Quebec’s Celluloid Revolution

By Jessica Murphy on June 10, 2010

“Film is a vision, a point of view,” said Quebec director Michel Brault in 2003. 

Brault and his peers - Quebec cultural giants the lot - were at the forefront in helping the province establish a national cinema distinct from the rest of Canada. They told stories from the viewpoint of les Quebecois. They gave a nation a voice in its own language on screens big and small.

In a little over a decade after the start of the Quiet Revolution, Quebec was creating  lasting icons and Canadian classics that garnered international acclaim. The recent funeral of Gilles Carle – who brought us La vie heureuse de Leopold Z and Manger - was a testament to the continued attachment between Quebecers and their filmmakers. The service broadcast live from the Notre-Dame Basilica and attended by over 2,000 artists, politicians and admirers. 

Premier Maurice Duplessis’ Great Darkness couldn’t withstand the ambition and fervour of Brault, Pierre Perrault, Gilles Groulx, Claude Jutra, and Hubert Aquin. Inspired by European techniques and pushing the boundaries of new technology, they helped unwind the tentacles of the Catholic Church clergy that had, beginning in 1913, woven themselves into cinemas across the province. 

Fernand Dansereau served as executive producer and co-director of some of the most famous films of the era. 

“Young Quebecers who were full of the fervour of the Quiet Revolution wanted to be out there making films,” he said. 

Until the 60s, the church kept a firm grip on what Quebecers could watch. In the year it was founded, Quebec’s religious censorship bureau – the Bureau de censure de vues animées – refused more films than the United Kingdom, the United States and the rest of Canada combined. Children under 16 were banished from movie halls deemed “dirty and unhealthy,” and priests like Maurice Proulx and Albert Tessier were among the few the first independent feature filmmakers in the province. 

The new found creativity during the Quiet Revolution was aided by the arrival of the National Film Board of Canada to Montreal in 1955 and the establishment of its French-language arm four years later. 

The struggle during the 50s for French-language representation at the NFB soon paid off: The 60s is known as one of the most effervescent for the film board. 

Cinematographer and director Martin Duckworth worked with a number of Quebec film-making luminaries of the day. 

“They were the golden years,” he said. “The great filmmakers were bursting at the seams. They built the foundations of Quebec cinema. They established the talents of Quebec cinema.” 

But cinema direct - the key movement in Quebec film of the time - was in many ways a reaction to the stifling bureaucracy of the NFB. 

The cinema direct style – marked by the advent of synchronic sound, hand-held camera work, and a natural approach to crafting documentaries without the intervention of voice-overs and interviews – developed as filmmakers gained the creative confidence and technological freedom to point, shoot and let subject reveal itself. 

Documentary film allowed them to push aside the rigid funding process that demanded creators stick to the exact script handed in to the film board, Dansereau explained. 

“It revealed a cinematic attitude,” he said. “We could improvise, absorb. There was a lot of creativity and at the time that was wonderful. We wanted to make our mark in this emerging society.” 

Technology, politics, youth and funding dovetailed. And the arrival in 1952 of the small screen gave the young filmmakers a ready made audience. 

“The concordance between the filmmakers and the public was there,” Dansereau said. “It corresponded to the spirit of the era. People were waking up, wanted to wake up. (The films) showed Quebec to Quebecers.” 

The titles resonate today, as relevant to our cultural fabric as films like “Easy Rider” or “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” are to American psychology.

Films like 1963’s “Pour la suite du monde,” a cinema direct masterpiece of layered meaning and haunting cinematography, was nominated for a Cannes Palme d’Or. 

The documentary was set on the tiny Île-aux-Coudres in the mouth of the St. Lawrence, chosen by Brault and Perreault for the people’s rustic poetic joual and the ancient beluga hunt revived in 1962 by the islanders.

Jutra’s “Mon Oncle Antoine,” often voted among the greatest Canadian film of all time and his “A tout prendre,” an autobiographic work about his bi-racial relationship. “Les raquetteurs,” a 14-minute short circa 1958 by Brault and Groulx, “Golden Gloves,” the rough-and-tumble 1961 story of boxing ambition, Jean-Claude Labrecque’s “60 cycles,” or “La Lutte,” a brault and Jutra wrestling short. 

They were part of a chorus that cried out “Nous sommes des Quebecois” before Rene Levesque wrote those words. 

“It really helped awaken the Quebec consciousness,” Dansereau said. “It wasn’t rational – it was the dynamism. It created icons.” 


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