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FOLKLORE / CINEMAPopular Film as Vernacular Culture
Utah State University PressCopyright © 2007 Utah State University Press
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Chapter One"I' y ava't un' fois" (Once Upon a Time)
Films as Folktales in Québécois Cinéma Direct
This chapter concerns a small group of films produced at the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Golden Age of Canadian documentary. These short films, which aired on Radio-Canada TV as part of the television series Temps présent (1957-64), intended only to deliver direct reportages of their subject material without overt sociological or political agendas. And yet, by making "visible the complex and changing face of French Canadians" (Morris 1984, 291), the films became an aesthetic and political turning point for Québécois cinema and Québécois cultural representation in general (Véronneau 1987, 37).
This group of films, led by Les Raquetteurs (1958), launched the cinéma direct movement in Québec, and was instrumental in initiating a new wave in French-language cinema and awakening a Québécois "national" consciousness (Coulombe and Jean 1991, 107). The films also consolidated the Francophone documentary team at the NFB, thus providing a major source of original French-language film and television production. Significantly, this series was the first produced at the NFB to introduce original French-language segments, rather than versionings (French-language versions of English films using Francophone actors and/or commentators). Finally, the Temps présent series provided a vehicle for Francophone filmmakers to demonstrate their conscious, active engagement with social and political issues affecting Québécois society.
I am specifically concerned with a subset of the films aired on Temps présent which demonstrate the aesthetic and social aims and ideals of cinéma direct and most clearly illustrate two main themes: first, that Québécois cinema at this time demonstrated, through its combination of contemporary and traditional modes of representation, existing tensions within Québécois society; and secondly, that the traditional modes of representation used in the films took the narrative and structural forms of French Canadian folktales. Each of the films discussed addresses some aspect or element of Québécois daily life engaging French Canadians, ranging from popular pastimes and community celebrations to key social and economic issues such as urban decline and unemployment. Thus, Les Raquetteurs (Michel Brault, Gilles Groulx, Marcel Carrière, 1958) features an annual snowshoers' congress in Sherbrooke, Québec, while La Lutte (Michel Brault, Claude Fournier, Claude Jutra, Marcel Carrière, 1961), Un jeu si simple (Gilles Groulx, 1963), and Golden Gloves (Gilles Groulx, 1961) examine, respectively, wrestling, hockey and boxing in Québec, and Margaret Mercier, ballerine (George Kaczender, 1963) highlights the career of a principal dancer with Les Grands Ballets Canadiens. On the urban/industrial front, À Saint-Henri le cinq septembre (Hubert Aquin, 1962) presents a day-in-the-life of a working-class neighborhood in serious decline. Bûcherons de la Manouâne (1962) and De Montréal à Manicouagan (1963), both made by Arthur Lamothe, and Jour après jour (Clément Perron, 1962) profile the operations of modern-day Québécois industry, while Les Bachéliers de la cinquième (Clément Perron, 1962) addresses the problems of unemployment.
As suggested by the series title, which translates both to "Present Times" and "Present Tense," the films focus on the "here and now," the current social reality of Québec, which is a distinct departure from the typically historical subject matter of most NFB documentaries. This focus is borne out by the films' cross section of subjects and themes related to contemporary Québécois society and culture. Additionally, the films are striking for their cinematic evocation of the rhythms of modern life. Unceasing activity in various urban loci, combined with the images and sounds of the hustle and bustle of vehicular and human traffic, convey a spirit of energy and vitality. Movement itself-the movement of the camera, of bodies in action within the frame, and movement between the frames via montage-becomes emblematic of change. Movement-as-change is also expressed through the association between technology, industrial labor, and the cinema: camera movement and montage, which replicate the patterns and rhythms of construction, stress that cinema itself is a form of technology that contributes to the transformations taking place.
