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Filmmaking in Quebec
Auteur Documentary in Four Movements
by Marcel Jean, translated by Timothy Barnard

What is the state of documentary film in Quebec today? Quebec has been fertile ground for this genre of film for at least fifty years. From Pour la suite du monde (Moontrap; Michel Brault and Pierre Perrault, 1963) to L'Erreur boréale (Forest Alert; Richard Desjardins and Robert Monderie, 1999), from Bûcherons de la Manouane (Manouane River Lumberjacks; Arthur Lamothe, 1963) to Le Fil cassé (The Broken Thread; Michel Langlois, 2002), and from Bonhomme (roughly translated as "Gentleman"; Pierre Maheu, 1972) to Roger Toupin, épicier variété ("Roger Toupin: Variety Store Grocer"; Benoit Pilon, 2003), documentary film in Quebec has gone through many periods and seen many upheavals. Today, digital video has replaced sixteen millimetre film in film production, television has replaced the parish hall as the site of exhibition, and filmmakers come from a wider variety of backgrounds.

Today's abundant and diverse output is broadly marked by the influence of television. Indeed, the use of the same technology, the recourse to the same funding sources, and the use of the same exhibition niches make it increasingly difficult to distinguish between independently produced "auteur" documentary and documentary television reports. It would be mistaken, however, to dodge this question and not attempt to distinguish between auteur documentary and other film productions.

Everyone knows that the documentary, unlike the fiction film - whose large territory ranges from naturalism to the most unmistakably imaginary representations - is defined by its close ties to reality. Documentary is, first of all and above all else, a discourse on reality, or a discourse that arises out of reality. Within this genre, the auteur documentary is distinguished by the assertive presence of the filmmaker at the heart of the film's aesthetic elements. I would go even further and propose (without creating a complete typology of the various faces of the auteur documentary) that the filmmaker's presence is mainly recognizable in four ways: by the uncommonness of the film's artistry; by a poetic approach to reality; by a politically committed approach to reality; and by the filmmaker's recourse to his or her own personal experience. It is through these four elements, in my view, that we might gauge the vitality of the auteur documentary within film production as a whole.

But before entering into a detailed discussion of these four phenomena and showing how they apply to recent documentary production in Quebec, we should sketch a brief historical overview - in order to better situate present-day films within a particular film movement as a whole.

From Cinéma Direct to Today
The history of the documentary film in Quebec is marked by the emergence of cinéma direct in 1958. That year, the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) launched its Candid Eye series; among those who participated in this program were Wolf Koenig (who initiated it), Michel Brault, and Georges Dufaux. Basing itself on the use of the telephoto lens (which made the camera discreet and thus created a new view of reality), this series prefigured cinéma direct because of the presence, in particular, of a few audacious hand-held camera shots. That same year, Michel Brault and Gilles Groulx co-directed Les Raquetteurs (The Snowshoers; 1958), a short film which was the true launching point of this new movement. Brault, the camera operator, reacted against the use of the telephoto lens and used wide angle lenses instead, which obliged him to place himself in the midst of the action that he was filming. The sound recorder, Marcel Carrière, recorded wild sound and street noises, and even attempted to record the mayor of Sherbrooke's welcoming speech in synchronous sound.

Les Raquetteurs represents a crucial moment in Quebec film history. The greatest films in the Quebec documentary tradition - films by Michel Brault and Gilles Groulx, but also by Pierre Perrault and Arthur Lamothe - can be seen, in large part, to derive from it.

Cinéma direct filmmakers desired to stick as closely as possible to reality, and to establish direct contact with the people they filmed. This approach propelled them into a variety of experiences, such as the NFB's Société nouvelle (Challenge for Change) program, which ran from 1969-79, and resulted in documentaries promoting social change. This was the moment when a politically committed cinema took root: a cinema which would continue to evolve through filmmakers such as Maurice Bulbulian and Tahani Rached. This was also when video production was introduced to Quebec with the founding of Vidéographe in 1971.

In the early 1980s, the documentary experienced a major crisis because of the realignment of the film industry around two poles: the feature fiction film, and television. From that time on, television has most often been the catalyst for the funding needed to make a film. The result was a greater sobriety in documentary film practices, with the techniques directly inspired by the practices of cinéma direct - that is, the least-scripted techniques - finding less space in this new setting.

