Friday, April 7, 2006

Adam Hartzell on Michel Brault


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Berkeley's Pacific Film Archive serves many functions for a cinephile like me. It's a venue for film festivals such as the increasingly vital African Film Festival and the upcoming SFIFF (and while I usually stay on this side of the bridge during the SFIFF, I often use the festival's PFA line-up to help me pick which unknown quantities to see at the Kabuki and the Castro, as I've noticed over the years that Berkeley bookings usually include the "artier" films, just as the Penninsula venue, this year the Aquarius, usually tends to avoid the "artier" films.) It plays host to touring retrospectives for the world cinema's great feature filmmakers, like Naruse's recent retro (with a reprise of Wife! Be Like a Rose this Sunday, April 9) and the complete Kieslowski retrospective in June, including a Three Colors marathon on the 17th. It provides the East Bay stop for restored revival prints other bookers pass on with its A Theater Near You programs (on the horizon: a pairing of Bresson's Mouchette and Sautet's Classe Tous Risques May 26-27.)

One of the more excting things the PFA does is bring world-class documentary filmmakers to Berkeley in brief residencies through its Documentary Voices program. In the past couple years guests have included Anand Patwardhan, Thom Anderson, and Marina Goldovskaya. Next week brings Kim Longinotto as she tours the film she made with co-director Florence Ayisi, Sisters in Law (which will begin a run at the Balboa April 28). And last month brought a chance to be exposed to the work of a Canadian filmmaker I was embarrassed never to have heard of before, Michel Brault. I was only able to squeeze in a single program, Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin's radical investigation of the documentary form Chronicle of a Summer, on which Brault was a key cinematographer, preceded by the short that got Brault that job, Les Raquetteurs. But my friend Adam Hartzell, who shared his 2005 top ten list in this space in between his writings for other websites, caught two of the programs Brault actually appeared at, and was generous enough to write about the experience as a Hell on Frisco Bay exclusive. I'm honored to turn this blog over to Adam now:
A friend of mine once told me that the most provincial of people he'd ever met were born and raised and still living in Brooklyn. As ironic as this may seem, when you think about how the world comes to New York, and Brooklyn being a hot borough for those trying to make it there, if you're growing in Brooklyn, there isn't much reason to travel anywhere else. The San Francisco equivalent are young adults from the Richmond and Sunset neighborhoods whom I've met who have told me their first trip over to the East Bay was when they began their first year at UC Berkeley. After over eight years living in San Francisco, I know what they mean. I rarely go over to the East Bay anymore. When I do, it's the usually the same street, Bancroft Way in Berkeley where both University Press Books and the Pacific Film Archives reside.

Books and cinema are my intellectual and spiritual Prozac. I will always find another thoroughly engaging book to read at UPB - my most recent visit had me discovering Martin Kevorkian's (yeah, bummer on the last name, huh?) analysis of the recent habit of placing African-American movie characters in front of computers, Color Monitors: The Black Face of Technology in America and Jamie L. Mullaney's title-grabbing, sociological study Everyone Is NOT Doing It: Abstinence and Personal Identity, looking at the vegans, celibates, and others amongst us who forgo things to find themselves - and there will always be wonderful works by fascinating directors that I knew nothing about until the PFA's well-rounded program gets hammered into my poorly-squared mail-box.

This time around, the PFA decided to school me on Michel Brault. I had no knowledge of this Quebecois director and cinematographer prior to the retrospective of his work that the PFA brought to their screens the second weekend of March. Chris Gehman is quoted in the program notes as arguing that ". . . Brault achieved what many documentarians were striving for throughout the fifties: a form of documentary filmmaking not reliant on scripts, dramatic re-creations, staged events, and literary devices, but deriving its form from material gathered in contact with the real events and people portrayed . . ."

And all well and good for me to learn, but what really drew me to Brault's screenings were not these historical footnotes in cinema's history, but the fact that the films were about Canada, a country whose cinemas, politics and cultures I've been interested in for some time. I had this interest well before I fell in love with a Vancouverite years ago and maintain this interest through the cœur brisé ("broken heart") caused by a wonderful woman from Montreal this summer. To educate myself about all things Canada, I regularly read Maisonneuve and The Walrus and often listen to the CBC and RCI online. Since my Anglophonic self limits my access to Canada's Francophone culture, I took BART over twice to the exotic East Bay to catch two of Brault's shorts, one documentary work, and one fictional work based on real life events and interviews with those individuals who lived through the events on screen. It is this latter work that resonates most prominently since similar actions are being shamefully enacted by Canada's southern neighbors presently.

