Sunday, May 29, 2011

2011 Champions League Final

Barcelona 3-1 Manchester United

Saturday, May 28 2011 will go down in history as the day when a truly classic Champions League final was played out at Wembley between two giants of the modern game. The game unfolded as one would have expected but the extent of Barcelona’s dominance was still mesmerizing to watch. Barca are known to pass their opponents into oblivion but to do that in a final is a truly remarkable feat. Xavi is the king of sideway passes and once again he showed that there is a purpose to every square pass, that patience will duly be rewarded and if one looks hard enough, then spaces will appear out of nowhere. In an honest interview back in February, Xaxi talked about his love for finding spaces:

Think quickly, look for spaces. That's what I do: look for spaces. All day. I'm always looking. All day, all day. [Xavi starts gesturing as if he is looking around, swinging his head]. Here? No. There? No. People who haven't played don't always realise how hard that is. Space, space, space. It's like being on the PlayStation. I think shit, the defender's here, play it there. I see the space and pass. That's what I do.

And he once again found space for Barca’s opening goal. Patrice Evra drifted a few steps towards Messi leaving open a space through which Xavi played a perfect pass towards Pedro who calmly slotted home the opener. It was a truly remarkable goal which combined Barca’s passing, intelligent off the ball movement and their remarkable space manipulation.

Messi’s second goal was equally remarkable as well. He picked up a pass from Iniesta, took a few touches, managed to find space where none existed and then in an instant slammed a powerful shot past a static frozen Manchester defense. Barcelona’s constant pressure paid off for the third when Villa curved home a beautiful shot to seal the game. Interestingly, Manchester managed to score a Barca type goal of their own after Rooney and Giggs exchanged passes before Rooney placed his shot perfectly into the top corner to register Manchester’s only shot on target over the course of the 90 minutes.

Overall, it was a perfectly officiated game as well with the referee hardly visible during the entire game as he let the game flow perfectly without any stoppages. The fact that the first half had no stoppage time speaks for itself. Also, it was nice to see Dani Alves and Busquets not ruin the game by taking unnecessary drives.

My Champions League fantasy league for the final featured the following players:
As per the points rules:

A captain earns double points
A striker earns 4 points for a goal scored
A midfielder earns 6 points for a goal scored
A defender earns 8 points for a goal scored
A defender also gets -1 point for each goal conceded

Messi was my captain because I was certain he would score, which he did thereby earning me double points. I had a feeling that one of Hernández or Rooney would score but I picked both of them. Rooney scored but Hernández was invisible because he was left isolated and had no support. Originally, I started this Champions League season with David Villa in my first 11 but I dropped him a few weeks ago. Villa works extremely hard off the ball but I did not expect him to score a goal in the final because he always seems to get subbed off late in the game. This time around, he scored a precious third goal before getting subbed off, again.

My midfield was easy to pick. I picked the players that I thought would likely score or have an assist. Pedro duly scored off an assist by Xavi while Iniesta also notched an assist. However, I had expected to see a lot more from Valencia but that did not happen.

Defense was always going to be a losing endeavor. I did not expect either team to keep a clean-sheet so I knew I would not get any bonus points for a shut-out so at best I was hoping neither team would concede too many goals. Also, if a defender from Man Utd was likely to score a goal, I figured it had to be Vidic from a corner. But Man Utd got zero corners so Vidic never ventured into Barca’s penalty box.

As per the points system for the goalkeeper, each goal conceded is -1 point but a goalie gets 1 point for every 3 shots saved. This created the bizarre situation where Edwin van der Sar earned more points than Victor Valdés, despite Man Utd letting in 3 goals. Valdés let in one goal (-1 point) and got one yellow card (-1 point) but had no saves to make. Therefore, his total ended being 0 points with his 2 points for starting the game nullified by his yellow card and single goal conceded. On the other hand, van der Sar let in 3 goals (-3 points) but made 9 saves (+3 points), which meant he got 2 points (for being named in the starting 11).

[Update May 29:] van der Sar was only awarded 1 point as soccernet's reports show that he made 6 saves thereby earning him 2 points. This is in contrast to the official UEFA reports which show that he made 9 saves. Defense cost me valuable points as my selected 3 defenders + goalkeeper earned me a total of -1 point. Rafael did not play but I had his brother Fabio listed as a sub, who duly earned 0, the same as Alves and Valdés. Vidic got -1.


Apparently, there is a tradition that when an away team wins a final in the opponents country, the winning team cuts the soccer net and takes it home. So Barcelona’s players and staff found a few pair of scissors and went about removing the goal net after the trophy presentation. Piqué happily ran off with the goal net on his shoulders. Maybe, he will present the net to Shakira as a gift?