The films' evocation of movement and change in the contemporary Québécois social milieu is highly germane to the time and context of their production at the dawn of the Quiet Revolution, a ten-year period of unprecedented social, economic, and cultural transformation in Québec. The revolution was initiated by wide-sweeping reforms legislated by the Liberal government that came to power in 1960. The provincial election that year, precipitated by the death of ultraconservative premier Maurice Duplessis, brought to an end the eighteen-year regime of his Union Nationale party. The Liberals' reforms aimed primarily to modernize the province and provide equal social and economic opportunities for its majority Francophone population, who, since the British Conquest of 1760, had represented an underclass relative to the socioeconomically dominant Anglophone minority. The Quiet Revolution also articulated a significant transformation taking place in Québec's national self-image. One of its most prominent and enduring symbols was the reformulation of Francophone national identity: this identity shifted from French Canadian, previously denoting "an indistinguishable minority from coast-to-coast" (Shek 1991, 45) to Québécois, which instead underscored both the Francophones' majority status in the province and their aim to become "masters in their own house."
The reformulation of national identity correspondingly manifested itself in Québécois literature, theater, and the visual arts. In literature, for example, the third-person, omniscient narration common to French Canadian novels gave way to the first-person, subjective mode or "insider" perspective, which also would become a principal characteristic of cinéma direct. Additionally, the new Québécois novel was more political in its choice of working-class urban protagonists and joual, the "truncated, highly anglicised speech of the uneducated masses of Québec" (Shek 1991, 57), to give its characters a truly "authentic" voice.
In the cinema, the revolution in the cultural sphere made itself equally felt at the NFB, which at this time was the center of Canadian film production and provided the only real training ground for aspiring young filmmakers. In response to the changes taking place both within Québécois society and documentary cinema elsewhere in the world, a group of Francophone filmmakers rejected the standard expository style associated with NFB documentary (instituted and formalized by its British founder and first commissioner, John Grierson) in favor of a more interactive, participatory approach. In conjunction with new lightweight cameras and equipment which afforded them greater mobility and flexibility (portable lights, faster film stock, and later, synch-sound recorders), the new "direct" documentary style permitted these filmmakers to capture events in the Québécois social milieu from the inside and then transmit the reality of those events to their viewers.
These developments enabled the filmmakers to "turn against the game" (Parti pris 1964, 4) they felt had been imposed upon them by the predominantly Anglophone NFB through its consistent underrepresentation of Francophone culture in its films, programming priorities, and structural organization. They were greatly assisted in this task by the NFB's 1956 move from Ottawa, the nation's capital and seat of the federal government, to Montréal, the center of French Canadian culture. The move plunged the filmmakers into the midst of a society in the throes of transition, exposing them to a cultural milieu infected with a new curiosity and critical spirit, as well as providing them with a local Québécois context and ready supply of Francophone performers for their material (Lever 1991, 32).
Also significant for French-language production at the NFB was the arrival of television in 1952. In addition to providing a new demand and outlet for French-language material, television determined a certain social vision that was in tune with the changing face of Québécois culture. The national broadcast of French-language films on television importantly reached Francophones across the province, including the rural milieu isolated from regular cinema circuits.
Yet, despite the films' overriding emphasis on the processes of movement and change, they frequently and paradoxically evoke Québec's traditional rural culture, specifically the visible and aural signs and practices of French Canadian folktales. Some historians have duly noted the presence of such elements in these films: Yves Lever remarks on their "mix of traditional form and Cinéma direct form" (Lever 1995, 160) and their display of traditions and ancestral rituals, mythic symbols and structures (Lever 1995, 194). David Clandfield further observes that the formal elements of folk ritual (e.g., rhythm, cycle, and repetition) are used in the films to reflect and express the effects of modernity (such as mechanization and technology) on the daily lives of the Québécois at this time (Clandfield 1978, 32).
I propose that beyond merely referring to or incorporating these elements of folk ritual, the films examined here, in their use of iconography, archetypes, narrative structural patterns, and modes of narration, function like folktales. I also suggest that this function is neither anomalous nor antithetical to the surrounding context of change and modernization, but rather entirely in keeping with it.
