Geneviève Dulude-De Celles proves herself a keen observer with her first feature Welcome to F.L., which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival this September. The film brings the director back to TIFF after her short doc La coupe screened as part of the annual Canada’s Top Ten festival last year. (It also earned a Canadian Screen Award nomination and a prize at Sundance.) The film also brings the director back to her old stomping grounds of École secondaire Fernand-Lefebvre in Sorel-Tracy, Quebec to explore the lives of students who now walk the halls where she did in her past. Dulude-De Celles moulds the nuances of observational cinema and Welcome to F.L. poetically conveys the turning point between adolescence and adulthood.
Dulude-De Celles sat down with POV during the Toronto International Film Festival to discuss her first feature, and she recalls that her decision to head back to school was inspired by a strike led by teenagers at her old school to raise awareness of bullying. “I was really surprised that in that little town where nothing happens, there was a strike organized by teenagers,” she said, “so I was curious. I realised they have a lot to say about their experience and their everyday life at school.” Bullying, however, mostly provides a starting point for the filmmaker to explore greater themes of adolescence. “I followed the topic of bullying and from what I saw in the media, it was often adults that were speaking for teenagers.” She continued: “I thought it would be interesting to give them a voice instead of listening to adult theories.”
Welcome to F.L. mixes documentary forms as Dulude-De Celles intersperses the film with confessional interviews with the students. These direct addresses to the cameras invite the students to share a private space they can’t find at school. The students acknowledge that many of the cliques and stereotypes one sees in films are actually true, and their openness to vent their anxieties is doubly effective since the social stratifications of the schoolyard make it difficult to be open and honest. Welcome to F.L. conveys the complex and confusing headspace high school creates as Dulude-De Celles invites the audience to roam the halls and experience the school from their perspectives. “For me,” the director explains, “I’m really interested in turning points of life. I think there’s so much going on for them…[as]they project themselves in the future.”
Dulude De-Celles recalls that the students were surprisingly open when approached to discuss their feelings and opinions on student life. Access came relatively easily since the filmmaker has her own connections to the school and community. “During two weeks,” says the filmmaker, “I went to all the classes and presented my project and [also] the photographic project [a recurring thread in the film that sees students create their own portraits]. I had the chance to speak a lot about documentary and what I wanted to do in this documentary.”
The filmmaker says she worked with students inviting them to participate in cinema workshops, the effect of which inspires some very entertaining sequences in the film with future filmmakers. Welcome to F.L., for example, visits a home in which two other students play the role of emerging filmmakers and make a cheesy horror movie together. These students are obvious film buffs as they even know to shoot their movie in English in order to break through the Quebec market. The filmmaker’s camera tenderly watches them relish this mix of play and self-expression.
Winning their trust was therefore fairly easy, while the process of selecting key students, the filmmaker says, required more involvement. “I gave them questionnaires with open question,” says Dulude-De Celles, “so I ended up with over 1200 questionnaires. I read all of them and picked the ones that intrigued me. I selected 50 students and contacted them through Facebook and asked them, ‘Would you be interested in doing an interview?’ Some of them said ‘no,’ and that was ok. Others wanted to try that experience [of voicing their own thoughts for the documentary] and I think they were pleased to know that I found them interesting in the questionnaires.”
The film displays a candid intimacy between the director and her subjects as they give open access to their lives. Rarely do the students feel as if they’re performing from the camera (aside from when they’re taking selfies) and Welcome to F.L. evokes intermittent dialogue between Dulude-De Celles and the students even if one rarely hears her say a word. “It happened that they were really open,” she says. “I wanted them to feel comfortable, so I was doing more of a conversation, rather than asking them Question 1, Question 2, etc.” The director, moreover, speaks to the students as if they’re adults, rather than children, and the students seem genuinely appreciative of the chance to display their maturity as they comment on school life and speculate upon their futures.
Dulude-De Celles adds that the students were comfortable participating in the documentary thanks to the aid of an Interrotron device, which helps them speak to the filmmaker, rather than to a detached camera. “We have this huge box in front of the camera,” she explains. “It has a system of mirrors that reflect my face, so they look directly in the lens and see the reflection of my face. It’s a really big box, so I thought they might have been terrified, but it went well.” The effect also achieves direct eye contact between the students and the lens, which evokes the sense that they’re speaking directly to each member of the audience.