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Actuality Dramas of Allan King

The first time I heard a film described as an actuality was when Allan King mentioned it in the Q&A session following a special screening of his film A Married Couple. The word perfectly described A Married Couple because the film was an actual documentation of the ups and downs of a married couple’s relationship. Sadly, a few months after the special Calgary Cinematheque screening Allan King passed away. That made the screening of A Married Couple even more special.

The 2008 screening of A Married Couple meant that the film was once again starting to get some attention almost four decades it was released. Then last year, Criterion released a box-set of Allan King’s films, naturally called The Actuality Dramas of Allan King. Having already seen A Married Couple, the other four films were part of this spotlight.

Warrendale (1968)
A Married Couple (1969)
Come On Children (1972)
Dying at Grace (2003)
Memory for Max, Claire, Ida and Company (2005)

The subject material of all five films is sensitive and intimate. Warrendale captures day to day life in a rehabilitation home for emotionally disturbed kids, A Married Couple shows the turbulent and tense moments of a marriage, Come on Children brings forth some teenage concerns and attitudes, Dying at Grace shows terminally ill patients in their final moments of life and Memory for Max, Claire, Ida and Company sheds a light on behaviour and moments associated with human aging.

The only film out of the five that is not shot in its original location is Come on Children. Warrendale is shot exclusively inside the rehabilitation home, A Married in Couple takes place in either the couple’s home or their office and both Dying at Grace and Memory... are shot respectively in the health center and nursing home where the patients lived. On the other hand, Come on Children required the subjects to leave their natural homes to go live in selected location. This is how the idea for the film came about:

King interviewed three or four hundred people between the ages of thirteen and nineteen from the middle-class suburbs of Toronto about their unsatisfactory presents and desired futures. The most common comment he heard was that they wanted to be left alone by hassling cops, teachers, parents, and other authority figures. So King granted their wish, inviting a cross section of them (five boys, five girls) to live on a remote farm for ten weeks, without supervision, to be filmed at all times.

The end result is a cinematic experiment decades ahead of its time. Basically, the film predicts modern day reality shows such as Big Brother by having a camera capture the life of its subjects round the clock. Initially, the constant presence of the camera draws hostile reactions from two teenagers with one of the teens trying to place his hand on the camera and telling the camera man to get lost. But eventually, the teens go about their lives naturally as the camera becomes a part of their lives.

Memories and Death

We have a desperate need as human beings to understand reality, and we go to desperate ends to avoid that reality......

The curious thing is that when you do look at reality and face it, it is no longer fearsome.
-- Allan King

Both Dying at Grace and Memory for Max, Claire, Ida and Company go to great lengths to portray that reality and as such present plenty emotionally touching and tearful moments. It is hard to imagine how Peter Walker shot both films objectively because the material certainly would not have been easy to film, especially that of Dying at Grace where some of the patients pass away in presence of the camera. At times, it feels intrusive to observe intimate family moments when a loved one has passed away but the film was conceived with the blessing of the patients and their families. In that regard, one hopes audience find positives in observing such tender moments.

Interestingly, Allan King’s first and second last feature complete a cinematic circle. In Warrendale, there is a significant moment when the staff talk to the children about the death of a cook. This discussion leads to the film’s main crisis point as some children emotionally break down and become difficult to control. In Memory for Max, Claire, Ida and Company, the nursing home staff talk about the death of Max to the other residents. Naturally, given their age and health, the reaction of the other residents is muted and different from the children in Warrendale. Yet, the discussion about death is similar in both films even though the people listening to the news are on opposite ends of an age spectrum.


Personally, A Married Couple is my favourite overall film from the five. Also, it is a film that one can objectively observe without letting any emotional filters get in the way. Any person who has experienced a relative losing their memory as they aged would find Memory for Max, Claire, Ida and Company a tough viewing while Dying at Grace would be more difficult to view for anyone who has ever lost a loved one. Warrendale is an amazing film from a cinematic technique but some of the methods for the children's rehabilitation are not the easiest to digest. The weakest film in the group ends up being Come on Children. That has a lot to do with the subjects captured on camera. The children had total freedom to do as they pleased but after a few days, they settled into a routine of singing and lying around. Their biggest struggle came when they had to discuss who had to clean the kitchen. No amount of editing could have enriched the material but still the film offers an interesting case study about the behavior and concerns of some teens in the early 1970’s.

