Christmas comedy is inspired by Quebecers' role in New York fir trade

Legions of Quebecers go to New York every Christmas, not to shop or watch the ball drop but to live on the street, selling Christmas trees.

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Geneviève spent 10 years among the legions of Quebecers who make the annual pilgrimage to New York City for Christmas. Not to shop or watch the ball drop, but to live on a street corner for a month, selling Christmas trees.

“It’s all Quebecers,” she said, of the vendors. “There’s a folklore around the idea of the Canadian tree-seller, selling Christmas trees. And with the exchange rate, (the pay) can be quite advantageous.”

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Geneviève hasn’t made the annual trek since 2008; but in her time, tree vendors could make between US$5,000 and $15,000 between American Thanksgiving and Dec. 23.

Although it’s gruelling work, she also found it rewarding in terms of the people she would meet each year.

“It opens the door to encounters you wouldn’t make otherwise,” she said. “I made all kinds of friends there. When I stopped, I missed it. The whole social aspect … made me who I am.”

Her favourite part was the tree deliveries, during which sellers enter people’s homes and often get invited to have a drink or dinner.

“You meet all kinds of different people,” she said. “New York is a funky city. Sometimes I would come back from deliveries transformed, saying ‘I can’t believe that happened.’”

Residents would sometimes offer her to shower at their place, or even leave her their keys while they were away.

“There’s an inherent trust between the vendors and the people in the neighbourhood,” she said.

Geneviève eventually convinced her roommate Alex to give it a try for a few years.

“It’s not easy,” Alex said, of sleeping in a van, working long hours, and watching the days and nights blur into one another for weeks on end. On the upside, you become part of street life in the Big Apple, and a messenger of Christmas cheer.

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“The Christmas spirit is very present for New Yorkers,” he noted. “It’s a very human experience, and it’s inhuman because you’re living in the street. You’re really on the margins of society.”

The poster for Quebec filmmaker Stephane Moukarzel's debut feature film Sapin$ (Evergreen$, in English).
The poster for Quebec filmmaker Stephane Moukarzel’s debut feature film Sapin$ (Evergreen$, in English), which opens in theatres on Friday. Photo by Dave Sidaway /Montreal Gazette

When Alex recounted his tree-selling adventures to filmmaker buddy Stéphane Moukarzel back in 2018, Moukarzel knew he had the makings for his debut feature, Sapin$ (Evergreen$), in theatres Friday.

“I was fascinated by the milieu,” Moukarzel recalled. “I was struck by how these vendors are stuck on the same street corner for a month. They can’t really leave. But the neighbourhood takes care of them. People bring them food. They see the vendors working hard and bringing good vibes, the trees smell good. It’s a safe space where all kinds of people mix — rich, poor. Christmas is very important for them, so they want a tree. And the vendors are in the middle. They’re the link between different social classes, even the homeless.”

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Moukarzel pulls off an impressive balancing act with Sapin$, which he co-wrote with Germain Larochelle. The dramatic comedy tells the franglais tale of Rémi (the charismatically goofy Étienne Galloy), a cash-strapped young Quebecer who heads down to New York to make some quick money selling Christmas trees. He ends up in the Bronx, where he is paired with Laura (Diane Rouxel), a woke activist from France. Together they enmesh themselves with an array of locals, getting up to hijinks and learning life lessons along the way.

Moukarzel did extensive research for the film, spending six months in New York in 2019 and 2020, including during the run-up to the last pre-pandemic Christmas. He interviewed dozens of tree vendors, observing the ins and outs of their day-to-day. But though his story is rooted in reality, Sapin$ boasts an auteur’s flair for the surreal.

Moukarzel mentions New York arthouse icon Jim Jarmusch’s first two films Stranger Than Paradise and Down By Law as references, as well as Martin Scorsese’s esoteric New York all-nighter After Hours.

“When I heard what (Alex) was saying about how (selling Christmas trees) worked, I immediately had visions,” Moukarzel said. “These people end up in New York in a no-man’s land, and the neighbourhood unfolds before them.”

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Rémi works the night shift, so much of the action takes place after dark.

“The first images that came to me were of the strange side of night, the New York side, and all the random people who come and talk to you,” Moukarzel said. “I love the concept that reality surpasses fiction. I like starting with reality to create a universe. With something like Sapin$, so many weird things can happen.”

Étienne Galloy and Diane Rouxel sell Christmas trees in the streets of New York in Stéphane Moukarzel's film Sapin$ (Evergreen$).
Étienne Galloy and Diane Rouxel sell Christmas trees in the streets of New York in Stéphane Moukarzel’s film Sapin$ (Evergreen$). Photo by Laurence Grandbois Bernard /Couzin Films

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Moukarzel and his crew spent a few days on location in New York, but the bulk of the film was shot in Pointe St-Charles, providing opportunities for a racially diverse cast of local actors who too rarely get a chance to be seen on Quebec screens. Their contributions give Sapin$ vital energy and added depth, alongside a message that holds true for any season.

“It’s a story about opening ourselves to others, going away from home and meeting new people,” Moukarzel said. “It makes us more tolerant and awakens us to the realities of the world.”

Sapin$ (Evergreen$) is in theatres Friday.

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