Hot Docs 2023 Review: Lac-Mégantic – This is Not an Accident

by Andrew Parker

Award winning Quebecois filmmaker Philippe Falardeau’s incendiary and heartbreaking documentary series Lac-Mégantic – This is Not an Accident lays bare the variety of wholly preventable factors that led to one of the biggest disasters and losses of life in Canadian history, and the equally tragic fallout and perpetual trauma that the impacted community still faces to this day.

On the night of July 6, 2013, a train carrying highly flammable and combustable fuel derailed while passing through the streets of downtown Mégantic. 47 people were killed instantly (many of them vaporized), and as the oil flowed in the streets and the fire raged, it became a literal mushroom cloud of devastation, forcing the evacuation of over 2,000 residents. Despite repeated complaints about the overall safety of the trains and tracks being operated throughout this rail corridor – owned and operated at the time by MM&A (Montreal, Maine, and Atlantic) – no action was taken to avoid such a preventable disaster. Despite everything that happened and the toll it took on the community, trains were rolling through the centre of town just five months later, and the town’s revitalization project – which callously favours the courting of big business and foreign investment to town – is displacing residents that weren’t even directly in the disaster area.

Lac-Mégantic – This is Not an Accident has a lot of ground to cover across its four instalments, and Falardeau (Monsieur Lazhar, My Internship in Canada, The Good Lie) masterfully paces everything and finds every possible piece necessary to form a comprehensive picture of grief, corporate malfeasance, and governmental shortcomings that protect corporations more than they do everyday citizens. Survivors and former MM&A employees speak with unfiltered candour, sadness, tension, and terror, and the facts that they point to are enough to make anyone’s blood boil over. Falardeau has a natural villain in the form of smug railroad tycoon Ed Burkhardt – who’s far too candid for someone in his position – but the issues go further than the former owner and operator of MM&A. (In fact, the most problematic and infuriating points are made by those who choose to stay silent on the matter.) It extends to wider issues involving the alarmingly increased transportation of dangerous materials by rail, which has shot up a staggering 28,000% in recent years.

The first two parts of Lac-Mégantic – This is Not an Accident focus largely on the disaster and its immediate impact, and the second half of the series centres around the fallout and lasting legacy. The question of fault comes into sharper focus via detailed examinations of shady business practices and a curious “polluter pays all” policy, which essentially allows those responsible for such catastrophes to clean up their own mess without any sort of governmental oversight or punishment.

And in addition to Falardeau’s depiction of a community constantly getting slapped in the face, the filmmaker chillingly showcases how these derailments keep happening with alarming regularity, just not in as heavily populated of locations. A decade on from the disaster, and almost nothing has changed, but Lac-Mégantic – This is Not an Accident chillingly posits that this could just as easily happen in places like Milwaukee, Chicago, Windsor, Toronto, or Montreal, all cities that were along the same ill fated route and carried the exact same cargo. In its depiction of everyday people being served up as fodder for the supply chain, Lac-Mégantic – This is Not an Accident becomes an indispensable and overdue call to action.

Saturday, April 29, 2023 – 4:00 pm – TIFF Bell Lightbox 3

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