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A Dream of Communication

Michel Brault’s seminal work in documentary is honoured with the 2012 Outstanding Achievement Award by Hot Docs

Photo by Rob Allen

The great Québécois filmmaker Michel Brault told me in a recent interview how he discovered the magic of film with his friend and collaborator, the visionary auteur Claude Jutra, years before the two worked on such Canadian cinema masterpieces as Mon oncle Antoine (1971) and Kamouraska (1973). In the late 1940s, when they were still students, the duo used to shoot footage in the forest outside of Jutra’s family summer house, and in the garden at night they would spread a bed sheet between two trees and project their early film experiments onto it. Brault recalls it as a paradise.

Brault remembers how important the French film critic Alexandre Astruc’s notion of the “camérastylo” (“camera-pen”) was on his dreams and those of Jutra. The metaphor of the caméra-stylo defined the creative and expressive possibilities of the cinema in the hands of the auteur, a term of special importance in the 1950s with the rise of Cahiers du Cinéma’s critics and future directors Godard, Truffaut and Rohmer. With the caméra-stylo, the auteur cinematically “writes” with the world as he or she records its surface reality and then projects it out onto the screen. Perhaps, between the paradise of the film projected on the bed sheet spread in the garden—an experience shared and communicated between friends—and the artistry of the caméra-stylo, one can begin to imagine Brault’s powerful and vital contribution to the documentary as both a singularly expressive auteur and a chronicler of reality.

Hot Docs, Canada’s prestigious international documentary film festival, is honouring Michel Brault with its 2012 Outstanding Achievement Award. Previous recipients include such heavyweights as Errol Morris, Werner Herzog and Nick Broomfield and he is a worthy addition to their company. Born in Montreal in 1928, Brault represents an earlier generation’s approach to, and imagination of, the documentary. Having begun filmmaking in the late 1940s, Brault was crucial to the development of that international explosion of documentary production in the late 1950s and early ’60s broadly, and often contentiously, referred to as cinema verité.

An umbrella term inspired by Soviet pioneer Dziga Vertov’s “Kino Pravda” for a diverse set of approaches to observational film, cinema verité is devoted to capturing—and sometimes provoking—reality in all of its authentically concrete and ambiguous expressions. While Errol Morris once declared that “cinema verité set back documentary filmmaking 20 or 30 years” and Werner Herzog holds that it “reaches a merely superficial truth…the truth of accountants,” in Brault’s hands, it was an engaged form of film wholly attuned to the changes in modern Quebec society, at once chronicling and contributing to the “Quiet Revolution” that was taking shape in the turbulent ’60s and capturing the political turmoil of the ’70s.

As a member of “l’équipe française” at the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) in the late ’50s, Brault was intimately involved as director, cinematographer, and often both in the making of a number of crucial pioneering achievements in cinéma direct (the Québécois term for cinema verité). Shot in 1957 and released a year later, Les raquetteurs (Snowshoers), a wholly captivating portrait of a snowshoeing convention in Sherbrooke, Que., is a decisive turning point in this respect. Shot by Brault, with sound by Marcel Carrière and edited by Gilles Groulx, Les raquetteurs is, according to Canadian film scholar and author of Cinema as History: Michel Brault and Modern Quebec, André Loiselle, “significant stylistically as one of the first NFB documentaries to reject voice-over narration and connote a sense of immediacy and spontaneity through its fluid camerawork and dynamic editing.”

Les raquetteurs also represented a different “attitude” toward its subject matter; an attitude, for Loiselle, “towards both institutional production practices and the social material being recorded” that signalled a more involved engagement with the social world being documented. Developments in filmmaking technology, in particular sound recording, both conditioned and were conditioned by a different approach to the social material. “Shot with a definite lack of respect for the rules and regulations of the NFB, Les raquetteurs came to embody the sort of cheeky rebelliousness that would characterize much of the work done by ‘l’équipe française’ in the 1960s,” notes Loiselle. Indeed, the filmmakers’ experimentation in Les raquetteurs with synchronised sound recording was simultaneously a technical, stylistic, institutional, and social/political breakthrough. In a word, it was historical.

