Montrealers TV series celebrates city’s diverse characters
OK, so this city has issues. The politics are Byzantine. The infrastructure is crumbling, and the resulting road construction and traffic gridlock are absolutely maddening — as are our drivers. The head offices are long gone. So are the Expos. An annual Stanley Cup parade is ancient history, and worse still, our archrival Maple Leafs are a lot closer to having one than our Habs.
Could it get any worse? Probably. Particularly if some future mayor decides to bankrupt us by celebrating our 400th birthday.
But what this city does have is an abundance of characters who make Montreal one of the quirkiest cities on the planet and that makes Montrealers forget the aforementioned woes — even if just briefly.
Although some in other parts of this province might wish for Montreal to be more culturally monolithic, it’s the diversity of our characters that helps bring light and life to the city.
On that note, Leah Balass decided the time was ripe to pay homage to some of our more unforgettable citizens as well as to celebrate the city’s diversity. Four years in the making, she has co-created, co-produced, directed and hosted the eightpart series Montrealers, which airs weekly on Tuesdays at 7:30 p.m. on MAtv.
Balass sits down with residents who may represent a dozen different ethnicities and professions but yet blend almost seamlessly into the city melting pot. Characters like Tamey Lau, owner of Mile End’s Dragon Flowers shop, or mechanical parts sculptor Jean-Paul Labelle, or downtown restaurateur Nilufar Al-Shourbaji, or the unstoppable force of nature that is 96-year-old Hymie Sckolnick, the still-working founder/owner of Beautys Luncheonette.
Balass caught up with one of my personal faves, Frank Papageorgiou, proprietor of the 37-year-old Victoria Fish Market, where the smoked salmon is second to none. No time off for Frank: “My vacation? That comes from 7:30 at night till 5 in the morning … when I sleep.” The rest of the time, there are just too many bones to be snipped and salmon to be sliced.
The latest instalment features another city original, Maged Taraboulsy, owner of the Lapidarius antiques shop. According to the boss, the business plan used to be simple: “I buy from the grandmother, then I sell to the grandchildren.”
Not as much anymore. Taraboulsy’s family has been in the trade since 1890. Like his forefathers, he was born and raised in Alexandria, Egypt, and learned his craft at the university he calls the “souk of Alexandria” before moving to Montreal.
On the same episode is another native of Egypt, Vivianne Silver, who had to leave her home in Cairo in a hurry and was to end up in Montreal. A social worker and lifelong diarist, Silver, in a moving account, reveals she is about to make another major move.
“It was after travelling that I was able to see just how Montreal and its people were so unique,” says Balass, 28. “Somehow we all share a common culture, which I like to think of as the ‘Montreal culture.’ Yet at the same time, people manage to maintain their own cultural identity while still fitting into the city (psyche).
“In other cities, like Toronto, you don’t feel that as much. There is more of a dominant Canadian culture that seems to override the other cultures.”
Balass sought to bring together as many people from this city’s various communities.
“But it all happened very naturally on its own. Curiosity just brought me to the various subjects, without thinking about having a quota on different representatives,” Balass says.
“What they all have in common are fascinating stories of what they went through and how their different journeys brought them here. What I find so interesting is not just the wisdom they bring here but how this city, for the most part, is so accepting of different cultures.”
After graduating with a degree in management from McGill, Balass, a native Montrealer, worked at the United Nations in New York for a spell.
“It was the cultural aspects of the job I found so riveting, which led me to want to pursue journalism.”
So Balass returned to Montreal to study journalism at Concordia. Upon graduation there, she won a scholarship that landed her an internship, then a job at the CBC. This gig, in turn, brought her to Newfoundland and a host of intriguing characters.
Back in Montreal, Balass was determined to pursue her obsession with characters. She partnered up with Nicolas Alacoque to co-create and co-produce this series.
No surprise that Sckolnick tops the list of Balass’s favourite characters.
“It’s not just the fact that he is 96 and still shows up for work at the crack of dawn every day, but he remains so positive and charming. I felt like I was timetravelling through the city’s past with him,” she says.
“The key to the series for me is that I felt such a connection with almost all the characters. I felt their energy, their passion and their stories, and it made me feel just so more appreciative of this city and its diversity.”
Montrealers airs Tuesdays at 7:30 p.m. on MAtv. Ilico and Videotron subscribers can catch previously aired episodes at MAtv.ca.
Leah Balass, left, director/host of the eight-part series Montrealers, with social worker and diarist Vivianne Silver.