You Say You Want a Revolution?

Quebec filmmaking duo Mathieu Denis and Simon Lavoie create a defiant piece of radical cinema

18 mins read

Those Who Make Revolution Halfway Only Dig Their Own Graves is radical filmmaking. The scope of this hybrid film by Mathieu Denis and Simon Lavoie is unique in Canadian cinema. Name another Canuck flick with a three-hour running time, an overture, an intermission and a jab at a sitting Prime Minister.

The defiance of convention is appropriate as Denis and Lavoie, who previously collaborated on 2011’s award-winning alienated youth drama Laurentia, chronicle the disenchantment that followed the 2012 student uprising in Quebec. Graves dramatises the uproar that sparked a movement over proposed tuition fee increases. Archival audio, meanwhile, blends with voiceover narration to root the action within a contemporary perspective. The film puts drama in dialogue with documentary as these juxtapositions consider a nation that robs its youth of optimism.

Graves focuses on the disillusionment precipitated by these protests. It presents four students—Giutizia (Charlotte Aubin), Tumulto (Laurent Bélanger), Ordine (Emmanuelle Lussier-Martinez), and Klas (Gabrielle Tremblay, a transgender actor actually playing a trans character)—who withdraw from society and resort to radicalism. The film creates a constant exchange as archival images reframe and re-contextualise the students’ idealism and ask how the world advances when the next generation lacks hope. Graves weaves together an experimental manifesto that potently taps into the angst and unrest of the millennial generation.

Denis and Lavoie, speaking with POV at the Toronto International Film Festival where the film won Best Canadian Feature, explained their approach to making this unique film. “From the beginning,” said Lavoie, “we liked the idea of having archives and found footage, and we did quite a bit of research while writing the film. Most of the archives were already in the script, but we had lots of freedom while editing the film.”

The filmmakers note that Graves draws inspiration from Jean-Luc Godard’s La chinoise (1967) and Origins of the 21st Century), respectively, with its isolated radicals and aggressive collage of archival footage and onscreen text. Denis and Lavoie add that Gilles Groulx’s NFB docs Où êtes-vous donc? (1970) and 24 heures ou plus… (1977) influenced them through his inventive approach to narrative. Two other NFB classics root Graves within the history of Canadian images as excerpts from Pierre Patry’s elegiac Le Chanoine Lionel Groulx, Historien (1960) and Jane Marsh’s old-fashioned Alexis Tremblay: Habitant (1943) reflect upon the culture of rural Quebec, in which the Catholic Church played a prominent role. The latter doc is especially disquieting with its ethnographic approach to culture as it situates life in Quebec as a constant struggle for autonomy and self-expression.

These Godardian and Canadian roots illustrate how the radical form of Graves destabilises the viewer. “There’s a part of the film that’s somewhere around 2012 and a part of the film that’s set now, and obviously those are both mixed with archival footage and all sorts of source material,” says Denis. “We wanted it to be unsettling for the viewer: you’re always reassessing where you are in the time structure of the film.”

Haunting images of the student protests punctuate the drama, as rapid-fire intercuts highlight students marching on the streets or running to blow-for-blow encounters with police. An early interlude offers a chilling image of self-immolation as Graves frames the protests within the context of the Arab Spring movement that preceded it. Place, as well as time, demands reassessment in the film.

Despite the visual counterpoint, the filmmakers both dislike the term “Maple Spring” by which the student movement is colloquially known. “First of all,” explains Denis, “it turns the event into a joke. Also, it’s definitely not like what happened in the Arab world. No students in Quebec set themselves on fire. It also speaks to the view that we as Québécois have of ourselves. We seem to have difficulty taking ourselves seriously and the name we gave to these events reflects that.”

Lavoie nods and adds that comparisons between Arab and Maple Springs draw upon the film’s use of archetypal images in the archival footage. “We only used what was available on the web,” he explains. “We wanted to portray what was in the air at the period. Everyone was filming and everybody was putting their footage on the internet. When there were police performing brutal action, the day after, there would be 10 videos uploaded on the web.”

Denis observes that the documentary footage offers another layer of commentary on the millennials depicted in the film. “One thing we’re noticing as we’re watching the footage,” he says, “is that there are as many people filming the protests as there are people participating in the protests. Everyone has either a camera or a phone, so the amount of material documenting this event is a huge resource. Forty years ago that would not have been the case.” As is the case with Occupy-era docs like The Square (2013), Winter on Fire (2015), or We Are Wisconsin (2012), selfie culture becomes the fifth estate as protestors use the tools of their generation to spark change. Images from some of these events, notably violent sights from Ukraine, interrupt Graves to situate the student movement within a larger cultural awakening.

As the film proceeds, the documentary footage from Quebec becomes increasingly violent when police start to charge at the student protestors. These archival images of excessive force offer violent punctuation within a monologue about slavery that Giutizia delivers passionately. Together, these words and images liken the youth to slaves to the Establishment as the images and the actor articulate the same rage.

The directors accentuate this rupture by alternating between images shot in a confined 1.66:1 ratio and sweeping shots filmed at a 3.56:1 ratio, which Lavoie explains were created using anamorphic lenses affixed with a 16×9 sensor to make extremely wide images. “When we’re shooting in the 3.56 ratio,” adds Lavoie, “we’re using digital Alexia cameras with old Lomo anamorphic Russian lenses.” The disjointed imagery oscillates between tunnel vision and expanded worldviews as the students’ struggle crumbles. The shrinking and widening planes illustrate the disenchantment of the four protagonists as idealism yields to suffocation.

“The Lomo lenses have irregularities that we embrace,” adds Denis, “but the film has irregularities as well. We have archival footage from the 1940s, footage from 2012, and so in terms of the evolution of cinema, this film mixes very different eras of filming.” By mixing footage from various eras of cinema and manipulating images, the film asks what form of radical action sparks revolution.