This is when a number of documentaries appeared which made use of fictional elements. Caffè Italia (Paul Tana, 1985), La Peau et les os (Skin and Bones; Johanne Prégent, 1988), and La Guerre oubliée (The War to End All Wars; Richard Boutet, 1988) are three good examples of this trend. Another trend simultaneously emerged: that of films that employed a first-person narrative. Journal inachevé (Unfinished Diary; Marilú Mallet, 1982) and Voyage en Amérique avec un cheval emprunté (Travels in America with a Borrowed Horse; Jean Chabot, 1987) are the best representative films in this category from this period. This use of first person narrative, and the employment of fictional elements, were the most important trends defining the auteur documentary in Quebec in the 1980s.

Nevertheless, it was not until the technological innovations of the 1990s that a freer and more diversified documentary practice reappeared. The passage to digital video was the occasion of a democratization of the means of production, which made it possible for a greater number of filmmakers to make films outside the boundaries fixed by the demands of the marketplace. Independent production, which suffered in the 1980s, recovered a significant level of activity and degree of vigour in the years that followed.

It is also worth pointing out that while the NFB experienced its own turning points in this long period, production there continued in a manner basically consistent with the general state of affairs of documentary film production in Quebec.

An Uncommon Artistry
The uncommonness of a film's artistry is obviously a major element of the auteur film. Indeed, in this kind of film, the manner in which images and sounds are arranged occupies a preponderant place. We recognize the true filmmaker by his or her signature. All auteur filmmakers, therefore, make themselves conspicuous in one way or another - but some do it with more panache than others. An older generation would cite Pierre Perrault, Gilles Groulx, or even Georges Dufaux (sequences in their films can not be confused with any other). To speak of present-day documentary in Quebec, we would cite instead Serge Giguère, and the light-hearted mockery with which he constructs moving portraits of picturesque characters: Oscar Thiffault (1987), Le Gars qui chante sua jobbe ("The man who sang sua jobbe"; 1988), Le Roi du drum ("The King of Drums"; 1991), 9, Saint-Augustin ("9 Saint Augustine Street"; 1995), and Le Reel du mégaphone ("The Megaphone Reel"; 1999).

In a different vein, but one just as clearly asserted, Bernard Émond has made several films which are distinguished by the intelligence and sensitivity of their construction. Among these, Ceux qui ont le pas léger meurent sans laisser de traces ("People Who Tread Lightly Die Without Leaving a Trace"; 1992) stands out due to the originality of its discourse and its formal richness.

Of the other filmmakers whose film artistry stands out, we should mention Sylvain L'Espérance, whose film Les Printemps incertains ("Uncertain Springtimes"; 1992) is concerned with both social and formal issues, and Catherine Martin, whose film Les Dames du 9e (The Ladies of the Ninth Floor; 1998) uses a delicate voice-over narration to depict relationships between waitresses and customers in the famous ninth floor restaurant of the Eaton's department store in downtown Montreal. Finally, it would be unfortunate if we neglected to mention the subtle Gabrielle Roy, un documentaire (Gabrielle Roy; 1997), in which Léa Pool reinterprets the codes of the filmed portrait in light of her own formal and thematic concerns.

A Poetics of Reality
Several of the most stimulating filmmakers at work today in Quebec distinguish themselves through the ways in which they render reality "poetic". Often, their films pose the question of the subject in a particularly acute way. In traditional documentary news reports, the subject is typically identified from the outset, and developed in the style of a treatise. But in poetic documentary, the subject becomes a pretext for cinematic artistry: the point of departure for ideas which are not elaborated "on" a subject, but rather "out of" a subject (somewhat as you might find in a literary essay). It thus becomes impossible in this kind of poetic film to isolate the film's subject. The notion of authorship is found in the uniqueness of the filmmaker's perspective, and the freedom with which he or she organises the filmed material.

Lucie Lambert's essay-film, Paysage sous les paupières ("Landscape Beneath the Eyelids"; 1995), is about a few individuals in a small community on the north shore of the St. Lawrence River, and is an excellent example of the poetic documentary. Here, the subject plays a secondary role next to the filmmaker's perspective: direct observation of the world becomes an essential force in the film, and its poetry springs from the attention that the filmmaker pays to people and things. In 1999, Lambert matched this achievement with Avant le jour ("Before Day"; 1999), a film in which the simple beauty of the images again transcends the reality of an isolated community. We could also place in this category Benoit Pilon's two feature-length films, Rosaire et la Petite-Nation ("Rosaire and the Petite-Nation"; 1998) and Roger Toupin, épicier variété ("Roger Toupin: Variety Store Grocer"): two chronicles which revolve around simple people whom the filmmaker observes over very long periods of time. In these simultaneously humorous and serious films, Pilon lingers on the quiet disappearance of an anachronistic world, filming adroitly and with finesse.