Although there are only two scenes in Les raquetteurs with actual sync sound, it is important to note that at this time in documentary filmmaking there had only been a few awkward attempts at recoding “direct” sync sound on location, in the work of such mythic figures as Vertov and Robert Flaherty, who struggled with extremely large and clumsy recording equipment starting in the 1930s.

Courtesy of National Film Board of Canada, from La raquetters, dir. Michel Brault (1958)

Portable tape recorders developed in the ’50s had an effect, but they were far from ideal for recording sync sound in the field. In addition, the recording of direct sync sound in the field shifted much of the burden of meaning, or the “voice” of the film, to the actual people being recorded as they went about the business of their daily lives.

Distinct from the authoritative “voice of God” of expository narration, this approach meant that the world presented on film was unscripted by the filmmaker. The implications of sync sound were vast and they can be seen and heard in the early achievement of Les raquetteurs. Brault recalls how the shooting of images changed with the coming of sync sound: “It was huge, in a way. If you know that you’re not going to rely on voice-over, the film has to be shot in a way that people will understand, because there is nobody who is going to explain what is going on there.”

In a frank expression of his underlying allegiance to a certain idea of the communicative use-value of the documentary that reveals his debt to Grierson on yet another level, Brault disavows any artistic pretence in his initial approach to documenting reality: “It makes you shoot in a way that is understandable before it is poetic or creative. I don’t even think about poetry or creativity; I just want to explain what is going on and communicate with the audience.”

Nonetheless, the images in Les raquetteurs are gorgeous. Fifty-five years later, audiences still respond to the intense clarity of the wintry scenes shot in downtown Sherbrooke: the joy of the townspeople reacting to the coming of the snowshoers to their main street is still exciting to behold.

In 1959, at the Flaherty Seminar in California, Brault met the famed French anthropologist and ethnographic filmmaker Jean Rouch. Impressed by Brault’s work on Les raquetteurs, Rouch invited him to come to Paris in 1960 to work as the cinematographer on his and sociologist Edgar Morin’s Chronique d’un été (Chronicle of a Summer, 1961), which is now regarded as the classic cinema verité film. Brault brought to the production his radically gestural, handheld camera work.

Courtesy National Film Board of Canada, from La lutte, dir. Michel Brault (1961)

He shot all of the footage taken on the streets of Paris in 1960, including the haunting sequence with Marceline, the young concentration camp survivor who recites her childhood memories of deportation from France as the camera suggestively travels with and away from her. Brault’s exquisite camera work does so much to capture Marceline in her spatial-temporal paradox: he presents her in the contemporary milieu (the streets of Paris in 1960) and at the same time generates a sense of temporal displacement in the very continuity of his tracking shots.

Upon his return to Canada and the NFB, Brault worked on a number of other seminal documentaries, among them La Lutte (Wrestling, 1961), a revealing cinéma direct study of the cultural and carnal role of professional wrestling in the Québécois social imaginary, and Les Enfants du silence (The Children of Silence, 1962), a sensitive and evocative portrait of young children’s struggles with deafness. In both of these works, the realities of the social world are revealed to be manifest not only in speech but in gesture and physical comportment, in the articulate language of the body that expresses the desire to communicate.

In 1962, Brault joined Pierre Perrault in making Pour la suite du monde (So the World Goes On, 1963), one of the most important and influential films ever to be produced at the NFB. Canada’s first entry to the Cannes Film Festival, Pour la suite du monde is an ethnographic documentary about the people of Île-aux-Coudres, an isolated island on the St. Lawrence River, and, inspired by the prompting of the filmmakers, their revival/re-enactment of the abandoned practice of whale hunting. Brault’s camera follows the men of Île-aux-Coudres as they construct the weir by planting the saplings in the ground at low tide. A combination of the ancient and the modern, the film not only charts but also participates in the renewed communal spirit incarnated in the revived ritual.

