The name Mazo de la Roche may not be very familiar to many people, but she holds a very important place in Canadian literature. At first an obscure writer, her novel Jalna catapulted her to international recognition, setting the stage for a 16 novel series. While her literary life was very public, her private life is a maze of half truths and carefully concealed details. Director Maya Gallus seeks to expose some of that private life with the documentary The Mystery Of Mazo de la Roche, screening at the 2012 Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival.
The true challenge to a film like this is sifting through the amount of misinformation that exists about Mazo. A very reclusive individual, Mazo would go out of her way to avoid questions about her life, seemingly creating another character for the public to view. She spent most of her life with her second cousin and “adopted sister” Caroline Clement. Their relationship was quite intense, with Caroline taking an active part in preventing the public from learning about their lives. Eventually, the women adopted two children. Surprisingly, even her children could learn nothing of the real Mazo, with Caroline and Mazo never even revealing to the kids details about their birth.
The living situation of Mazo and Caroline sparked numerous rumours, something the documentary tends to focus on a bit too much. More than half of the film is spent delicately walking around the idea that her sexual preference was women. Obviously that would have been a huge problem during that time. It wasn’t really something that anybody talked about. It certainly doesn’t affect any aspect of a person, including their talent, so the fact that they seem to be subtly suggesting it for so much time takes away from any other information they could present.
As we learn about the early Jalna novels, the characters in the book are compared to Mazo and Caroline. This seems to be one of the only ways to gain some understanding of who Mazo actually was, but even this seems geared towards discussion of her sexual preference. The problem isn’t that everything seems to lead to that topic, the problem is that nobody will just address it outright. Nobody really knows because of how secretive Mazo and Caroline were about their lives, but there’s no reason to try and avoid the topic.
Once we get beyond that point, we begin to see pieces of the true Mazo. The film contains dramatized scenes starring Severn Thompson as Mazo de la Roche which uses actual writings from Mazo, as well as interviews with Mazo’s adopted daughter, writers Marie-Claire Blais and Susan Swan, and biographers. The woman that starts to develop is intelligent and kind, but plagued by nervous breakdowns and an intense need to be private, something that becomes quite challenging after the popularity of Jalna.
Much like Mazo’s life leaving more questions than answers, this documentary does the same. Unfortunately, we may never be able to really understand the woman that Mazo was. It’s quite a mystery, like the title suggests, and an extremely interesting one at that. It’s hard to believe that such an important Canadian writer could be so unknown, but The Mystery Of Mazo de la Roche may be the first step to start learning about Mazo and her life.
The Mystery Of Mazo de la Roche screens with The Fortune In The Throat at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival on Sunday, April 29, 2012 at 4:45 pm, Monday, April 30, 2012 at 6:30 pm, and Sunday, May 6, 2012 at 4:15 pm. Check their website for tickets and details.