Actuality = Direct Cinema - embedded presence

Allan King’s debut feature Warrendale is an incredible piece of cinema that lays out the actuality filming style King would follow in his subsequent films. This style involved shooting primarily in an indoor location, acutely observing humans in tender and sensitive moments without the presence of a director or a narrator. Allan King removed himself from the room while his cinematographer lived and filmed freely without inhibitions. The fact that Allan King was not present in the room during filming is what probably differentiates his actuality style from Direct Cinema which required the filmmaker to be embedded constantly in their shooting environments. The tender and sensitive subject material of Allan King’s films necessitated him to be absent from the room because his presence would have indirectly influenced his subjects or would have broken the intimacy that could be offered by a silent cinematographer whose job was to shoot everything without any filters or editing.

Allan King’s techniques should be treasured and his works deserve a wider appreciation. His topics may not find many takers but the technique used in his actuality films can certainly lead to a more rich and pure form of cinema.

note: The subject material of Memory for Max, Claire, Ida and Company reminded me of Jean-François Caissy’s Journey’s End, a Canadian film that I saw at last year’s CIFF. Journey’s End also observes its elder subjects without any voice-over narration and offers an unfiltered look at their lives.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Finally, an energetic supercharged trailer

In the latest Cannes roundup, David Hudson has put up a trailer for Bollywood: The Greatest Love Story Ever Told co-directed by Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra (Rang De Basanti, Aks) and Jeff Zimbalist (Favela Rising, The Two Escobars).

It is one of the best trailers I have seen in a while. In just a few minutes, it manages to capture the wild crazy energy of Bollywood complete with the sultry item numbers, hot & wet dreamy women, lavish songs, mega superstars, sinister villains (Gabbar....mouhaha) and crazy action sequences. Even though I spend a lot of time complaining about the worst that Bollywood has to offer, I cannot deny the fact that it is the cinema that I grew up with. A huge chunk of my cinematic memory is associated with it and plenty of images and moments that I cannot shake off for a long time.

There are many cinematic gems I am looking forward to from Cannes and now I can add this documentary to the top of the list purely from a guilty pleasure point of view :) If the film is half as good as the trailer, then it would be an amazing bonus.

Interestingly, the documentary is co-directed by Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra. Just a day ago I revisited parts of Mehra's Rang De Basanti, a film that impressed me for the most part but also frustrated with a few minor elements. Still, it was a truly memorable cinematic experience watching it in a theater. The title song is remarkable and even now I am moved by Daler Mehndi & Chitra's vocals and A.R Rahman's mesmerizing music:

Friday, May 13, 2011

Spotlight on José Mojica Marins

Before City of God came out in 2002, the only Brazilian films that were available for rent in my city were José Mojica Marins’ Coffin Joe films. I often picked up the eye-catching VHS covers with titles such as At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul, or This Night I Will Possess Your Corpse but always put the videos back. Then after City of God was released, a slow influx of new Brazilian films starting appearing on DVDs. So Coffin Joe was no longer the only Brazilian choice available and I moved on. Yet, José Mojica Marins’ fictional character was never totally invisible from my eyes. Sometimes a clip from one of Coffin Joe’s films caught my eye on TV or some reference in a film magazine kept his name lingering around. Of course, his appearance was not easy to forget either -- the black top hat, the cape, the beard and those ultra long finger nails.
However, I had no desire to visit his work. All that changed when I came across Sight and Sound’s September 2010 Issue on Latin American Cinema.
In an insightful and wonderful article titled No Turning Back, Sergio Wolf talks about the Latin American cinema explosion in the last decade. The following lines stuck with me:

In Brazil, João Moreira Salles reinvented the international career of Eduardo Coutinho, who had been living in difficult circumstances and making television for many years until Moreira Salles helped him with the outstanding Edifício Master (2002). The documentary-maker Paulo Sacramento, meanwhile, rescued another Brazilian - José Mojica Marins, the John Carpenter of São Paulo - by producing Embodiment of Evil (Encarnação do Demônio, 2008) after Martins had endured almost ten years of inactivity.

If someone from a new generation of Brazilian cinema helped a filmmaker from another generation, then I just had to find out what was worth rescuing. So I decided it was time that I faced Coffin Joe in his full attire, nails and all.

This spotlight contains six films directed by Marins and one documentary on his work.

At Midnight I’ll Steal Your Soul (1964)
This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse (1967)
Awakening of the Beast (1970)
End of Man (1971)
Strange Hostel of Naked Pleasures (1975)
The Strange World of José Mojica Marins (2001, André Barcinski/Ivan Finotti)
Embodiment of Evil (2009)

The Coffin Joe Trilogy

At Midnight I’ll Steal Your Soul, This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse and Embodiment of Evil are the three films that constitute the Coffin Joe Trilogy. There are several other José Mojica Marins films where the director plays the Coffin Joe character but those other films features his character in different scenarios or limited roles where his character is mostly restricted to the opening credits to give speeches about the universe and purpose of life.