Courtesy National Film Board of Canada, from Pour la suit du monde, dir. Michel Brault (1963)

Just as important as the reconstruction of this bodily language in Pour la suite du monde is the dialogue of the islanders. As Brault puts it, “I had never heard a language like that, and I realized that it was the language of my ancestors… It was like I discovered my country, my territory, the roots of my language.” Abandoning the script Perrault thought might be necessary, and with Carrière recording sync sound, the film passes through a kind of “provoked reality” (a phrase and a method taken from Rouch) to generate a new reality where a certain social power of fiction—the re-creation of the ancient whale hunt—is seen to deeply interact with the fabric of life in the island.

Brault and Perrault collaborated on a number of other projects, notably L’Acadie, l’Acadie?!? (Acadia, Acadia?!?, 1971). The film documents the plight of a group of New Brunswick students who occupied the University of Moncton in 1969 in a struggle for language rights for Acadians. Brault and Perrault occupied the same ground as the students, even spending some nights with them on the same university floor, “shooting the anguish, the success, and the defeat”, as Brault put it, of the young rebels. A film that questions the identity and uncertain future of the nation, L’Acadie, l’Acadie?!? is an excellent example of Brault’s cinéma-direct engagement with the politicized relationship between language, land and the body.In retrospect, the events documented in the film can be seen to be part of the escalating national crisis regarding issues of French language rights and identity as well as Quebec sovereignty.

Courtesy National Film Board, from L’Acadie, l’Acadie ?!?, dir. Michel Brault (1971)

In a passionate response to being unable to film the actual events of the October Crisis of 1970, when Prime Minister Trudeau put into effect the War Measures Act after the FLQ’s (Front de libération du Québec) abduction of a British diplomat and a Quebec cabinet minister, Brault turned to fiction. “I said to myself, ‘I cannot make a documentary because it’s over, the event has passed’…so if I cannot film the people in jail, what is left to me is to make a fiction film and to be as convincing as I can be so that the audience will relate to the real events and come to the same conclusion on their own.” The end result, one of the most important Canadian films of all time and winner of the Best Director prize at Cannes in 1975, Les Ordres (The Orders) is a haunting representation of that specific national trauma when the military imprisoned approximately 450 people in one night in Montreal and subjected them to a number of terrifying and humiliating experiences.

Brault conducted 50 audio interviews with various prisoners upon their release and used these as the basis for his script on the concrete effects of the War Measures Act. Using the cinéma direct style in the film to follow the experiences of five people, Brault deploys a number of reflexive strategies—interviewing the actors, going against cliché and shooting the everyday civilian world in black-and-white and the prison in colour—to communicate aspects of the incommunicable nature of the experience to the viewer. As Loiselle explains, “It is about the shadow of an experience; what lingers after the unimaginable has occurred; the shortness of breath that replaces screams that were never uttered.”

Courtesy Hot Docs, from Les Ordres, dir. Michel Brault (1971)

Brault’s cinematographic work for other directors such as Jutra and Francis Mankiewicz (Les bons debarras, 1980) and his approach to fiction as a director himself (Les noces de papier/Paper Wedding, 1989) is greatly marked by his cinéma-direct style and his commitment to communicating the realities of Quebec. In the conclusion to our interview, Brault spoke about the 16mm and 35mm cameras of his time. “I think that with 35mm and 16mm film, we—Claude Jutra, Norman McLaren, Wolf Koenig, Roman Kroitor and others—discovered the soul of the camera or of filmmaking.

It is as simple as 24 frames per second…and other little things like how the film behaves in certain circumstances or in certain lighting… All of this put together made us know the soul of the camera—what I call the soul, because it has no, soul of course.” Invoking the names of his Film Board contemporaries, both from within “l’équipe française” and without, Brault here again asserts his continuity with that documentary tradition as well as its continuing relevance. For Brault, it becomes clear that the soul means that the technology of documentary filmmaking does not exist in a vacuum but in a social and historical context; that the soul, in fact, has a body—the material reality of the world—and that this body in turn can help shape the world itself.

Scott Birdwise is a PhD student in Cinema and Media Studies at York University. He is also a programmer at the Canadian Film Institute, where he recently edited a collection of essays, Splitting the Choir: The Moving Images of Donigan Cumming (2011).

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