As with the cinema, first the shorts. A late addition to the screenings was the inclusion of Les Raquetteurs (1958). Les Raquetteurs is French for Snowshoers and a Snowshoe festival somewhere in Quebec province (I didn't write down the actual city's name) was the site of Brault's first directorial effort (which he co-directed with Gilles Groulx). The Canadian Film Encyclopedia notes that this short was ". . . heralded as a sort of manifesto for the National Film Board of Canada's francophone filmmakers." Adding an extra zero to the cashiers check he received to make the film afforded Brault the opportunity to extend this piece beyond the original 3-4 minutes of film he was officially allotted. (Yes, Canadian taxpayers, Brault admitted to this at the screening.) The result was one of the least propagandistic newsreels I have scene from this period. Brault and his collaborators strip the festival down to its essence of disorder and overreach without condescending to his audience or subjects. Scenes of a sparsely attended stadium hosting a snowshoe sprint come back to us when an announcer later asks the crowd not to come onto the field to 'assist' the women sprinters. We are left wondering which of the two or three people we saw justified such a warning from the announcer.

From snowshoers to Wrestling (La Lutte, 1961), another collaborative short about a professional wrestling match in Montreal. Even though Brault stripped away the artifice by showing the wrestlers coached to fake punches and taught by the coach's pre-teen assistant to throw opponents, I still found myself riveted by the performance in and around the ring. Close-ups on intertwined bodies locked in a wrestling hold are coupled with equally close views of contorted faces witnessing the action. Later we will see more parallels, such as a man holding back his girlfriend's (wife's?) body just like a referee holding back an illegally entering tag team member. The staged performance in the ring results in an un-staged performance outside in the audience. Brault demonstrates that the wrestling auditorium has executed a smackdown of the fourth wall of theatre. I found myself thinking that Roland Barthes had to be involved in this somehow and the credits soon confirmed this.

Onward to the longest of the longer works I caught, Of Whales, the Moon, and Men (Pour la Suite du Monde, 1963) has Brault working with another director I'm supposed to know something about but don't - Pierre Perrault. For this film, Brault and Perrault ventured out to Ile-aux-Coudres, or "Isle of Hazelnuts", to stimulate a return to a previously big part of the local economy, whale-trapping. (Key word "trapping". I had to calm the cringes that came from people who appeared to have visions of seal-beating in their heads when I mentioned what the film was about. No metal-toothed traps were involved in what appears to be the most "humane" way of trapping a mammal. And the trapped whale is eventually taken to an aquarium in New York rather than slaughtered.) This big part of the local economy became a big waste of resources so the practice died out many decades ago. However, the younger adult generation is interested in jumpstarting the tradition after Brault and Perrault's instigation. What follows are efforts from the enthusiastic younger to extract the traditions from ambivalent elders, slowly watching the trap set up in low tide without much exposition. The comfortable performances of the islanders whom we presume are acting as they would everyday provide the most endearing moments in this film.

The wonderful mood of Of Whales, the Moon, and Men had me excited for the next film I was to catch in the Brault retrospective, Orders (Les Ordres, 1974), a film about Canada's "October Crisis" of 1970. After the kidnapping of a British Trade Commissioner and the kidnapping (and later murder) of the Vice Premier of Quebec, Pierre Laporte, by the FLQ (Front de Liberation due Quebec - a violent, militant Quebec nationalist group), Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau invoked the War Measures Act. Only the third time ever enacted, the other two times during the two World Wars, this Act permitted such actions as warrant-less searches and arrests. The film was based on interviews with 50 of the 497 people rounded up and jailed for over two weeks. Those who were interviewed for the film were amongst the 88% of those who were never charged with a single crime.

Screenings of films like these allow for wonderful examples of the education and mis-education that film can provide. If I had taken for complete accuracy what I learned from the screening (including the Q&A after), I would have left thinking that no one had been charged with a crime after the civil-liberties-be-damned dragnet. But after venturing over to the online historical community at Wikipedia, I was informed such was not the case since 62 people were charged, 32 without bail. (Although whether their charges were anything related to domestic terrorism, I do not know.) Of course, Wikipedia as a community represents history as a subject; further revisits to the incidents in question may reveal more frightening or comforting aspects across the political spectrum around which each of us orbits. But trusting Wikipedia's reliability - and a recent article in the respected science journal Nature supports me in this trust, finding Wikipedia to be as accurate a source as the hallowed Encyclopedia Britannica - doesn't mean I find this addendum to the information in Orders comforting. The fact that 62 people were charged with something doesn't justify the response. Proper police procedures for a democratic society could have brought just as many charges, if not more, without having to falsely arrest and terrify so many citizens.