In the trilogy, the same character of Zé do Caixão (played by Marins) continues his obsessive search of finding the perfect woman to mate with so that he can have his perfect son. Zé wants a son because his believes he can achieve immortality by having his lineage continue through a heir. In his pursuit of that perfect woman, Zé rapes, tortures and kills many women, along with killing any men that stand in his way. His torture methods get more gruesome with each film and the body count of his victims increase. The extent of torture in the first two films is restricted mostly to having women in lingerie tormented by spiders and snakes. Such torture methods would not have sufficed for the third film because Embodiment of Evil was released in 2009 at a time when torture and gory films were no longer underground but openly shown in multiplexes, in 3D no less. So Embodiment of Evil is by far the most graphic of all three films and features naked bodies hung up by hooks and tortured repeatedly. Blood is on ample display and there are scenes which are meant for shock value only, such as a nude woman extracted from inside a pig’s body and covered in blood. Blood was not that much of a factor in the first two films mostly because of the lack of color. At Midnight I’ll Steal Your Soul is completely in black and white while This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse is also in black and white except for a small segment near the end which features Zé descending into hell.

Overall, Embodiment of Evil is the weakest of the three films and features scenes of needless violence and torture. Although the film is also updated to represent modern times in Brazilian cinema and features police-gang clashes in favelas. At Midnight I’ll Steal Your Soul is made with the least budget and does a decent job of laying out the character and his motives. This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse features an amazing opening credit sequence. The titles and crew names appear in shaky and vibrant letters against visuals of spiders and snakes crawling on women with a background score of screaming women. This combination produces a jarring effect and prepares one for a horrific cinematic ride.

Note: the image of Coffin Joe under the title At Midnight I’ll Steal Your Soul misled me. I believed those words were Coffin Joe's threats towards his victims but as it turns out, those words were meant for Coffin Joe. After he is cursed, he is told that he would die at the stroke of midnight.

Drugs and censorship

Awakening of the Beast depicts a drug culture and features a panel discussing the impact of drugs in corrupting the morality of ordinary citizens. The panel led by a doctor also debate the role of José Mojica Marins’ films in corrupting citizens. Marins is invited to the panel to present his side and also stands trial in a fake segment within the film to defend himself and his films. As part of his experiment to observe the effects of drug usage, the doctor administers LSD to five volunteers. The effect of those drugs causes the volunteers to slowly drift away from reality and land up in a nightmarish world where their fantasies and fears play out in a hellish setting. The visuals of this hellish world take up almost the last 20 minutes of the film and are similar in set design to the version of hell shown in This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse. There are several dialog free sequences in the film, including a sequence where a woman high on drugs dances on a table in a room full of men. The woman’s dance sequence flows quite easily without any dramatic cuts and is one of the best extended scenes found in any of José Mojica Marins’ films.

The final conclusion of the doctor’s experiment is that drugs do not corrupt moral citizens but only awaken inner demons within humans who already have devilish intentions buried within their psyche. José Mojica Marins is also cleared of any wrong doings both by the panel and the fake trial. Such a conclusion and the scenes of drug usage were probably reasons why the military dictatorship in Brazil banned this film in 1970. The film was eventually released 20 years later.

A prophet emerges

The opening sequence of End of Man has a tiny glimpse of Coffin Joe but otherwise End of Man is the only film in this spotlight which is entirely free of the Coffin Joe character. Marins plays a man who emerges naked from the sea and goes about preaching to the locals and performing miracles. He develops a cult following and is considered by locals to be a prophet. It is only at the end of the film that the prophet’s true identity is revealed and that revelation is another poke by Marins on the blind faith that people have in religion. José Mojica Marins always questioned the value of religion and its rituals through his characters starting from At Midnight I’ll Steal Your Soul onwards and End of Man continues that trend, especially the ending.

Technically this is the weakest out of the six features and contains substandard acting, editing and camera work. In fact, watching this film reminded me of some of the worst Bollywood films from the 1970’s to 80’s, minus the nudity.

Note: A party sequence in End of Man where the crowd chants “everybody naked” is duly expanded in Strange Hostel of Naked Pleasures.

