Isabelle Walks With Angels,
a Montreal urban legend

Norman Nawrocki launches his latest book and a film based on it at the MAI

By Irwin Rapoport

June 26, 2023

The launch of Montreal author Norman Nawrocki’s and visual artist Ivan R.’s latest book, Isabelle Walks With Angels, A Montreal Urban Legend, and a film based on it, Isabelle Walks With Angels, produced by the multi-disciplinary artist collective Isabelle’s Angels, took place on June 22 at le MAI (Montréal, arts interculturels).

The text for the gorgeous full-colour 84-page book is embedded in a collection of powerful illustrations, collages and paintings of Montreal by the Montreal/Belgrade artist Ivan R.

I never dreamed Isabelle would ever come to life on a big screen in a fabulous film adaptation, nor a book.

– Norman Nawrocki, author of Isabelle Walks With Angels

Both Norman and Ivan are members of the Isabelle’s Angels artist collective, which includes Minda Bernstein, Naomi Silver-Vézina, Leticia Vera, and Gregory Anderson Smith. Their film brings together music, dance, theatre, videography, and animation. Lesly Velazquez stars as Isabelle. The choreography is by Leticia Vera, the sound design by Gregory Anderson Smith, and the original music is by the East European-flavoured string ensemble DaZoque! (Minda Bernstein, Norman Nawrocki, and Gregory Anderson Smith).

“I wrote Isabelle Walks With Angels, the story, many years ago, then put it away,” said Nawrocki. “I never dreamed Isabelle would ever come to life on a big screen in a fabulous film adaptation, nor a book.”

Isabelle Walks With Angels

Image from the graphic novel Isabelle Walks With Angels

The film is based on Nawrocki’s extraordinary magical realist short story of the same name, a compelling tale about a despairing woman who meets an all-women biker gang. It tells the story of Isabelle, who arrives in Montreal with hopes of building a better life, and the troubles that plague her and drag her down in frustration and homelessness. Several pressing social issues are brought to light here since, too often, the world ignores women like Isabelle.

The collaborative nature of the project reframed the individual work of each artist within a multidisciplinary context. For instance, the filming was planned taking the choreography into account; the illustrations were created specifically to be integrated into the film; the dialogue was edited because the audiovisual nature of the film allowed for more subtlety in how information was conveyed. The result is art forms that are showcased not in parallel, but interwoven with one another. The different iterations of the source story reinvent and present Isabelle’s life on the screen.

Nawrocki’s last book was Red Squared Montreal (2023). His newest play, Marusya Nikiforova, Ukraine’s Legendary Anarchist Warrior, premiered in Montreal last May at the 16th annual Montreal International Anarchist Theatre Festival at the Sala Rossa.

Nawrocki, a talented author, playwright, musician, and composer, has been featured in previous Westmount Magazine articles: When the City of Montreal was Red-Squared and
Run Nawrocki Run Raises Funds for Ukrainian Refugees.

In this Q&A, Nawrocki discusses his latest book:

WM: Is the story’s protagonist, Isabelle, based on a real character?

Nawrocki: No, she’s a composite of many different women I have met over the years. Women living in precarious situations in their relationships, their workplaces, their homes, and on the street. Women I have known as friends or colleagues; and women who were strangers. Women who told me their stories and women who remained silent. Women who normally in our patriarchal society tend to be ignored, brushed aside, not listened to, or taken seriously.

I wanted my character, Isabelle to share their stories. Thus Isabelle became any woman, many women, and speaks on their behalf. She is also ageless and just happens to live in Montreal. She could live anywhere. At any time. Yesterday, today, or tomorrow. Her life experiences reflect those of many women. A reality far too common. Her dreams and fantasies also could echo those of some of these women. Hence, Isabelle is someone many women can identify with.

‘…[Isabelle] she’s a composite of many different women I have met over the years. Women living in precarious situations in their relationships, their workplaces, their homes, and on the street.’

– Norman Nawrocki, author of Isabelle Walks With Angels

Also, I’ve spent decades working with anti-poverty and tenant and welfare rights groups from Vancouver to Montreal. Here in Montreal, my former band, Rhythm Activism and I did a series of ‘community cabarets,’ including a circus, focussed on housing and poverty issues. We worked closely with groups like the coalition of Quebec anti-poverty and housing rights groups called FRAPRU to develop these cabarets.

