Quebec Dreams: The films of Serge Giguère & Sylvie Van Brabant

22 mins read

In 2006, Serge Giguère was honoured with a focus on his oeuvre at Hot Docs, and he returns to the prestigious Toronto festival this year with À force de rêves, which opened last fall’s Rencontres Internationales du Documentaire de Montréal (RIDM). It quickly garnered enthusiastic acclaim in the province of Quebec, winning the best feature documentary award at the Jutras. Based on the heartfelt feedback the filmmakers have been receiving, the film appears to strike a chord with the Québécois population. At the premiere, for example, a relative of one of the five subjects of Giguère’s mosaic documentary exclaimed with elated surprise: “C’pas un documentaire, ça, c’t’un show!” (This ain’t a documentary; it’s a TV show!”)

There’s no question that Giguère’s new documentary, like the rest of his oeuvre, is a populist work, both documenting the lives of working-class Québécois and aimed at a working-class Québécois audience. Therein, though, lies an unfortunate irony. Québécois indie documentaries rarely get any play outside of Montreal art houses, which are mostly patronized by cosmopolitan artists, intellectuals, film buffs, and the like. However, Giguère’s subjects, and the audience who would most relate to his films, are the inhabitants of that insular, unilingual Francophone Quebec that lies beyond downtown Montreal and the West Island. Most of those people, no matter how much these films could potentially matter to them, will likely never be exposed to them.

Nevertheless, Les Productions du Rapide Blanc, the indie documentary film company founded by Giguère and Sylvie Van Brabant, continues to produce films deeply entrenched within the Québécois reality.

The Latest Dream
À force de rêves jumps back and forth, in the manner of a dream, between the lives of five elderly Québécois whose lives are winding down. With no fixed plan, outline, or script, Giguère simply showed up on their doorsteps every once in a while for three years, letting whatever would happen unfold before his eyes.

Giguère, as in his past films, displays a fascination with passionate eccentrics. There’s Marc-André Péloquin, who’s obsessed with flying miniature model airplanes. Gérard Allaire is a farmer and woodsman who refuses to let his ailing body slow him down. Ray Monde is a painter whose naivety is both charming and alarming. Jean Lacasse, an antiques dealer haunted by memories and regrets, must deal with his wife’s poor health, and his own. And then there’s Reine Décarie, a former nun with a passion for signing who yearns for the companionship she once had with a now-deceased woman.

Most of these lives are sad, and the slow pace of the film reflects that. These are the chronicles of dying dreams, of lives not lived. Punctuating the film are scenes of a senior-citizen orchestra blasting away with somewhat jarring enthusiasm.

In keeping with Giguère’s populist agenda, the film has little pretension. Again, as he often does in his other films, Giguère stages little metaphorical scenes to emphasize moments, events, or themes. The filmmaker isn’t trying to be subtle. That these metaphors are sometimes overly obvious and clichéd—like the crash of a paper plane to announce a death—is beside the point.

And yet… Giguère is something of a poet. It’s not just that these naive metaphors so well reflect the inner lives of his rough-edged characters, but Giguère also eschews such conventions as context, time, and place. We never really find out where, precisely, the characters of À force de rêves live or when the action is taking place, nor are we given much in the way of narrative context for these lives he documents. This is an intentional aesthetic choice. For Giguère, such details weigh down a film, necessitating awkward devices, like titles or artificial narration or exposition. Including such elements would break the dream.

And Giguère’s film is steadfastly dream-like. What matters is the emotion of the moment, which Giguère is joyously shameless about milking to the fullest. Because, oddly, despite the melancholy that permeates the lives of his characters, Giguère somehow manages to unearth nuggets of hardwon joy, and, perhaps more than the sadness, it’s these moments that end up being the most poignant, that expose the true heart of the film.

Working-class Dreamer
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Giguère garnered attention for his work as director of photography on both documentaries and fiction films, such as Québécois cult favourite Jacques et novembre, by Jean Beaudry and François Bouvier. Soon, he was a frequent DOP on NFB documentary productions. Prior to that, in 1974, he had co-founded Les films d’aventures sociales du Quebec, a documentary film production company, with Robert Tremblay. Together they directed Belle famille, about a family in the St-Henri district of Montreal, who wants to build a country home.

Giguère’s first solo documentary feature was Le gars qui chante sua jobbe, a claustrophobic portrait of his brother, a hospital worker by day and singer-songwriter by night. Already, Giguère’s voice was fully formed: the unapologetic use of true Québécois French, as boldly announced by the exuberantly joual title; the dream-like narrative that refuses to be anchored in time or space; the fascination with obsessive eccentrics; the candid look at Québécois life; the showcasing of moments of unlikely joy amidst an unforgiving life and the intentional lack of formal structure.

