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.

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