Michel Brault at Cinematheque

I was not in Quebec in 1970. I wasn't anywhere in 1970, having not yet graced the world with my humble presence. Director, cinematographer, and my new idol Michel Brault, however, was around for the two undoubtedly frightening weeks when the War Measures Act was used in the October Crisis of 1970.

Brault, in a Cinematheque lecture and screening of his brilliant film Les Ordres last night, discussed his role in Quebec cinema, the context of the film, which was produced four years after the crisis, and how he came to produce it.

Andre Loiselle, a film studies professor, Quebec cinema scholar, and author introduced Brault (having recently completed a book on the filmmaker) and facilitated the discussion after the screening.

I, to my shame, know very little about the FLQ and the events in Quebec at the time, and equally little about Quebec cinema. It's clear, however, that Les Ordres is a masterwork of Canadian film of any language - not only because of the importance of the events it addresses, but the incredibly powerful script, performances, and imagery Brault uses. The story is more personal than the larger conflict between the FLQ and the Canadian government - it examines the gross injustice of imprisoning hundreds of innocent Quebecois, without bringing charges, robbing people of their dignity, by concentrating on a few individuals.

Brault interviewed 50 people who were imprisoned during that time and all of the things the characters suffer happened, for real, to real people. As an important figure and founding member in the cinema verite movement, he is deeply concerned with the real, and the truth (though he said he and his friend decided 'cinema verite' sounded pretentious and their style should rather be called 'cinema direct'). "You can never pretend that you're showing verite," he says, he hopes to make "the audience discover [their] own verite."

The film, in black and white and colour, takes us through the grueling days the characters spend in prison, beginning with the day they're taken from their homes and children without explanation, and subjected to the humiliation of imprisonment. The style is very similar to documentary, a format Brault often uses, allowing the characters speak as in an interview between depictions of their stint in prison.The actors, unglamourous and uncomfortably real, express the frustration, despair and psychological trauma without pretension, and Brault's cinematography captures the sense of being trapped while the pace of the editing emphasizes the weight of time on these characters, and the individuals they represent, who never knew if or when they would be freed.

Even now, years later, you can't help being furious at the inhumanity of the entire situation and the attitude of the police and military to their prisoners. When the characters finally trickle out of their unfair incarceration, we learn from the interview segments how greatly this affected the prisoners. They were changed. And, as we learn in the discussion after the film, their was never any retribution - no apology, no final declaration of innocence, of categorical ineptitude and callousness. One prisoner did bring a class action suit, but lost.

The film obviously still has resonance today, as people are tortured and abused in Guantanamo and Iraq (among, I'm sure, many other places) without knowing why, without legal recourse, without any basic human rights. The lesson to be learned from a work like Les Ordres, and from the events it depicts, is that if that can happen here, in Canada, it can happen anywhere. We still need, incredible as it seems, to remain vigilant and vocal in our disapproval of such miscarriage of justice. As Brault said "It's important to know your past if you want to face the future."

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