Although filmed from 1978 to 1980, Le gars qui chante sua jobbe was not released until 1988, after Giguère’s most famous film hit the circuit: Oscar Thiffault, a portrait of a semi-famous Québécois country singer. For this one, Giguère reigned in his poetic style a bit and allowed himself to include some of the contextual information needed to tell the story of the singer’s life.

Le gars qui chante sua jobbe is gritty, stark, and demanding, never making it smooth or easy for the audience to witness the circumscribed life being painted. By contrast, Oscar Thiffault is almost lush. Although both films are united by Giguère’s obvious love for homegrown Québécois music, their subjects are quite different. Giguère’s brother is a working-class everyman while Thiffault is something of a celebrity. Whereas the world of Giguère’s brother is limited to his immediate environment, Thiffault’s life has international aspects. For the latter film, accordingly, Giguère widened his focus and let the pictures breathe.

Oscar Thiffault, which earned several accolades, including Prix du moyen métrage, at Quebec’s annual Rendezvous du cinema in 1988, was the first film released by Rapide Blanc. The new company took its name from the singer’s most famous tune, Le rapide-blanc. However, one shouldn’t look for any deep meaning behind Giguère’s and Van Brabant’s titular choice. They needed to come up with a name, they now claim, so why not use an evocative phrase from the first film they would produce?

Giguère’s best film is probably his next Rapide Blanc production, Le roi du drum, an effervescent portrait of Guy Nadon, a virtuoso jazz drummer who grew up in Montreal’s East End with no support or easy outlet for his tremendous talent, energy, and creativity. In 1992, that film also garnered the Prix du moyen métrage at the Rendezvous du cinéma. The film is a fast-paced piece of inspired filmmaking, as effervescent as Nadon’s drumming.

Thematically, Le roi du drum situates itself between the two previous films. Both cosmopolitan and claustrophobic, lush and gritty, it perfectly captures the contrasts and contradictions of Nadon’s idiosyncratic life path: always looking outward to the larger world of jazz, but trapped in the world of working-class Quebec; immensely talented, but unable to broadcast his talent as widely as he dreams. The brilliant drummer’s earnest Woody Allen-like nebbishness is balanced by the wry and serene camera time with Nadon’s contemporary and old friend, bandleader Vic Vogel, one of the many contrasts that contribute to the film’s vibrancy.

One of Rapide Blanc’s aims is to facilitate and effect social change. It’s an aim that’s not easily achieved. Le roi du drum, however, changed at least one life: Nadon’s. In the wake of its release, he rose out of near-obscurity to be able to command big-ticket gigs at Montreal’s prestigious Place des arts.

In the past few years, Giguère, always much in demand as a director of photography, has been closing off that aspect of his career. He wants to focus exclusively on his own work, shoot only his own films.

A Different Dreamer
Giguère’s partner in Rapide Blanc, Sylvie Van Brabant, is also a documentary filmmaker. But, while her films are also deeply entrenched in Québécois reality, her approach is radically different. While Giguère’s films are visual, poetic, and more concerned with impressions than narrative, Brabant’s films are intellectual, story-driven, structured, and explicitly engaged.

Giguère is a cameraman who shoots his own docs. It allows him the flexibility to create his films as he goes along, to improvise more freely. Sometimes, he’ll start shooting with only a vague idea of how his new film’s subject or story will develop. He’s interested in what the lives of specific characters will illuminate about the Québécois reality, while Van Brabant, who requires a DOP, is more of a writer-filmmaker, deeply concerned with issues of social justice and more focused on political issues.

A Francophone Canadian born in St-Paul, Alberta, Van Brabant became a filmmaker almost by accident. In the mid ’70s, then a psychology student, Van Brabant happened to discuss her sociology research project with an NFB employee, who suggested that it would make a good documentary. The NFB hooked her up with a crew, including director of photography Serge Giguère, and the result was C’est l’nom d’la game, a portrait of the Francophone community of St-Vincent, Alberta.

In 1977, she settled in the Province of Quebec, drawn by the language and by what she then perceived as a more socially progressive, almost utopian society. Although the social reality didn’t quite measure up to her idealized hopes, she still made the province her permanent home.

Her next project would turn out to be her signature work, but the content turned out to be too explicit for the NFB. Co-directed by Giguère, Depuis que le monde est monde (1981), a raw, candid, and unflinching—even by today’s standards—look at birthing practices in Quebec, was released through Giguère’s Les films d’aventures sociales du Quebec. Concerned by the overmedicalization of childbirth, Van Brabant’s engagement with the topic did not end with the film: she became a founding member of Naissance-Renaissance, an organization dedicated to giving women better access to information and resources regarding childbirth, and ended up working as a midwife for several years.