Welcome to F.L. mixes interviews with cinema verité as the filmmaker observes the students at school and at home. This languid film features crisp and striking cinematography by Léna Mill-Reuillard and Étienne Roussy as Dulude-De Celles’ reflective and contemplative style documents the students going about their daily activities. There’s nothing especially unexpected in the halls of F.L.: these students live average, ordinary, working class lives.
One segment, for example, features a hard-working boy named Jordan who recalls a relatively comfortable childhood that is but a fond memory as he explains that some family difficulties in his pre-teen years required him to go to work and help the family. Dulude-De Celles follows Jordan from school to his work on a farm where he tends to chicks and bunnies—-the camera capturing him as he works hard without complaint while his classmates relax in their off-hours.
“I found that some teens are really involved in the photographic project,” explains Dulude-De Celles when asked about her interest in Jordan, “and get along with the institution and the idea of school and the idea of following the same path, but Jordan was more marginal… As he said in the film, he didn’t really feel comfortable in the school, being obligated to do things. He doesn’t finish high school and that’s why we see him working because he drops out of school for work. So, for me, it was about finding a balance. You have kids who fit well in the institution, but there are other kids who don’t, and it’s not because they’re less intelligent—because for me, Jordan’s really smart—you can see it through his interviews. So the film shows different points of view.” By juxtaposing scenes of students living in very different circumstances, Dulude-De Celles subtly acknowledges that her own privilege as a filmmaker is a product of circumstance. Welcome to F.L. shows how one community yields a range of opportunities, and the school therefore becomes a mirror of larger elements of social determinism that helps to shape the future of education—and students— across the country.
The director elaborates on the hybridity of her approach and explains that it gives an authentic portrait of the students. “I first wanted the interviews,” she says, “because for me it was really important to give them a voice. That was my main goal. Give them space… I didn’t want any adults in the movie…They have expectations and I have expectations…I think it was complementary to have then have deep thoughts and then be light on the outside.” The juxtaposition of styles effectively creates the turning point of adolescence, for the students appear younger when the camera observes them, but then grow up before camera as they speak like adults in the interviews.
As the students run through the halls, the film shows how relatively little changes in the dynamics of a high school as the years go by. The film’s approach feels timeless as Welcome to F.L. gives a portrait of student life that could speak to many classes. “Of course, some things change,” says the director. “For example, I discovered that there were several lesbian couples and that was really accepted. That was not the case ten years ago.” The film is very subtle in its depiction of diverse relationships among the students, for even the most observant viewer might miss two girls holding hands while attending the prom. “Not everybody gets it,” Dulude-De Celles says. “I had the student in an interview, but she always avoided discussing it.” The mix of interviews and cinema verité therefore work together to capture everything that goes unsaid, but plays an essential role for showing how this community changes over time.
Going home marks a notable choice for self-representation, too, as Welcome to F.L. offers a slice of life portrait of regional filmmaking that audiences see less frequently in Canadian films. “Everybody’s talking about Québec or Montréal or bigger cities,” explains Dulude-De Celles. “When I went to Sorel-Tracy, everyone was asking ‘Why here?’, ‘Why this place?’ as if [the students] aren’t important or that nobody cares about them. I thought that it was a good beginning, just to be interested in a population we don’t usually see.” The filmmaker adds that Sorel-Tracy has particular cinematic qualities one doesn’t find in Montréal, and they lend themselves well to the timeless aesthetics of the observational scenes.
The filmmaker notes that her return to school reveals how differently she walked the halls as a teenager. “For me,” Dulude-De Celles adds, “it was a good to first create a dialogue between adults and teenagers by having them speak up about how they experience life. I think that [maybe] when we are adults, we just keep going and don’t ask ourselves important questions anymore. I don’t want to generalize that adulthood is like that, but it was interesting to see it that way.”
Welcome to F.L. poignantly doubles as an elder’s lesson to her protégés to embrace their youth, relish it, and enjoy the freedom while it lasts. “One thing is that when I was there, I was a teen myself, so I didn’t have the distance to look at life and see how eloquent and unique students’ perceptions can be. I didn’t have the point of view because I was myself a teenager.” It’s a fine meditation on growing up.