That said, I appreciate the way each character comes into Orders. Brault was encouraged by a National Film Board of Canada reviewer to bring the verisimilitude to light at the very beginning. Each actor introduces themselves as themselves, as actors, and then tells us who of the never accused they are going to play. This had the effect of conveying a certain reverence to the real life people played and the real life issues of civil rights, terrorism, and our response to terrorism that this film explores.

Particularly striking about Orders, considering its topic, is its lack of physical striking. No one is shown physically beaten up neither in the rounding-up of citizens nor in the prisons, although the scenario is no less horrifying since psychological torture can dig just as deep. There is a mental terror here, especially when one falsely accused citizen is led to believe he is about to be executed, that bleeds throughout the screen, ever more vivid when the black and white of Montreal's snowy streets becomes the color of the prison cells. I wondered if financial issues were the motivation behind this intermittent use of color since I've heard such explanations from other directors of this time period working with limited funds. Later, in the question and answer, Brault would confirm this when asked by another person in the audience. This use of black and white for the outside world and color for the 'inside' of jail is 'counter-intuitive' because it's counter the cliché of how prisons are often portrayed, as dreary and drab. I'm sure they are dreary and drab and warrant such filters on the camera lens, but going against the grain here, Brault underscores the intensity of bewilderment, confusion, and psychological devastation of each character.

As much as I know I have so much more to learn about all the countries of the world, I was surprised to find out something like this happened in Canada. I shared the reaction to Orders of my fellow attendees as a dis-ordering of some of the stereotypes some of us State-siders have about Canada. Sure, the Cheney/Rove Administration is evidence that the United States is vulnerable to the totalitarian it happening here in the United States, but not in Canada? Unfortunately, civil liberties many of us find sacred to our democracies were suspended up North in the October of the year of my birth. Slowly, my innocent belief in Canada's complete moral superiority to the United States has been challenged by some less than stellar moments in Canada's history, such as the incident involving the ship the Komagata Maru. Although I continually stumble over the name of this ship, whenever I mention it to Sikhs I know they immediately pronounce the name for me. Although a bit of hidden Canadian history, the Komagata Maru is firmly etched in the collective memories of Sikh communities everywhere. The Komagata Maru carried 376 citizens of the British Empire, most of whom were Sikhs, into the Vancouver Bay in 1914. The Canadian government denied the ship from docking and disembarking for over two months, limiting access to food and fresh water for the passengers, due to Canadian immigration policies that privileged Whites, and to a lesser extent Japanese, over those from the Indian continent. This stalled moment in Canada's history was revealed to me by another Canadian film, a powerful documentary by Ali Kazimi entitled Continuous Journey that played at both the San Francisco Asian American International Film Festival and the 3rd-I International South Asian Film Festival in 2005.

As for the October Crisis, Canadians will have a chance to again revisit this tumultuous moment in their history with the upcoming TV mini-series October, 1970 scheduled for a September airing this year. If only NAFTA worked both ways culturally. Because it is Canada's Southern neighbors, with their Guantanamos, Abu Ghraibs, illegal wiretapping, and (too ordinary) extraordinary renditions, who could learn the most about their shameful present from Canada's history lessons.

But let me finish on a more hopeful note, by mentioning my pleasant surprise when I slid my recent GreenCine DVD selection, Mon Oncle Antoine (Claude Jutra, 1971), into my DVD player. I was delighted to see that Brault had lens-ed this film as well. This film about the relationship between a young boy growing up with his aunt and uncle includes a lovely scene reminiscent of Of Whales, the Moon, and Men as well as The Snowshoers and Wrestling (and, thankfully, none of Orders). It is Christmas Eve and a mass of recently pay-checked factory workers head down the road as a pack of recently Christmas-vacationed school kids march towards them. When they meet, playful wrestling in the car-trodden sludge commences. It is a sincerely touching, small town moment that Brault captures consistently in the few films I've caught of which he's been a part. Such respect and dignity for the people and communities he films gives me hope even when the subject matter might seem hopeless.