Last Saturday over a lunch of steamies and toastés at our favourite Montreal greasy spoon, Jean-Benoit and I tried to tackle a lofty question: what exactly is the francophonie?

We wondered, what unites francophones? Our shared cultural references? A different way of thinking? Does it go beyond language, or the love of that language?

The answer was sort of staring us in the face.

Last week, the buzz leading up the Academy Awards here in Quebec was NOT about who would win for Best film, or who Best Actor or Actress. It was about who would win the Best Foreign Film. Or rather, would homegrown film director Denis Villeneuve win for his dark and absorbing feature film, Incendies?

Just to give a sense of the importance of Foreign Films for the average North American filmgoer…on the website of the Academy Awards, the Best Foreign Film category was 12th, right between Film Editing and Make-Up. I’m guessing that was the order of the awards presentation too (I didn’t watch).

Here in Quebec, it was the only category.

Incendies is based on a play by Lebanese-Quebecois writer Wajdi Mouawad. The film is as disturbing as it is beautiful. Its plot jumps back and forth between present-day Montreal and Lebanon’s civil war (though the country is actually never named), as the adult children of a Lebanese immigrant try to unravel the mystery of their mother, and their own origins.

Incendies didn’t win, and we weren’t surprised. Mixing an immigrant story with torture and incest is probably not the best recipe to win an Oscar. Still, the film is an illuminating example of how French-speaking culture crosses borders. And the Oscar buildup shows how different even Hollywood can to a French-speaker.