Childhood and Early Career
Born in the Acadian community of Baie Sainte-Marie, Nova Scotia, Phil Comeau was an innately curious child. At age 9, he went to see the movie The Sound of Music and was strongly affected by its depiction of the Von Trapp family’s narrow escape from the Nazis. In the ensuing years, he thought often about this scene, in which he saw similarities to the Acadian experience (see History of Acadia; The Deportation of the Acadians), which was to become a central theme of his cinematic work.
When Comeau was 13, his father gave him an 8-mm movie camera, and he began shooting his first amateur films with his friends. A bit later, he founded two clubs, one for video, another for theatre. Though he longed to become a filmmaker, at the time there was no film program at any university in Canada’s Maritime Provinces, so in 1974 he began studying for a bachelor’s degree in drama at the Université de Moncton, in New Brunswick.
First Films: La cabane and Les gossipeuses
In 1974, the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) opened Studio Acadie, a French-language film production centre in Moncton, New Brunswick and invited aspiring Acadian filmmakers to follow the trail blazed by their predecessor, Léonard Forest, in 1953. Phil Comeau had already written his first screenplay and he decided to submit it. As a result, in 1976, when he was scarcely 20 years old, Comeau got to shoot his first professional film—a medium-length fiction piece about Acadian youth, entitled La cabane (released in 1977) under the auspices of the NFB’s Régionalisation/Acadie program.
When Comeau left home, he was well aware that his parents hoped he would find a profession that offered him financial security, and that they did not see a career in film or theatre as filling this bill. But after the success of Phil’s second film, Les gossipeuses (another medium-length film produced by the NFB, released in 1978), his father relented: perhaps his son’s passion for movies could open some promising doors for him after all. One thing was certain: whether his vocation offered security or not, Phil Comeau had no intention of giving it up. When the NFB’s French Program threatened to shut down in 1980, the young filmmaker decided to found his own company, Ciné-Baie.
Training in France and Exile in Montréal
A staunch Acadian nationalist, Comeau felt it important to stay close to his roots and to pursue his career in French. In the early 1980s, the Société Nationale de l’Acadie and the government of France awarded him a France-Acadia scholarship to study filmmaking in Paris. There he worked as an intern for documentary filmmaker Jean Rouch and attended seminars taught by the eminent French film director François Truffaut. Comeau also spent time on the sound stages of several veteran directors, including Alain Corneau, Jean Becker, Claude Sautet and José Pinheiro, who became genuine mentors for him.
In 1982, Comeau returned to Canada. Because film production in Moncton was still languishing, he decided to try his luck working in Montréal on Québec/Acadia co-productions. During Comeau’s first year in Montréal, contracts were scarce. He auditioned for television acting roles and appeared in various series, such as Le temps d’une paix, Entre chien et loup, Paul, Marie et les enfants, Monsieur le ministre and Street Legal, in which he played characters with Acadian accents. He also lent his voice to an Acadian character in the short film Rendezvous Canada, 1606. Watching other directors ply their trade was a formative experience for the young Comeau, from which he learned a great deal.
Le tapis de Grand-Pré and Le secret de Jérôme
In 1986, Comeau shot his first children’s film, Le tapis de Grand-Pré. In 1994, he filmed Le secret de Jérôme in and around the towns of Caraquet and Grande-Anse, on New Brunswick’s Acadian Peninsula. With its breathtaking scenery, and a cast including Germain Houde, Rémy Girard, Myriam Cyr and Viola Léger (famous for her performance in the one-woman stage show La Sagouine, by Antonine Maillet), this Québec/Nova Scotia/New Brunswick co-production was the first Acadian independent feature film ever made. Based on a true story that occurred in 1863, the film was subsequently screened at the Théâtre de l’UNESCO in Paris. Twenty years later, it was digitally archived by the project Éléphant ‒ mémoire du cinéma Québécois (Elephant – memory of the Québec cinema).
Phil Comeau has always liked variety in his projects, be they short films, feature films or documentaries. In 2012, he shot the documentary feature Frédéric Back, grandeur nature (The Nature of Frederick Back), about Frédéric Back, an illustrator and environmental activist who inspired him and for whom he had immense respect (see Canadian Film Animation).
In 2013, Comeau turned his camera on Ron Turcotte, an Acadian jockey from Drummond, New Brunswick who made his name in 1973 when he won U.S. horse racing’s prestigious Triple Crown atop his famous mount Secretariat. Comeau’s documentary feature Ron Turcotte, jockey légendaire/Secretariat’s Jockey, Ron Turcotte earned him three major awards on the international film festival circuit, including Best Feature Film at the 35th International Sports Film Festival in Palermo, Italy.
In 2015, Comeau filmed renowned Acadian singer-songwriter Zachary Richard as he followed the traces of his Richard and Boudreau ancestors through Canada’s three Maritime provinces and Louisiana and asked his Cajun peers how they felt about their Cajun/Acadian identity. The following year, Comeau released the resulting documentary feature, Zachary Richard, toujours batailleur/Zachary Richard, Cajun Heart, which earned him both the La Vague Léonard-Forest Award for Best Acadian Film and the Audience Choice Award at FICFA, the international francophone film festival in Moncton, New Brunswick. The film was also screened on 25 January 2017 as the opening feature at the Cinema on the Bayou Film Festival in Lafayette, Louisiana, where it won the Director's Choice Award - Documentary Feature. On 16 March 2017, Zachary Richard, Cajun Heart became the first Acadian film to be shown at the United Nations in Geneva.