During the period when the Quiet Revolution and cinéma direct movement arose, a mass folk revival took place throughout North America. This decade, while marked on the one hand by the younger generation's social rebellion against the ideals and values of the existing establishment, also testified on the other hand to a longing for the comparative simplicity and purity of the past: this was manifested in the adoption of naturalist lifestyles and the concomitant rejection of capitalist/materialist values; of products and processes associated with modern technology, industry, science, and medicine; and of established formal religion (Rodnitzky 1976, xiv).
In Québec, the folk revival of the 1960s had deeper historical and political implications. There had been an earlier folk revival during the mid-nineteenth century, which had arisen in response to Francophone fears of cultural assimilation following the British Conquest and subsequent colonization of Québec. These fears produced a deeply conservative ideology, which aimed to preserve the principal elements of French Canadian national culture: the French language, the Catholic faith, and the rural agrarian way of life. Excluded from an economy controlled by English and American industrial interests, and with no recourse to other domains of economic activity, French Canadians were relegated to a "culture of the soil" (Brunet 1964, 119), which included renewed interest in local lore and legendry and the corresponding interest in earlier literary genres. For example, the romans du terroir, or "novels of the land," such as Les anciens Canadiens (1863) by Philippe Aubert de Gaspé (père) or Le chercheur des trésors (1837) by Aubert de Gaspé (fils), featured numerous country traditions, superstitions, and beliefs. By rekindling interest in the culture of the countryside, this earlier folk revival consolidated associations between the French Canadian people and the land, thereby also helping establish the rural milieu as the heartland of French Canada.
The 1960s folk revival to a considerable degree traded upon the mythical significance of traditional French Canadian culture as a touchstone of its national heritage. Despite the Quiet Revolution's overarching credo of reform and modernization, poets, folksingers, and filmmakers of the 1960s nonetheless incorporated folk traditions and conventions into their work. For example, Gaston Miron, the radical nationalist poet, relied extensively on folk traditions in some of his own poems, including "L'Ombre de l'ombre" (Miron 1996, 152), which attempts to recreate the rhythmic models of folk songs and dances. The '60s also witnessed the revival of the chansonniers: itinerant folk singers, such as the legendary La Bolduc (aka Mary Travers), who traveled throughout rural Québec in the 1930s and '40s, performing traditional French Canadian folk songs in local halls and church basements, accompanied simply by one or two instruments such as guitar or piano. The new generation of chansonniers in the 1960s, including Gilles Vigneault, Pauline Julien, Monique Leyrac, and others, looked back to this tradition for inspiration (Carpenter 1979, 263), routinely adapting folk melodies from the past and modifying their lyrics to contextualize them to the contemporary Québécois social reality. For all these artists, use of these forms of traditional folk music helped foster the creation of a new popular and cultural imaginary. At the same time, in its fusion of traditional folk-song cadences and contemporary nationalist rhetoric, the new folk music also seemed to capture both the hope and the malaise of an entire society that suddenly felt Québécois.
At this critical juncture, documentary cinema was also undergoing a revolutionary revival. The emergence of new documentary movements during the 1960s announced the rise of a sensibility that was on the one hand modern and progressive, and on the other, conservative in its affirmation and reinforcement of "certain patterns of life and structures of feeling" (Hall and Whannel 1964, 46). In their aim to capture the elemental "truth" of an event, the new generation of documentary filmmakers evinced a desire to return to the basics of filmmaking, comprised of the original materials (man and movie camera) and the philosophical concerns with realism of early cinema. For the cinéma direct filmmakers, in particular, this return to origins also included using familiar conventions of folktales in their representations of the "new" Québécois nation and national identity.
These folktale conventions correspond to the signposts of the regional picturesque described by François de la Brétèque: rural geography and topography, physical structures representing key social ones, familiar archetypes, and customary social practices and rituals. Moreover, the rural milieu in French Canadian folktales is similar to de la Brétèque's village universe, which functions as a kind of metonymy for the territory (both cultural and national) encoded in the mise-en-scène of the tales' description of the land. The image of the village universe significantly embodies the "fantasy of return" (de la Brétèque 1992, 61) to the ancien régime of the past and the rural-agrarian way of life, which, in the context of Québécois culture, connotes the French colonial régime and the strong time of French Canadian cultural autonomy prior to Anglo invasion and conquest.
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