Directors’ Cut

Nick Pinkerton on “Québec Direct Cinema” 

Gilles Groulx, Le Chat dans le sac (The Cat Out of the Bag), 1964, black-and-white, sound.

FOR THOSE INTERESTED in the windfall of innovatory midcentury documentary filmmaking, recent weeks have been awfully hectic. The Criterion Collection has just released a four-movie Blu-ray collection of The Kennedy Films of Robert Drew & Associates, last month New Yorkers had access to a Film Forum retrospective of the work of Albert and David Maysles, and now Anthology Film Archives is hosting a thirteen-day, seventeen-program, thirty-something-film series dedicated to “Québec Direct Cinema.” 

To US audiences, the films produced under the auspices of Québec Direct Cinema may be less well known than the contemporary works produced by Drew, the Maysles, and Pennebaker out of New York, or the output of filmmaker-anthropologist Jean Rouch in Paris and Africa. If you’ve taken a university documentary class, you might at least be familiar with Wolf Koenig and Roman Kroitor’s Lonely Boy (1961), a twenty-six-minute backstage doc which accompanies Ottawa-born singer-songwriter Paul Anka on dates from Atlantic City to Bronx amusement park Freedomland USA. (Koenig was a German émigré and Kroitor a native of Saskatchewan, though both were instrumental in inspiring and encouraging Quebecois talent through their CBC program Candid Eye.) Re-viewed, Lonely Boy seems at least several centuries removed from the media-savviness of, say, Justin Bieber: Never Say Never (2011), and acts as a time capsule not only of some of the gnarliest Greater Philadelphia–area accents you’ll ever hear, but of the queer, transitional moment in pop music between Elvis’s Army stint and Beatlemania, when it seemed for a moment that the cultural id might’ve been packed back into the box forevermore, and the airwaves might have been handed back over to nice, well-kempt young crooners like Anka.

A sense of pregnant anticipation for something to happen pervades the early Québec Direct Cinema productions—not just retrospectively, from the vantage of the present, but as an element of their conscious history-in-the-making construction. The films first appeared in the period immediately preceding the so-called Quiet Revolution that began with the premiership of Jean Lesage, years during which the state would take over the business of welfare from the Catholic church, which had previously run the province as something skirting on a theocracy, and when there was a sudden upswing in Quebecois nationalism, as a portion of the Francophone population—relatively impoverished in relation to their Anglophone neighbors—began to consider their situation in light of other contemporary struggles for self-determination by colonized peoples around the world, an act of political awakening dramatized in Gilles Groulx’s docufiction Le Chat dans le sac (The Cat Out of the Bag, 1964).

Groulx, along with Koenig, Kroitor, Michel Brault, and other key Direct Cinema figures, honed his talents using the facilities of the state-sponsored National Film Board (NFB), which, significantly, relocated from Ottawa to Montreal in 1956. (They are also underwriting the series, curated by NFB conservator Carol Faucher.) The earliest works in AFA’s program are Colin Low’s Corral (1954), a silent, observational vignette of an Alberta cowboy at work herding wild mustangs deftly shot by Koenig, in which one can practically smell the sweat and buckskins, and Kroitor’s Paul Tomkowicz: Street-Railway Switchman (1954), a portrait of a sixty-four-year-old Polish émigré in his last year on the job clearing frost and muck from the tracks of a Winnipeg streetcar line.

Gilles Groulx, Golden Gloves, 1961, black-and-white, sound.

Throughout the series, one finds a concern with the quotidian realities of Canadian workers, bending down between the rows with tobacco harvesters in southern Ontario (The Back-Breaking Leaf, 1959) or explaining the lots of Quebecois lumberjacks (Bûcherons de la Manouane, 1962), copper ore miners (Normétal, 1959), and paper-mill workers (Jour après jour, 1962). Boiled down to subject matter, these titles may sound like caricatures of dour, responsible state-sponsored art, but the films themselves are something very different. New lightweight equipment and sensitive film stocks that could photograph in low-light (and low-life) conditions enabled high-contrast nocturnal photography and deft stick-and-move handheld camerawork—even a fairly routine piece like Koenig, Terence Macartney-Filgate, and Stanley Jackson’s Montreal-shot The Days Before Christmas (1958), made for Candid Eye, features little bravura sequences like cameraman Brault following the unholstered revolver of an armored car guard making the final pickup rounds before the bank holiday. At a moment when much of popular narrative cinema was suffering from CinemaScope lugubriousness and the still-firm grip of Hollywood decorum, the best of the new documentaries offered visual rock ’n’ roll—shown to good advantage, one hopes, in AFA’s laudably 16- and 35-mm print–heavy program.