Plans as of 2017
As of 2017, with 40 years of filmmaking and some 100 films to his credit, Phil Comeau would like to shoot more films in Acadia. Film sets and editing rooms are where he loves to spend his time. He sees directing films as a stimulating challenge because, as he stated in an interview with the newspaper Acadie Nouvelle, “You have to start all over again every time.” Comeau will be spending part of his time in 2017 helping to direct a two-part documentary series, Vague d’Acadie, about the impact of Acadian musicians in the French-speaking world.
Selected Awards and Honours
- Award of Excellence (La musique nous explique), Atlantic Film Festival, Halifax (1984)
- Award of Excellence (Le tapis de Grand-Pré), First Francophone Games Film Festival (1986)
- Award of Excellence (Le tapis de Grand-Pré), Atlantic Film Festival (1986)
- Best Documentary TV Series (Archeology), Cable Ace Awards, Los Angeles, California (1992)
- Best Series (Archeology), WorldFest-Houston, Texas (1992)
- Audience Choice Award (Le secret de Jérôme), Festival international du film francophone, Namur, Belgium (1994)
- Best First Feature Film Award (Le secret de Jérôme), Festival international du film francophone, Namur, Belgium (1994)
- Maverick Award (Le secret de Jérôme), Cinequest Film Festival, San Jose, California (1994)
- Lapnappe Heritage Award (Le secret de Jérôme), International Film Festival, New Orleans, Louisiana (1994)
- La Vague Award (Le secret de Jérôme), Festival international du cinéma francophone en Acadie (FICFA), Moncton, New Brunswick (1994)
- Audience Choice Award (Le secret de Jérôme), Atlantic Film Festival (1994)
- Champion Award, Fédération culturelle canadienne-française (1995)
- Grand-Pré Award, Nova Scotia Ministry of Culture (known now as Arts Nova Scotia) (1997)
- Best Dramatic TV Series (Emily of New Moon), Alliance for Children and Television Awards, Toronto (1998)
- Méritas Award, Fédération acadienne du Québec (1999)
- Best Drama Series (Pit Pony), Young Artist Awards, Los Angeles (2000)
- Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et Lettres, ministère de la Culture de la France (2006)
- Ordre des francophones d’Amérique, Conseil supérieur de la langue française (2007)
- Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts, Université Sainte-Anne (2007)
- Audience Choice Award and Special Mention by Jury (La nature avant tout), Festival de films de Portneuf sur l’environnement (2009)
- Coup de Cœur Award (La Sagouine), Festival des créations télévisuelles de Luchon, France (2010)
- Member of the Order of Canada (2011)
- Audience Choice Award (Frédéric Back, grandeur nature/The Nature of Frederic Back), International Festival of Films on Art (FIFA), Montréal (2013)
- Audience Choice Award (Frédéric Back, grandeur nature/The Nature of Frederic Back), FICFA (2013)
- Audience Choice Award (Frédéric Back, grandeur nature/The Nature of Frederic Back), Cinema on the Bayou Film Festival, Lafayette, Louisiana (2013)
- Honorary Doctor of Arts, Université de Moncton (2013)
- Audience Choice Award (Ron Turcotte, jockey légendaire/Secretariat's Jockey, Ron Turcotte), Cinéfest Sudbury International Film Festival, Sudbury, Ontario (2013)
- Best Feature Film (Ron Turcotte, jockey légendaire/Secretariat's Jockey, Ron Turcotte), International Sports Film Festival, Palermo, Italy (2014)
- Director’s Choice Special Jury Award (Ron Turcotte, jockey légendaire/Secretariat's Jockey, Ron Turcotte), Cinema on the Bayou Film Festival (2014)
- Certificate of Merit, Fédération acadienne de la Nouvelle-Écosse (2014)
- Prix Acadie-Québec, Bureau du Québec et Société Nationale de l’Acadie (2014)
- Order of New Brunswick (2016)
- Chevalier de l’Ordre de la Pléiade, Assemblée parlementaire de la Francophonie (2016)
- La Vague Léonard-Forest Award for Best Acadian Medium or Feature-Length Film (Zachary Richard, toujours batailleur/Zachary Richard, Cajun Heart), FICFA (2016)
- La Vague Uni Coopération financière Award for Best Acadian Short Film (Belle-Île-en-Mer, île bretonne et acadienne), FICFA (2016)
- La Vague Audience Choice Award (Zachary Richard, toujours batailleur/Zachary Richard, Cajun Heart), FICFA (2016)
- Director’s Choice Award – Documentary Feature (Zachary Richard, toujours batailleur/Zachary Richard, Cajun Heart), Cinema on the Bayou Film Festival (2017)
- Documentary Short Special Jury Mention Award (Belle-Île-en-Mer, île bretonne et acadienne), Cinema on the Bayou Film Festival (2017)