Graves confronts recorded history by drawing upon episodes within the student movement and splicing dramatisations with archival footage of these events. For example, one sequence sees Ordine, the quartet’s most disenchanted member, release a smoke bomb in the Montreal Metro. She makes her way through the station as excerpts from a 1974 CBC interview with Hubert Aquin reflect upon Quebec’s “cultural fatigue,” which the students seek to disrupt. After Ordine drops the bomb, the image cuts to haunting reportage footage as clouds waft through the station in low-res video. The contrast between drama and documentary is illustrated through Ordine’s radicalism: she has the spirit of insurgency but doesn’t understand the consequences of her actions. For her, revolution confines itself to the story she creates for herself.

However, the directors add that Ordine’s subsequent trial is based on a case in which a judge insisted he preside over all cases with the students until peace returned to Quebec. “In the Canadian justice system,” says Denis, “that is something that a judge cannot do. And nobody really talked about that or said that it was strange this happened.” The film uses associative editing to illustrate the judge’s abuse of power as Ordine’s defiant stare is juxtaposed with piercing archival clips of police brutality, including assaults on unarmed passersby.

Perhaps the most unsettling clip of the film is that in which a summit of Canadian and world leaders, including Jean Chrétien, Brian Mulroney, Lucien Bouchard and George H.W. Bush, congregate at the opulent 80th birthday party for Jacqueline Desmarais, wife of late Canadian billionaire/philanthropist Paul Desmarais. Québécois crooner Robert Charlemagne provides entertainment but the filmmakers replace the audio with chilling orchestration as the leaders laugh and imbibe. Contrasted with the four students living in secluded squalor, this video, which was leaked by Québécois hacktivists, eerily contrasts the haves and the have-nots. Drawn out in longer shots, as opposed to the rapid-fire images of violence in the streets, the macabre banquet conveys the Establishment as removed from society and feasting on its ills.

Conversely, Graves displays subversive humour when an early political ad for Justin Trudeau offering an inspiring message zooms out to Ordine, nude, watching it while urinating. The bilingual footage undermines the authority of those in power and illustrates how Canadian leaders politicised the student movement to their advantage. “We wrote that before he was elected Prime Minister,” notes Denis, “but we felt we still had to use it. Personally, even though I prefer his government to the previous one, when you hear him speak in the film, it’s just political bullshit. [Laughs.] He’s using the key words, the buzzwords, and rehashing them. It has yet to be proven that he will not keep doing that as Prime Minister. The problem with that is that it makes for people governed by the direction of the wind. We need something else than that right now. I think we need people who have conviction.”

Lavoie adds, “We wanted to show the extreme contrast between these official speeches that are really, like Mathieu said, positive bullshit and blah blah blah, and the radical behaviour of how our protagonists live. There’s such a huge spectrum between these positions. While shooting these protests, there was no Canadian flag anywhere.” Graves responds to Trudeau’s message by illustrating the consequences for an ambivalent generation that sees sporadic follow-through from the leaders who harness their desire for change.

Political manipulation is most evident in the rhetoric of the separatist movement that infiltrates both the drama and documentary. The directors agree that some separatists and political parties used the protests to leverage votes, but that the movements are not intimately linked. “The young generation is very ambiguous,” observes Lavoie. “These people are born in the era of defeat. After the 1995 referendum, it feels for them that there’s nothing that can be done about making Quebec a country. It’s not obvious that there’s a way out.” This restlessness imbues the film with its countercultural edginess as words from various writers and philosophers appear onscreen inspiring the protagonists. The ambiguity Lavoie speaks of reveals itself as these students define themselves by everything and nothing.

“The younger generation is probably among the least inclined towards independence, which is a bit troubling,” argues Denis. “This is not to say that this generation is or isn’t fighting the fight, but it’s a film about idealism and fighting for something that is bigger than yourself. The characters do that, but the film is also about the difficulty of staying idealistic in the current world. The student movement and the separatist movement, however, share a disintegration of idealism.”

The film resonates with the anger of the actors who themselves are part of the generation that rallied in the streets. “Most of them were involved heavily,” observes Denis. “We cast people who were just coming out of theatre school. While the Maple Spring was happening, they were striking, they were out in the streets, and I think they brought a lot of the anger they had at themselves now that they see that it didn’t live up to their involvement or dedication.” Unlike the students, who had no outlet for their convictions, the actors channel their angst into a fiery rallying cry. As the actors deliver dramatic monologues akin to soliloquies, Graves becomes boldly and defiantly alive.

The question of identity returns when one puts Graves within the new wave of filmmaking waking up the Québécois film scene with a similar vitality. The directors agree with some of their contemporaries like Xavier Dolan that artistic expression is akin to cultural survival. “I do think that the Quebec identity is a constant struggle,” says Denis. “It’s almost always on the verge of being extinct. To be quite honest, I think it’s more on the verge of being extinct than it was a while ago and I think this makes for a place where people need to assert their own voices.”

Lavoie adds that this urgency in Québécois cinema benefits from the advantage of language within an Anglophone majority. “Quebec is a constant question,” he explains. “We always have to create work to tell that we exist. I think there’s a matter of life or death. We have to yell and create things and tell the world we’re here.” Unlike the four students, who favour destructive radical acts, the film movement in Quebec affirms itself through art.

Where the young generation struggles to bring change in the streets through sporadic action, Those Who Make Revolution Halfway Only Dig Their Own Graves sparks a revolution through a carefully articulated feat of cinema. The film carries the fire created in the documentary images and passes the torch through drama as the passion still burns. The spirit of rebellion endures.

Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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