Many of the landmark Direct Cinema films dealt not with work but with leisure—the former sometimes appearing as curiously serene, the latter sometimes as quite violent. Brault and Groulx’s Les Raquetteurs (1958), depicting a formal meetup of snowshoers in Sherbrooke, Quebec, near the border with New York State, is a key work, dispensing with instructive narration and concentrating on ambiance rather than incident, giving as much screen time to spectators as to competitors. A direct line can be drawn from Les Raquetteurs to La Lutte (Wrestling, 1961), codirected by Brault, Marcel Carrière, Claude Fournier, and Claude Jutra, which revels in the performances of professional wrestlers at the Forum de Montréal, seen pretzeling together hairy ham-hock limbs to the strains of Bach, while the crowds vent their seething, latent energies in cheering on hometown favorites. The filmmakers were assisted in finding their approach by Roland Barthes, whom Brault met when the philosopher was visiting in Montreal, and whose thoughts on the mass ritual of the sporting event can also be detected behind Groulx’s Golden Gloves (1961) and Un Jeu si simple (1965), which respectively focus on amateur boxing and professional hockey, particularly the Montreal Canadiens, whose defenseman Lou Fontinato we see sustaining a broken neck. (Coincidentally, the direct cinema program appears only a couple of weeks after AFA’s series “Barthes at the Movies: A Retrospective.”)

Barthes dissuaded Brault and his collaborators from making La Lutte an exposé of wrestling’s fakery, instead steering them into producing something suppler and more ambiguous, while Rouch’s technique of “collaborative ethnofiction” profoundly influenced many of the Direct Cinema filmmakers in their disavowal of traditional documentary’s fly-on-the-wall sleight for an approach that admitted to the presence of the man behind the curtain. Groulx’s Le Chat dans le sac is among several works here in which Direct Cinema pioneers can be found employing documentary tactics within the framework of narrative filmmaking—one can also see Brault’s Entre la mer et l’eau douce (1967), starring chansonnier Claude Gauthier and Geneviève Bujold, and A tout prendre (1963), the autobiographical second feature by Claude Jutra, a towering figure in Quebecois cinema who, like Brault, learned at Rouch’s feet, and who, unhappily, has recently been in the news in French Canada due to posthumous allegations of pedophilia. A tout prendre and Le Chat dans le sac may be considered the Quebecois landfall of the French New Wave spirit, comparisons which the films openly court. Jutra is perhaps closest in tone and approach to his friend Truffaut, while Groulx’s jump cut–rippled drama is in dialogue with Godard—the film, brimming with the restless, saturnine spirit of uncorrupted and insufferably pure youth, features Barbara Ulrich and Claude Godbout as two twenty-year-old lovers, a would-be actress who fancies that she resembles Anna Karina in Vivre sa vie (1962) and a Frantz Fanon–reading Quebec separatist who gets a classic kiss-off from a middle-aged newspaper editor: “Do you know the world you’re going to change?”

The world was changing and fast, a fact of which the 1960s Direct Cinema filmmakers were acutely aware and which they sought to capture before the change was irrevocable. Even a work like À Saint-Henri le Cinq Septembre (September Five at Saint-Henri, 1962), comprising scenes taken around the rough, blue-collar precincts of Saint-Henri in Montreal in the course of a single day by a team of Direct Cinema luminaries including Brault and Jutra, today invites a measure of nostalgia for a bygone working-class culture. Any such temptation is severely complicated by a viewing of the staggering The Things I Cannot Change (1966), in which twenty-two-year-old Tanya Ballantine gained full access to the home of Kenneth Bailey, a sporadically employed short-order cook, his wife Gertrude, and their nine young children (a tenth arrives in the course of the film, the other main event of which is Kenneth having his lights punched out). Ballantine’s film of the Baileys, isolated Anglos in Montreal’s La Petite-Bourgogne neighborhood, ignited a controversy over the filmmaker’s alleged exploitation of her subjects, but what shines through today is the depiction of a home defined by an abundance of love and a paucity of resources—circumstances in which film art can sometimes thrive best.

“Québec Direct Cinema” runs through May 17 at Anthology Film Archives in New York.