Strange Hostel of Naked Pleasures

The title says it all. A hostel where strange occurrences take place and where people are either naked or seeking pleasure, or both. The opening ten minutes of the film are almost dialog free and depict an elaborate dance ceremony which resurrects Coffin Joe from the dead. Coffin Joe then gives his customary speech about the universe, existence, fate and life before taking charge of this special hostel. All along Joe’s eyes see everything, the future and past of the guests arriving in the hostel to seek pleasure. In fact, a trailer of the film could be cut with Coffin Joe’s voice as such:

Ladies look at my eyes
now look at the room with naked people
now back to my eyes
look at another room where an affair is happening
back to my eyes again
now look at that room with people gambling
now back to my eyes again.

One can find repeated shots in José Mojica Marins’ films but Strange Hostel of Naked Pleasures takes that to an extreme with plenty of repeated closeups of Joe’s eyes, naked flesh and shots of the hostel in a dark stormy night with lightening.

A documentary to bring it all together

The Strange World of José Mojica Marins is a well made documentary that introduces us to the world of Coffin Joe and gives us as a closer look at José Mojica Marins. Marins love of film is apparent from this documentary and he relishes the fact that he is a self taught filmmaker. He mentions that he was literally born in a cinema as his parents owned a cinema hall and he grew up watching plenty of films and spending all his time in a theater. That love for film resulted in him making plenty of films at an early age. In fact, no opportunity was too good for Marins to pass up to make a film. When he went in for eye surgery, he had a camera crew in the operating room and directed them while being under the knife. His plan was to use the footage for a later film but that film was never completed. At the end of the documentary, we are told that there are another dozen or so uncompleted films by Marins. Since the documentary was released, Marins did finish his Coffin Joe trilogy with Embodiment of Evil and he may get a chance to make more of his films.

The film also shows what a wildly popular character Coffin Joe is not only in Brazil but internationally. Marins made many personal appearances dressed as Coffin Joe and attracted plenty of admirers. Unfortunately as per the film, Marins was never financially well off. No details are given but that fact becomes clear with the Sight and Sound article when Paulo Sacramento had to help produce Marins’ Embodiment of Evil, more than forty years after Coffin Joe first appeared on screen.

This is not the end...

The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he did not exist.

Slightly changing this The Usual Suspects quote:

The greatest trick Coffin Joe ever pulled was convincing the world he did not exist.

Because every time Coffin Joe is supposed to be dead, he comes back. He is left for dead at the end of At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul but makes a remarkable recovery at the start of This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse. He sinks to his demise in This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse but through magical cosmic powers is resurrected several times until he finally materializes in flesh serving time in a jail cell at the start of Embodiment of Evil. The ending of Embodiment of Evil shows that Coffin Joe more than gets his wish after all, with not one son but multiple offsprings on the way. Coffin Joe always believed the only way he could be immortal was with a perfect son. So if there are indeed multiple sons of Coffin Joe on the way, then maybe he will be a cinematic presence for many decades to come.


I had low expectations from this spotlight and there were many moments which confirmed those low expectations but there were also some aspects with surprized me. In a way, I agree with Neil Young’s assessment:

But the odd thing about the Mojica Marins pictures is that, despite their numerous individual deficiencies, they do cohere and combine into a whole that's much more effective than their separate parts….

One can see the full cycle of action-reaction consequences cycle through the various Coffin Joe films where his mistakes come back to haunt him and further curse him.

Finally....Christoph Huber’s article on José Mojica Marins is worth reading.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

The Direct Cinema of Michel Brault

"This is Canada?"

These were the words that came to my mind when I first saw Michel Brault’s Les Ordres a few years ago. The film showed how in 1970 hundreds of citizens in Quebec were arrested without a warrant and held indefinitely without ever getting a charge laid against them. It was eye-opening to see such an incident took place on Canadian soil and Brault’s film was my first introduction to this portion of Canadian history. As it turns out, Les Orders was also Brault’s most accessible film on DVD and part of that reason might be because the film won him a best director award in Cannes 1975. Brault's remaining films remained out of reach until I came across National Film Board’s (NFB) box-set of his earlier films from 1958-1974. The five disc collection contains four features, nine shorts and two bonus documentaries on Brault.

My spotlight of four features and four shorts is based on a subset of films from that box-set:

Les raquetteurs (1958, 15 min)
La lutte (1961, 28 min)
Québec-U.S.A. ou L'invasion pacifique (1962, 27 min)
Pour la suite du monde (1963)
Geneviève (1964, 28 min)
Entre la mer et l’eau douce (1965)
L'Acadie, l'Acadie?!? (1971)
Les Ordres (1974)

The NFB package also contains an excellent collection of essays & articles on Brault’s films in French and English. However, as per the introduction all the essays are presented in their original language without translation, which means there are more French essays than English ones. Still, the few English essays provide an essential look at Brault’s filming methods and even the concept of "cinéma direct" ("Direct Cinema"), a movement that I was completely unaware of.

