Canada’s Documentary Essentials: ‘Les raquetteurs’

Dirs. Michel Brault, Gilles Groulx; 1958

You’d think that making a straightforward documentary about a snowshoeing festival in Sherbrooke, Quebec would be a simple feat. That wasn’t the case in 1958 at the National Film Board. Quebecois natives Michel Brault and Gilles Groulx convinced Grant McLean, then head of the Board, to let them make a four-minute vignette, which would use up old film stock.

Brault and Groulx shot all weekend and eventually edited together a 15-minute film that is routinely called a masterpiece, and rightly so. One of the first examples of cinema direct, the precursor of verité, it is a pioneering effort in the use of synchronised sound and it eschews narration.

But that misses the poetry of Les raquetteurs. The film captures the pure effervescence of people racing on snowshoes and participating in a march led by the band through the town. At a dance in the evening, the snowshoe beauty queen is ceremonially kissed by the Montreal Canadiens hockey icon, Maurice ‘Rocket’ Richard. Throughout the film, Brault’s camera is there, capturing the filmic equivalent of Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moment,” lithely offering the precise images that will immortalise the weekend.

Back in the real world of the NFB, Unit B producers Tom Daly and Guy Glover successfully defended their young Quebecois filmmakers. Les raquetteurs was released and became one of the early salvos from a new generation who were about to unleash the Quiet Revolution in Quebec.

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Watch Les raquetteurs below:

Les raquetteurs, Michel Brault & Gilles Groulx, provided by the National Film Board of Canada