Requiem for a Cinema Pioneer

The great Quebec filmmaker Michel Brault died last month, and while he and his career were fully appreciated in his home province—Premier Pauline Marois attended his funeral on October 4, and the flag at the Quebec City Parliament building flew at half-mast for the occasion—we in English-speaking North America know too little of the profound contribution this film artist made to cinema.

Especially in the realm of documentary, Brault’s influence can hardly be overstated.  He was among the very first to take up the new lightweight film cameras that began appearing in the late 1950s, and when he co-shot and co-directed the short film Les Raquetteurs (The Snowshoers) for The National Film Board of Canada in 1958, documentary filmmaking was forever changed.  The 15-minute film focused on a convention of cheery showshoers in rural Quebec, employing a fluid, hand-held shooting style, synchronous sound, and no voice-over narration whatsoever.  The dominant documentary visual style in previous years had been the ponderous look made necessary by the bulk of 35 mm cameras, a style frequently accompanied by somber ‘voice of God’ narration.  Subject matter was often ‘exotic’ and distant; say Inuit people in the Canadian Arctic, or dark-skinned Natives in Papua New Guinea.  Reenactment was, almost of necessity, the preferred manner of recording events.

12675326_102622376eIn 1960, the French anthropologist-filmmakers Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin were shooting Chronique d’un Ete (Chronicle of A Summer) in Paris, turning their cameras for the first time upon their own ‘tribe.’  When they saw Les Raquetteurs, they immediately fired their cameraman and brought Brault in to complete the work.  Rouch went on to label Chronique “cinema verité” (literally ‘truth cinema’), and an entire new genre of documentary film began to appear everywhere in the West.

Robert Drew and his Associates (chief among them D.A. Pennebaker, Richard Leacock and Albert Maysles) took up the cause in the United States, labeling their work ‘direct cinema,’ and delivering films like Primary, about the 1960 Wisconsin primary election between Hubert Humphrey and the largely unknown John F, Kennedy, and Don’t Look Back, about a young folksinger named Bob Dylan on his 1965 tour of the United Kingdom.  Both films would have a marked impact upon the subsequent rise of these two pivotal political/cultural figures.

Brault himself was slightly less grandiose in describing the filmic techniques he pioneered, saying, “I don’t know what truth is.  We can’t think we’re creating truth with a camera.  But what we can do is reveal something to viewers that allows them to discover their own truth.”

He would later turn to fictional filmmaking, writing and directing, among other works, Les Ordres in 1974, a smoldering indictment of the abuse of power which transpired during the ‘October Crisis’ of 1970 in Quebec.  Les Ordres was scripted, but the script was based upon a series of interviews done with a number of people who were in fact arrested and imprisoned during the crisis.  As such, it was considered ‘docudrama,’ another area where Brault’s influence was seminal.  Brault won the Best Director Award at the Cannes Film Festival in 1975 for Les Ordres, and he remains the only Canadian to have ever done so.

These days, with video cameras in every smart phone and tablet, the idea that we should turn our cinematic attention to our own people is taken for granted, as every police department now teaches its members.  But in Brault’s early career, that we should observe, at close quarters, those immediately around us, and do so in an unobtrusive but sustained way, then make that prolonged cinematic observation available to the public, well, that was an almost revolutionary notion.  We could stay close to home, and let the camera reveal what it would.  The process may not have unavoidably presented ‘the truth,’ certainly not in any genuinely objective way, but observational documentary filmmaking granted us new understanding, new insight into people both with and without power.  And we were the better for it.

If the goal is to leave a lasting impression, to press a permanent handprint onto the wall of the cave where we live, Michel Brault can rest in peace.  He made his mark.

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