From the first shot of Jean-François Caissy’s new film, First Stripes, you know you’re in for something more interesting than the usual Hot Docs fare. First Stripes opens with a long tracking shot—inspired, in all likelihood, by the opening shot of Jennifer Baichwal’s Manufactured Landscapes, itself incidentally inspired by Godard’s Tout va bien — of a military graduation ceremony at a nondescript convention centre. The camera, at first placed in front of the procession, looks back on the line of graduates as they march to the audience’s applause. Halfway through, the camera moves to the side, watches the parade pass and catches up with the marching band bringing up the rear, following them until they move beyond a wall and the rigid movements finally give way, the soldiers at ease.
All too rarely in a doc fest does one come across a film with a real sense of aesthetics. It just does not seem to be a consideration of any importance to the programmers of Hot Docs. Even in this case, the programme notes only remark on the content of the film, not the form—which is to sell the film short. The line on First Stripes is that it follows a group of new recruits as they go through a 12-week basic training course in a Quebec military base. But Caissy’s approach, which bears a family resemblance to Denis Côté’s deadpan minimalism, sets the film apart.
One can imagine a few ways that this kind of thing could be done. A typical approach would be to focus on a handful of individuals—probably three—and dig into their stories: why they joined the army, their (socioeconomic) backgrounds, their trials and tribulations as they go through basic training. The majority of it would be shot handheld, supplemented by interviews. A different, equally common—and tedious—approach would be to mount a half-hearted investigation into the system itself: interview higher-ups and new recruits alike, maybe even use text to explain basic facts.
Caissy does neither of these things. His approach is structural. Instead of waiting around for a narrative to emerge from one of his few chosen characters, he devotes an early scene to a veritable catalogue of backstories. Everybody introduces him or herself to the group (and the camera), explaining why they joined, where they’re from, and—a little bizarrely—their parents’ marital status. It’s a smart choice. By cultural osmosis, everybody is familiar with these archetypal stories of why people join the army. There are basically three reasons: discipline, adrenaline, patriotism. That’s exactly what you get in First Stripes, and it is nice that it doesn’t keep you waiting 90 minutes to position these clichés as sentimental culminations of contrived narrative but simply offers a selection and quickly moves on.
The film progresses in a series of long scenes—drills, one-on-one meetings between officers and recruits, routines—generally shot statically, with few edits. Often, with the camera trained on berated recruits, the speaker is not seen for an entire scene. In that way, it’s clinical. Yet the film is careful not to strain to make a point if strenuously observed reality does not support it. It would be easy enough for a film like this to caricature the officers as strict disciplinarians, but Caissy is smart enough to include a clever exchange between an officer and a recruit that dismantles that notion, showing that they both realize that training rituals are necessary performances.
Indeed, the notion of military as performance is the one that comes through strongest in Caissy’s film, a point driven home by the film’s circular structure, beginning and ending with graduation marches. It’s not that recruits are, over the course of 12 weeks, transformed into unthinking automata; it’s that they perfect the appearance of being soldiers. It’s all about discipline, artifice and the appearance of order, nominally at the service of the national cause, but also, obviously, to fend off personal demons in a time of institutional disintegration. In its cold attention to structures and patterns of discipline and performance, First Stripes amounts to a systematic analysis of the military in almost Foucauldian terms.
Hot Docs runs April 26 to May 6. Please visit hotdocs.ca for more info.
Daniel Glassman writes about film and music. He lives in Toronto.