Candid Eye

The road to Direct Cinema starts off with the Candid Eye productions of the CBC. In the essay How to Make or Not to Make a Canadian movie (La Cinémathèque canadienne, Montreal, 1967) included in the box-set, Wolf Koenig describes how the inspiration and genesis of the Candid Eye movement started. The original idea that Koenig and others proposed to the CBC for their films was:

..Record life as it happens, unscripted and unrehearsed: capture it in sync sound, indoors or out, without asking it to pose or repeat its lines; edit it into moving films that would make the audience laugh and cry (preferably both at the same time); show it on TV to millions and change the world by making people realize that life is real, beautiful and meaningful, etc. Management was understandably puzzled by this proposal. We were told that films cannot be made like this -- that there would be difficulties...

Some of the difficulties that Koenig and other Candid Eye filmmakers encountered are still a challenge for art, independent and foreign filmmakers today.

....We roamed the grounds with haunted looks searching for reality, ready to siphon it into our Bolex whenever it should appear. We got some pretty pictures but it was impossible to cut them into film.

This unconventional kind of documentary film presented new and disconcerting problems. For instance: How does one get an audience to look at a film that doesn’t have a story or even a conventional message? Worse: how does one get script approval from management for a film without a script? Or: how can one get close to the subject with all those clumsy cameras and lights and microphones, without scaring him off? And how, in God’s name, could we be sure of being present when the moment of truth arrives? We couldn’t very well shoot every boring minute of the hero’s life, waiting for his soul to reveal itself (although, at times, we did). There were many such questions...

The breakthrough and inspiration for Koenig came courtesy of a of photographs called The Decisive Moment by Henri Cartier-Bresson. Koenig goes onto explain that the book’s "foreword became our bible. We followed it verbatim."

Sections of the foreword are included by Koenig and those are reproduced below.

The picture-story involves a joint operation of the brain, the eye and the heart. The objective of this joint operation is to depict the content of some event which is in the process of unfolding, and to communicate impressions. Sometimes a single event can be so rich in itself and its facets that it is necessary to move all around it in your search for the solution to the problems it poses -- for the world is movement, and you cannot be stationary in your attitude towards something that is moving...

We photographers deal in things which are continually vanishing, and when they have vanished, there is no contrivance on earth which can make them come back again. We cannot develop and print a memory...for photographers, what has gone, has gone forever...Our task is to perceive reality, almost simultaneously recording it in the sketchbook which is our camera. We must neither try to manipulate reality while we are shooting, nor must we manipulate the results in a darkroom...

...In whatever picture-story we try to do, we are bound to arrive as intruders. It is essential, therefore, to approach the subject on tip-toe --even if the subject is still-life. A velvet hand, a hawk’s eye- --these we should all have...

The profession depends so much upon the relations the photographer establishes with the people he’s photographing, that a false relationship, a wrong word or attitude, can ruin everything. When the subject is in any way uneasy, the personality goes away where the camera can’t reach it. There are no systems, for each case is individual and demands that we be unobtrusive, though we must be at close range...
There is subject in all that takes place in the world, as in our personal universe. We cannot negate subject. It is everywhere. So we must be lucid toward what is going on in the world, and honest about what we feel.

Subject does not consist of a collection of facts, for facts in themselves offer little interest. Through facts, however, we can reach an understanding of the laws that govern them, and be better able to select the essential ones which communicate reality...

If a photograph is to communicate its subject in all its intensity, the relationship of form must be rigorously established. Photography implies the recognition of a rhythm in the world of real things. What the eye does is to find and focus on the particular subject within the mass of reality. What the camera does is simply to register upon film the decision made by the eye...One does not add composition as though it were an afterthought superimposed on the basic subject material, since it is impossible to separate content from form. Composition must have its own inevitability about it...

I believe that, through the act of living, the discovery of oneself is made concurrently with the discovery of the world around us which can mold us, but which can also be affected by us. A balance must be established between these two worlds -- the one inside us and the one outside us. As a result of a constant reciprocal process, both these worlds come to form a single one. And it is this world that we must communicate.
-- English translation of "Images à la sauvette" (èd, Verve, Paris, 1952).

And so the Candid Eye movement was born.

Direct Cinema

Our films have, above all, been
an impassioned appropriation
of the social environment.
The picturesque (the outsider’s view)
has yielded to the familiar; the myth
has yielded in the face of reality.

