “outsider inside”7 and suggests that her films create “experiences that draw through investigation, neither unaware of, nor defined by, a specific tradition.”8 The book includes Joshua Minsoo Kim’s interview with Vermette, an essay by scholar Claudia Sicondolfo which applies Madeleine L’Engle’s concept of time to Vermette’s films, an article in which Janet Blatter uses her expertise in cognitive film theory to provide an analysis of Domus, and an essay by film critic José Sarmiento Hinojosa which traces the concept of the ruin through Vermette’s work.

Given that the book is a collection of responses and not a survey, it would have benefited from the inclusion of a filmography. Moreover, since there are a few essays which focus on Domus, the book could have included Vermette’s notes on the making of the film and excerpts from the texts that are quoted in it.9 Granted, with the quality and diversity of the writing found in this collection, these are minor criticisms.

In her personal response to Ste. Anne, Smith accurately suggests, “this is not a story you are being invited to be part of, but one that you are just there to observe.”10 This sentiment applies to most of Vermette’s work which can be oblique at times; however, this book suggests new approaches, new ways of seeing, maps for navigating the uncharted territories.

  1. Irene Bindi, “Strange Sunders,” Exovede in the Darkroom, p. 13. Carlo Mollino, Message from the Darkroom (Turnin: Adarte, 2007). []
  2. By devotional cinema, I mean something akin to filmmaker Nathaniel Dorsky’s conceptualization: “The word ‘devotion,’ as I am using it, need not refer to the embodiment of a specific religious form. Rather, it is the opening or the interruption that allows us to experience what is hidden, and to accept with our hearts our given situation.  When film does this, when it subverts our absorption in the temporal and reveals the depth of our own reality, it opens us to a fuller sense of ourselves and our world.  It is alive as a devotional form.” Dorsky, Devotional Cinema (Berkeley: Tuumba Press, 2003), pp. 15-6. []
  3. Sky Hopinka, “Lost Thoughts on Ste. Anne,” Exovede in the Darkroom, p. 19. []
  4. Suzanne Morressette, “Ste. Anne: A Prescribed Burn,” Exovede in the Darkroom, p. 64. []
  5. Gwynne Fulton, “Ste. Anne: Rematriating Land and Image,” Exovede in the Darkroom, p. 79. []
  6. For an explanation about the architecture of the image, see Juhani Pallasmaa, The Architecture of Image: Existential Space in Cinema (Helsinki: Rakennustieto Oy, 2007). []
  7. Bindi, “Strange Sunders,” p. 13. []
  8. Bindi, “Domus and Her Siblings,” Exovede in the Darkroom, p. 85. []
  9. Rhayne Vermette, “The Making of Domus,” Manitoba Cold Storage Co. (October 30, 2018). []
  10. Jennifer Smith, “Dear Rhayne,” Exovede in the Darkroom, p. 156. []