In the wake of the film’s success, she directed a trio of short films for the NFB on women’s health issues, including breast-feeding and menopause: Le doux partage (1983), Nuageux avec éclaircies (1987), and Ménotango (1987). The Quebec social climate of the early 1980s was ripe for the release of Depuis que le monde est monde, and, for a time, natural childbirth did become more common and more people questioned the medicalization of what is, after all, a natural process all animals, including humans, have been undergoing without medical help for millennia. But times change. Van Brabant, a vocal feminist, feels that the film needs to be remade. For example, women are increasingly scheduling caesareans so as to be able to fit childbirth in their busy timetables. And doctors go along with it. It’s easier on their schedules, too. Considerations of health for either the baby or the mother have become secondary to being an efficient cog in the capitalist job market.

Her later films have explored a diversity of subjects, from the life of a young Québécois artist suffering from Down Syndrome (Arjuna, 1999) to an Everest expedition by four Québécois men (Un Everest de l’intérieur, co-directed with mountain-climber Claude-André Nadon, 2001).

Her most recent film is Sur les traces de Riel (2003), in which a Montreal musician, Normand Guilbeault, becomes fascinated with Louis Riel. His obsession brings him to Manitoba, where he meets with a host of peculiar characters who each have their own take on this most controversial of Canadians. Guilbeault is so moved by what he discovers that he creates Riel, Plaidoyer musical/Musical Plea, a CD and live show to commemorate the life of his hero.

While Giguère’s films are rooted in Quebec itself, Van Brabant is more likely to follow Québécois who wander out of the confines of the province. Even Arjuna, the ever-charismatic young artist with Down Syndrome, travels to the United States to promote his art. Giguère’s Quebec is inward looking, almost oblivious to the world beyond the province’s borders, but Van Brabant’s Québécois protagonists are active agents in the larger world, engaged participants in a web of worldwide interconnections. Van Brabant wears her political heart on her sleeve, and she does so with passion and determination.

A Collaborative Dream
Wanting more artistic control over their projects, Giguère and Van Brabant founded Les Productions du Rapide Blanc in 1984. Inspired by both the “cinéma direct” school of Pierre Perrault, Gilles Groulx, and Michel Brault and by the rich heritage of the NFB’s documentary output, the duo’s goal was to produce visionary, personal films with the potential to provoke hard questions and instigate social change in Quebec.

Over the years, other filmmakers have found in Rapide Blanc a welcoming home for their engaged film projects about life in Quebec. Such directors include Judy Jackson (Baby Business, 1995), Michel Gauthier (Rivières d’argent, 2002), Fernand Bélanger (Le trésor archange, 1996), Claude-André Nadon (K2: Journal vertical, 2004), Ève Lamont (Méchante Job, 2001), Francine Tougas (Survivre, 2006), and the founders’ daughter, Katherine Giguère, whose first film, L’île aux fleurs (2005), follows a couple from Quebec who get involved in an ecotourism project in Indonesia and uncover unsavoury truths about the NGOs who, supposedly, are there to help the local population. The young Giguère’s political and global concerns clearly put her film in line with those of her mother’s.

Future Dreams
After nearly twenty films produced by Rapide Blanc, Giguère and Van Brabant think it might be time to get back to basics, to spend less time on other people’s films and refocus on their own work.

Giguère’s work-in-progress is tentatively called Le mystère MacPherson. It will go behind the scenes of the creation of an animated film by director Martine Chartrand, inspired by a song from Quebec folklorist Félix Leclerc. Music often fuels Giguère’s most memorable films, so this is one to watch for. True to his oeuvre, Giguère will once again explore the inner world of Québécois artists. (Click here to read about the finished film, which premiered at Hot Docs in 2015.)

Van Brabant is working on La dernière planète, a documentary that will examine humanity’s urge toward self-destruction, all the while proposing concrete solutions to try to save our imperilled planet. It’s a worthy dream if ever there was one, and a topic that’s a perfect fit for Van Brabant’s utopian yearnings and consistent with her films’ vision of a Quebec politically engaged with the rest of the world.

Rapide Blanc, via the work of its two founders, brings together vastly different, yet oddly complementary voices, in a context that encourages artistic, social, and political engagement. The documentaries of Giguère and Van Brabant are grounded in Québécois reality, but both filmmakers are dreamers whose cinema is both inspired by and fuelling the dreams of others.

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