A Politically Committed Perspective
A number of films produced during the Challenge for Change era still testify today to the social and political commitments of their authors. Two famous cases are: L'Erreur boréale (Forest Alert), and Bacon, le film ("Bacon, the film"; Hugo Latulippe, 2001). These NFB documentaries (one on deforestation, and the other about environmental problems related to the development of gigantic hog farms) created controversy throughout Quebec and awakened public consciousness.

Other films which had less spectacular receptions were also part of this important current: In Un syndicat avec ça? (Union Trouble - A Cautionary Tale; 1999), Magnus Isacsson looked at unionization attempts in McDonald's restaurants in Quebec, while in À l'ombre d'Hollywood ("In the Shadow of Hollywood"; 1999), Sylvie Groulx cast a critical gaze on how globalization is impacting the film industry. Another notable example would be Urgence! Deuxième souffle (Emergency! A Critical Situation; 1999), in which Tahani Rached presented a detailed description of the working lives of a group of nurses.

Personal Experience
Personal experience, an important inspirational source for cinematic creation, is at the heart of a great number of Quebec auteur documentaries. This movement first took shape in early feminist cinema in Quebec: for an example, see De mère en fille ("From Mother to Daughter"; Anne Claire Poirier, 1967). It became established in the early 1980s with films such as Marilú Mallet's Journal inachevé (Unfinished Diary; 1982). Even Jacques Godbout, a rather discreet and intellectual filmmaker, took recourse to this approach in what remain his best films: Alias Will James (1988) and, especially, Traître ou patriote (Traitor or Patriot; 2000), in which he analyzes the phenomenon of collective amnesia surrounding the role of a former Quebec premier, Adélard Godbout (who incidentally was his great-uncle).

The singer Dan Bigras, in his first film Le Ring intérieur (The Ring Within; 2002), drew upon his personal experience in order to lead the viewer into the universe of men who control their anger by practising combat sports. Anne Claire Poirier, in Tu as crié LET ME GO ("You cried LET ME GO"; 1997), spoke with sobriety and frankness about the death of her daughter, a young drug addict and prostitute who was murdered in 1995. And André-Line Beauparlant, in Trois princesses pour Roland ("Three Princesses for Roland"; 2001), sketches the portrait of three women in her family who have been tragically marked by the violent death of a man.

The extraordinarily successful film Le fil cassé (The Broken Thread) by Michel Langlois should also be considered part of this movement. In this film, the filmmaker, haunted by the fact that he has broken the generational thread by not having children, embarks on a troubling existential quest. An inspired film artist and talented writer (the film's script is a marvel), Langlois reinvents the documentary with every shot, and invites the viewer to take part in his profound reflection on the role of every individual as a part of humanity.

The Survival of a Genre
Uncommonness, poetry, political commitment, and personal experience. All of these elements discussed above form the basis of the auteur documentary. And all are to be found in Michel Langlois' Le Fil cassé (The Broken Thread). It is as if this short film might be displayed as the symbol of a film genre which survives in Quebec into the present - despite the confusion of genres; despite the difficulty of finding funding and exhibition venues; despite a sense of political fatigue that might be the result of globalization and ideological levelling processes; and despite a modern-day freneticism which seems, all too often, to exclude poetry just as it excludes ideas.

Today, in the land of Brault and Perrault, there are still personal filmmakers who wear themselves out to make documentaries against hell and high water. Their names are Michel Langlois, Benoit Pilon, Lucie Lambert, Bernard Émond, Catherine Martin, Magnus Isacsson, Serge Giguère, Tahani Rached, and Sylvie Groulx. And they are not alone.

Marcel Jean has produced twenty-one films since 1999 as executive producer with the Animation et Jeunesse studio of the NFB. He has also worked on a variety of other projects in the world of film: as a director (État critique, 1992; Écrire pour penser, 1999), as a critic for Le Devoir and 24 images); as a teacher at the Université de Montréal; and as an author of the books Dictionnaire du cinéma québécois (with Michel Coulombe; éditions du Boréal: 1988, 1991, and 2000), Le Cinéma québécois (éditions du Boréal; 1991) ; and Le Langage des lignes, (éditions Les 400 coups; 1995).

NFB Documentary (English site)

ONF Documentary (French site)

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