You’ve heard of cinéma vérité. You’ve probably heard of Direct Cinema. Have you heard of Cinéma Direct?
It all started around 1960. Jean Rouch was pioneering cinéma vérité (which is a stylistic principle rather than a movement) and inventing ethnofiction. In the United States, a group of filmmakers including but not limited to Albert and David Maysles, D.A. Pennebaker and Richard Leacock were kicking off Direct Cinema. These two developments, happening simultaneously on different continents, were bold leaps forward. Aided by the arrival of synchronized sound technology and lightweight, handheld cameras, they confronted the very idea of truth.
So what is Cinéma Direct? Well, it’s just French for Direct Cinema. This unique moment in the history of cinema had three points of origin, not two. In 1958, a few years before the definitive arrival of Direct Cinema in the United States, documentary filmmaking exploded in the Canadian province of Québec. The same basic principles apply: handheld cinematography, synchronized sound, and a commitment to the pursuit and questioning of cinematic truth. Yet the simultaneous convulsions of Québecois society make this particular movement fascinating and thrilling on entirely different terms.
In the fall of 1958, CBC Television aired Candid Eye, an English-language documentary series produced by the National Film Board of Canada. On the production team were two French Canadian filmmakers, Michel Brault [who died earlier this month] and Marcel Carrière. They subsequently pitched a French-language 3-minute short about a snowshoe race to the NFB, with their friend Gilles Groulx. The resulting (15-minute) Les Raquetteurs marks the beginning of Québecois Cinéma Direct and helped the filmmakers convince the NFB to create an entire French-language production team.
Over the next couple of decades, this group produced a lot of excellent short films and a handful of feature-length masterpieces. Brault, Carrière and Groulx were joined at the NFB by Claude Jutra, Pierre Perrault, Bernard Gosselin, Claude Fournier and others. Some of them would take the direct style into fiction, most notably Jutra. Brault ended up in France and spent some time as Rouch’s cinematographer. In no way an isolated movement, the documentaries coming out of Québec in the 1960s and 1970s influenced filmmakers around the world.
Yet at the same time, there was a whirlwind of change happening at home. In the 1950s Québec’s provincial government was deeply conservative and vocally religious, a time known by those on the political left wing as the “Great Darkness.” Public life in the province was conducted in English, despite the majority of French speakers. People felt colonized by the English, both in Ottawa and Montréal. Then, in 1960, a provincial election flipped everything around and the Quiet Revolution began. Public education, previously controlled by the Catholic Church, was secularized. Major economic reforms were passed, including the nationalization of the province’s electric companies. Calls for sovereignty and independence from Canada were on the rise.
This was a moment in which Québec was trying to define itself, and these documentarians were up to the challenge. Keep in mind that simply choosing to make a film in French was a kind of political statement. Les Raquetteurs overflows with words, a soundtrack of loudspeaker announcements and crowd chatter that, while often comic, begin to identify a community. A number of documentaries were made in rural Québec, trying to both locate the history of French Canadian culture and preserve the character of village life before the finality of modernization. Finally, when the Quiet Revolution gave birth to a period of tension and violent calls for independence, some of these filmmakers swung into covering the political struggles of Francophone Canadians.
Now, Watch Some Docs!
The National Film Board of Canada, always a hero, hosts an enormous number of documentaries on its website to stream for free. They’ve got well over 20 of them, from just about every important Cinéma Direct filmmaker. Unfortunately, most of them are not available with subtitles. If you understand French, dive in and watch them all.
For the rest of us, the small portion that come with English subtitles is still pretty significant. Here are three of my favorites:
Not just the first of these films, but one of the best. Co-directors Brault and Groux pack an awful lot into just 15 minutes, but the resulting counterpoint of sound and image is just right. It could almost be seen as a distillation of the whole movement, from the presentation of rural Québecois culture and language to the commitment to on-the-street realism. Of course, that street is covered in snow. The first shot itself is a classic, introducing the film’s charming sense of humor with a snowshoe race already in progress. The energetic crowd stomps along the snow-covered road with an entirely inelegant gait, their clomping noises picked up expertly by Carrière. Sound plays a major part in Les Raquetteurs, which emphasizes both the direct style of the filmmaking and the French language itself. Loudspeaker announcements couple with casual conversation, warmly introducing the audience to a small part of Québecois culture.
Pour la Suite du Monde
A masterpiece of Canadian cinema. It’s a project with a daring, even hubristic beginning. In 1961, Brault, Carrière and Perrault went to Ile aux Coudres, a remote island on the St Lawrence River, with a proposal. The small fishing community used to hunt beluga whales but hadn’t done so in decades. Only a few old men in town even remembered how it was done. The filmmakers asked them to revive the tradition, and Pour la suite du monde follows the resulting endeavor.
Yet the film is so much more than that. It’s an ethnographic study of the community as it was in the early 1960s, feeling the effects of modernization. It explores centuries of history, both that of the island and of Québec in general. The fishermen discuss the way their island appears in the log of Jacques Cartier when he first went up the St Lawrence in the 17th century. They tell stories of how things used to be done on Ile aux Coudres and argue over whether the beluga hunt was created by the aboriginal peoples of the island or brought over by fishermen from Normandy. They dance, they pray, and of course they fish. Beautifully shot and wisely constructed, Pour la Suite du Monde is both a glimpse into a deeper Francophone past and a stunning study of early 1960s Québec.
The two above films also show a remarkable development around the idea of objectivity in documentary. Les Raquetteurs presents itself as more simply realist, while Pour la Suite du Monde is quite clear about the impact that the filmmakers had on their subjects. A third film, made a decade later, has a much more complicated relationship with this question. L’Acadie, l’Acadie is on the one hand shot without calling attention to the filmmakers, but it is overtly political in its style. It follows the struggle of Francophone students in New Brunswick, attending the underfunded Francophone University of Moncton. Brault and Perrault, who collaborated again for this film, emphasize the brutal rejection these young people receive from the Anglophone establishment of New Brunswick, both on the street at protests and when testifying before the Moncton City Council.
It is inspiring but also very direct and hints at a further fragmentation of ideology among these documentarians as Québec became more and more agitated. In moments it seethes, or at least coaxes the audience into anger. While still expertly structured and intelligently filmed, its moments of political vehemence hint at the chaos of the 1970s. Some extraordinary films would emerge form this period, not least among them Brault’s docufiction Les Ordres, but by 1980 this golden age of Québecois Cinéma Direct was a thing of the past.