In the process, we met with and listened to hundreds of women like Isabelle who shared their stories with us. Stories that ended up on stage in songs or sketches, which we presented across Quebec and in Ontario on tour. Some of the women performed with us on stage. I repeated this exercise with my other band, DaZoque! (who did the Isabelle film soundtrack) when we continued to work with FRAPRU and one of its member groups in Longueuil. Again, we heard stories firsthand from countless ‘Isabelles,’ and again, some of the women joined us on stage in performances to sing songs.

Finally, I also have years of experience interviewing women (and men) about their stories for a series of educational sex cabarets I wrote and performed across Canada and the U.S. In short, many, many Isabelles have crossed my path and come together as the protagonist of the book and the film.

scene from the film Isabelle Walks With Angels

Scene from the film Isabelle Walks With Angels

WM: Much like in your last book, the fictional Red Squared Montreal, you again raise issues about social justice, even if your short story resorts to magical realism. How do you reconcile the ‘real’ with the ‘magical’ in your work?

Nawrocki: I wanted to raise pressing societal issues in a way that would allow people to run wild with their imaginations, thinking, “Yes, what if…?” Imagining how the world could be different. Re-imagining it as a place where ordinary people can exercise their powers to change things. Upend the apple cart. Unplug the machine. Come together to question and resist the given, the so-called immutable, unassailable “It’s always been like this,” and replace it with their visions for a better, healthier, more just place.

The issues of power, inequality, and injustice are real and critical and need to be addressed. The magic happens when we take things into our own hands, all together. Isabelle gives me the freedom to share this fantasy. And the inspiration.

WM: You adapted your short story for film. What were some of the challenges for you as a writer to do this?

Nawrocki: How to work with a minimized script. How to let go and allow the visuals of both the filmmaker/director, Naomi, and the artist, Ivan, to do the talking, to tell the story. But also allow the choreographer Leticia, and the actor/dancer Lesly, to add their own physical and dramatic interpretations of the character to the mix. I wrote and re-wrote the script many times, cutting more and more of the expository dialogue until the result was only a smattering of spoken words. A skeletal dialogue.

‘But for this book, it seems he [Ivan R.] has surpassed his previous genius. His creativity has reached another level. For Isabelle, he has drawn mind-blowing pages that are each stunning, each different from the others. It was inspiring to collaborate with him again.’

– Norman Nawrocki, author of Isabelle Walks With Angels

WM: Given the worsening housing crisis in the city of Montreal as elsewhere, will we be seeing more Isabelles in the streets?

Nawrocki: Unfortunately, yes. All ages. Young and old. And until the City of Montreal, like other cities, takes the housing crisis seriously and initiates drastic emergency measures that preserve existing affordable rental housing stock and restricts demolitions, renovictions, and conversions to Airbandbs and condos, until this happens, homelessness and the legions of the under-housed will only increase. This is unacceptable. The City must stop speculators, landlords, and developers from running wild oblivious to the human tragedy they are directly responsible for.

WM: You collaborated before with the Serbian artist Ivan R. on your book The Legend of the Rat King. How different was working together this time on this book?

Nawrocki: Ivan is such a talented artist with a limitless creative imagination. He has an innate ability to create exactly what is needed to express an idea, a feeling, a mood, or a given moment in the story. But not only is his work functional, that is, it serves the purpose intended, but he performs magic with his pen and brushes to render that particular piece as something special, unique, and fantastic. He is a consummate artist. He takes an idea and converts it into a powerful piece of artwork.

Working on the other book, The Legend of the Rat King, he did the same thing. But for this book, it seems he has surpassed his previous genius. His creativity has reached another level. For Isabelle, he has drawn mind-blowing pages that are each stunning, each different from the others. It was inspiring to collaborate with him again.

The book, Isabelle Walks With Angels, is available in select bookstores in Montreal or can be ordered online from the publisher as a paperback or an eBook PDF:

Images: courtesy of Norman Nawrocki and Isabelle’s AngelsBouton S'inscrire à l'infolettre –

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Irwin RapoportIrwin Rapoport is a freelance journalist with Bachelor’s degrees in History and Political Science from Concordia University.



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