-- Gilles Carle, Parti Pris, 7
(April 1964)

David Clandfield’s insightful essay From the Picturesque to the Familiar: Films of the French Unit at the NFB (1958-1964) begins with this quote from Carle, who was a member of the French Unit at the National Film Board. As per Clandfield, Carle made the above comment when the direct cinema movement was coming to an end because "..the tightly knit group of francophone filmmakers at the NFB was dispersing."

David Clandfield describes the emergence of direct cinema, its similarities and differences from the Candid Eye films of the NFB.

Technically, of course, both movements had much in common: shooting without script or conscious staging, use of light-weight equipment, a search for the real which deliberately shunned the dramatic of the heroic.

However, the two movements differed when it came to the involvement of the filmmakers with the project.

For the Candid Eye filmmakers, the subject of the film was its subject matter rooted in objective reality. The starting point was a social or human event-- ephemeral, inscribed in an ephemeral world-- the form and meaning of which require the mediation of the filmic process to become evident. The function of the filmic process, then, was not to mould but to reveal form, and with it meaning.

For the cinéma direct filmmakers, the point of departure is the filmmaking process in which the filmmaker is deeply implicated as a consciousness, individual or collective. It is this process--this consciousness--which gives form and meaning to an amorphous objective reality. Instead of effacing their presence, the filmmakers affirm it.

Instead of rendering the technical process transparent (supposedly), they will emphasize its materiality. Instead of standing apart from their object of study or enquiry, they will implicate themselves within in. Their search for the authentic will involve not only the critical detachment of the empirical investigator in order to strip away “myth” or misconception, but also commitment to the social project under investigation in order to avoid the pitfalls of he aesthetic or the “picturesque.” The overt personal involvement of the subject-filmmaker in the object-reality of the pro-filmic event was, then, the key distinguishing factor of the Québécois cinéma direct from the Anglophone Candid Eye.

.....Instead of standing apart from their object of study or enquiry, they will implicate themselves within in.

These words from David Clandfield’s essay about the Direct Cinema technique made me think of embedded journalism. In the last few years, embedded journalism has come to refer to the reporting style where journalists travel along with the military units they are covering. This also means that the journalists share the same working space as the military officers. It turns out that Direct Cinema used such closeness a long time ago as part of its filming methodology. The personal involvement of Brault is apparent from L’Acadie l’Acadie?!?, a film which shows the Acadian identity struggle that took place in the University of Moncton in New Brunswick. As part of their protests, the university students locked themselves in the university buildings. Brault was also locked indoors with the students and that allowed him to get close to the students and record their true feelings/actions.

In a sense, embedded filming was a key component of Direct Cinema, which means Direct Cinema was a pure form of cinema because the filmmaker inserted himself/herself into the environment of their subject and filmed without any inhibitions or filters. The filmmaker did not direct his/her subjects nor did the filmmaker interfere in the subject’s words or actions. This detachment allowed the filmmaker to portray reality as objectively as possible.

Heavy camera, Mobile movement

One of the original problems of the Candid Eye movement that Wolf Koenig posed was the difficulty of heavy camera equipments:

Or: how can one get close to the subject with all those clumsy cameras and lights and microphones, without scaring him off?

Nowadays with light digital cameras such problems do not exist. However, this was a relevant problem back in the late 1950’s through early 1970’s. Yet, this problem did not prevent Brault from making remarkable films where his camera’s presence is non-existent. His films demonstrate mobile camera movement that captured a wide array of shots, often taken with a single camera and no multiple takes. Such a feat would be difficult today, but it is truly remarkable to think that he and his crew managed this five decades ago. The film that is a shining example of Brault’s techniques is L’Acadie l’Acadie?!? where the camera directly places the viewer within the same university halls as the students thereby making the audience a silent member of the political discussions taking place. Brault does now allow the camera to merely record at a distance but manages to allow the audience to get close with a few select vocal leaders of the student union by varying camera angles when the students are shown during heated debates or in moments of silence. The camera moves in close when it needs to and pulls away appropriately to provide a more complete picture. Such movement and closeness of the camera allows the camera to be an invisible interviewer that is probing the subject to get their true feelings out.

Culture, Rituals & History

Michel Brault’s films are not only about beautiful technique but they document Canadian cultures, traditions and history that would otherwise be lost over time. Les Raquetteurs records the celebration and tradition surrounding a snowshoe competition in Sherbrooke in the late 1950’s while La lutte shows the rituals that were identified with professional wrestling in Montreal Forum and also in back-street wrestling parlours across Montreal. Pour la suite du monde shows a traditional whale-catching practice that was part and parcel of life in Île-aux-Coudres, a small island in the St. Lawrence River. The film is also a reminder of the complex nature of Canadian history. In the film, a short discussion about Jacques Cartier between two town residents shows that Canada’s history changes when it is viewed either via French, English or Native perspective. In his wonderful book A Fair Country John Ralston Saul mentions that a true picture of Canadian history has to take Métis and other First Nation ethnicities into account. Such an inclusion would mean a three pronged view of Canada’s past as opposed to the current situation where Canadian history is only viewed through either English or French eyes. Pour la suite du monde is from a French perspective but it raises the point if the origin of some rituals, such as Beluga whale hunting, would change when Natives would recount their history.

In 1969, New Brunswick became the first and only bilingual province in Canada. However, the journey to get bilingual status was anything but easy. L'Acadie, l'Acadie?!? shows a fraction of this struggle by highlighting the efforts of students in the University of Moncton to get bilingual status so that they could continue to speak in French and thereby preserve their Acadian identity. The film is from the perspective of the University students but a segment shot in city hall illustrates the divide between the English speaking majority and the Francophone minority in Moncton. In the city hall meeting, every time the University of Moncton students tried to speak, their voices were attempted to be drowned out by coughs and disapproval from the English speakers. Interestingly, this divide over language extended to cultural differences as well about Acadian identity. Such debates about cultural and language freedoms have reignited recently in Canada, especially in Quebec, as new waves of immigrants enter Canada. So L'Acadie, l'Acadie?!? is a timely reminder that a society can never be fully functional if one side tries to ignore the history and cultures of another side.

Les Ordres shows what happened in Quebec under the cover of the 1970 War Measures Act. As part of the War Act’s wide ranging powers, ordinary citizens were arrested without cause. The citizens were not physically tortured and eventually released but as the film shows, threats of death and murder were used to keep some prisoners in a constant state of mental agony. In a few segments it becomes apparent that some of the prison guards were on a power trip and were enacting their own version of the Stanford Prison Experiment. Les Ordres is based on a collection of interviews from some of the more than 400 arrested citizens and is essential viewing because it shows how easy it is for a democratic society to descend into a police state.

Identity, Modernity & Roots

Brault’s first fiction feature Entre la mer et l’eau douce is a fascinating film that shows the rise to fame of an ordinary young man who leaves his small isolated village to find work in booming cosmopolitan Montreal. The film’s title is explained perfectly by André Loiselle:

The title comes from the diary of Jacques Cartier, read by Alexis Tremblay in Pour la suite du monde, in which the 16th century French explorer describes beluga whales as snow-white fish that live in the river between the sea and fresh water. For Brault, however, what lives between the sea and fresh water is less the whale than the young French-Canadian man who is torn between two worlds: the sea, the past, the country and the elders, and the fresh water, the city and modernity.
-- André Loiselle, Tradition and Modernity from Montreal to Acadia and Brittany. Entre la mer et l’eau douce, Éloge du chiac, L’Acadie l’Acadie?!? and Les enfants de Néant.

In Entre la mer et l’eau douce Claude Tremblay (played by Claude Gauthier) leaves behind his Native lover in his village when he goes to Montreal, where he drifts in between jobs and affairs. Yet, he cannot forget his original love or his country roots despite swimming in a modernized city. His past is a contradiction with his present situation and that tension offers inspiration for his music. Claude’s portrayal and the film title can also refer to the tensions regarding Quebec’s nationalistic identity with the rest of Anglophone Canada and even with its native past. The fact that Claude left his Native lover behind could be taken to mean that in order to proceed ahead Quebec and thereby the rest of Canada moved away from its true origins. In the film, the question of Quebec’s independence is brought up by an Anglophone in a bar. The stranger who made the comment was drunk but his words are ones that have been echoed by many sober people across Canada over the decades. Even though Entre la mer et l’eau douce was released in 1965, questions about Quebec’s independence have never gone away and have been exploited over the decades by various politicians (both anglophones and francophones) to divide the country.

Films & Comments

Michel Brault’s films are essential viewing not only because of the fascinating Direct Cinema technique but also because they are a valuable asset to understand Canadian history. His films may be centered around Eastern Canada but one needs to hear the French Canadian perspective in order to get a better understanding of how Canada has evolved to become what it is today.

Thankfully, some of Brault’s films are available for free viewing on NFB’s website.

Note: I have only verified the films are viewable in Canada and I am not sure if they will also play in other countries.