By Paul Risker.
Canadian filmmaker Chloé Leriche recently found herself involved in the Wapikoni mobile program, where she mentored documentary filmmaking made by natives that inspired her own work and led to her feature debut, Avant Les Rues (Before the Streets, 2016). Before the Streets is not only a first milestone step for its director, but as the first narrative feature to be shot in the native Atikamekw language, represents a culturally significant one. Here personal and cultural firsts intertwine that represent the foundations of cinema as an artform capable of offering a window onto other cultures – here Atikamekw spiritual customs rarely if ever caught on camera before. It is a testament to the collaborative nature of film that transcends the collaboration of a group of individuals to remind us of the presence of cultural collaboration.
While infighting between superheroes has captured the attention of the mainstream this year, Leriche reminds us that there is a gentler form of spiritual cinema. This branch of cinema that Before the Streets belongs to is one that by touching upon the spiritual within our ontology has the propensity to offer an immediate and intimate resonance. It is one that should not be overshadowed by the loudness of man’s imagination, as it is an example of how film can help us to contemplate and (re)connect with ourselves and our world.
Alongside Leriche, native painter, sculptor, storyteller/filmmaker, and singer Jacques Newashish – who plays Paul-Yves in Streets – discussed the film, art, spirituality and culture with Film International. Leriche and Newashish reflected on the experiences of their work, the cross-pollination of the stages of the filmmaking process and the way in which artistic mediums inform one another. They also discussed the responsibility of presenting a language and culture to the audience, and the film’s potential to reach beyond the Atikamekw culture by engaging with universal themes.
Why a career in filmmaking? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?
Chloé Leriche (CL): At first I wasn’t interested in filmmaking, but in experimental video. The ‘70s marked the beginning of a strong experimental video movement in Québec. It was used as a social tool to inspire people to express themselves in an independent way, and video was an artistic medium in itself. It was innovative and its language was relevant to me. Many interesting artists in Québec were creating very strong bodies of work. I discovered this movement in 1995 when II was studying philosophy at university. A defining moment for me was the screening of Le voleur vit en enfer (The Thief Lives in Hell, 1984), a short video by the Québec filmmaker and video artist Robert Morin. He was playing with the autobiographical form while telling us about our society. I realized then that my social and artistic interests could converge. I had an artistic background in various art forms: visual art, dancing, acting, music and creative writing. Video was a medium that gave me the opportunity to bring all of those together, while trying to make sense and investigate certain social subjects I was interested in, such as boredom and how it shapes our lives in contemporary society.
Another defining moment was discovering social realism in British cinema. I appreciate films that plant a meaningful seed in my consciousness; films that expand my vision of the world and human life.
Do your experiences as a filmmaker influence the way in which you watch films as a spectator?
CL: Like most viewers, I like to be touched by a story. I don’t try to study a film while watching it, but when I come across a film that deeply moves me, I spend time writing about it. I do the same with books or visual art. I like to develop and nourish through art my vision of human experiences, conditions or emotions. I also like to write about formal aspects of art pieces.
To receive an art piece, I need to be in a certain mood. When I start a good book, I often close it and wait for the best moment to read it. It’s the same with music or film. I can’t just play music in the background, I need to sit, listen and feel.
And Jacques, what has drawn you to your creative pursuits of painting, sculpturing, music and film? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?
Jacques Newashish (JN): My inspiration comes from who I am – my identity and my personal emotions. Frankly, from the beginning I have always been at ease with drawing without really being aware of it. And that instinct and being self-taught allowed me to be recognized by my peers. When I was young, I think the lack of acknowledgment and love caused by the residential school defined my need for recognition. Once I became an adolescent then an adult, the people’s reaction to my work helped me value myself as a person, as a human and as a native in this world. I think the most accurate term here is the recognition of the people that I carry within me, and that I try to illustrate. This recognition leads me to talk about certain topics, makes me develop and express fundamental issues. The essence of the native philosophy spirituality is based on this, it leads us to say “Mikwetc” (thank you). That’s the way I want to continue to be inspired, and I am also grateful for the themes I address and the issues they carry.
Having directed two short films Migration (2009) and Game Over (2010), how did the expectations of Before the Streets compare to the realities of the experience?
JN: My short films were to put subjects I cared about in the foreground and were made to create a meeting space for two generations. A senior and a junior share a day in Migration and in Game Over two generations share their visions about the transmission of values and culture. In Game Over the subject denounced overconsumption. This film involved young people and how they need to help us acknowledge the role we give to First Nations – this role of protector of the land, the aboriginal environmentalist so to speak. This task we must carry with pride. We need to sensitize our youths and educate the people. Before the Streets was different because it was about someone else’s story and in that new experience I put forward my image to play another character.
And Chloé, how did the expectations of directing your first narrative feature compare to the realities?
CL: It was an important experience on a human level. As an example, the type of relationship you develop with your cast and team is very particular. You connect through art. I was used to working alone and it’s a type of relationship I hadn’t experienced before, and I was absolutely amazed by it. I have to admit I didn’t know to what extent my cast and crew would be as passionate as me about the film, but the importance they placed on my vision has moved me on various levels. I often had the impression that the heads of the departments try to distinguish themselves, but instead of trying to create the most powerful image that could showcase his work, the DoP Glauco Bermúdez created the most powerful picture for a particular scene in order to serve the story. This was true of all the department heads that made their decisions relevant to the story. So I guess the total commitment of the team was beyond my expectations.
Having directed across short and feature; experiemental and narrative, how do you view the way in which the form influences you as a filmmaker?
CL: I approached the shooting of this feature almost the same way I would approach an experimental project. When I say experimental, it’s not necessarily what you feel when you watch my short films, which are very narrative in a way, but the creative process is experimental.
I feel like an artisan, which is why I do a lot by myself. I need to feel the material and I like to find things I didn’t expect. I don’t get stuck on trying to recreate the vision I have in mind, I’d rather work more instinctively and in the moment, using the best available tools and surprises that come our way while on set. Of course I try to focus on the right emotion for a scene I am building, but there’s always space to try something else while working the materials, such as the words, actors and images. I really need to try things along the way – to doubt and to search. It’s the part of the job I love and so I created a narrative scenario in which there was space for experimentation.
For example, during the shooting I sometimes changed the narrative arcs or cut a character or a location. At the end of the dayI needed to sit in front of my computer and watch the material to see where the narrative aspects were leading the story. In post-production during the editing, I tried out material that is not necessary making sense for the narrative. I go for maximum risk and then I rebalance it.
I once read a PJ Harvey quote where she said: “If struggling with a song, drop out the thing you like the most.” I found this process really interesting and tried it. It’s the type of action that forces you to rethink and rebuild outside your initial instinct. It’s very challenging. Even though I experiment a lot at the start of the editing process, I become more obsessed towards the end. I try to control everything very precisely and so it’s a bit contradictory.
There is a perspective amongst filmmakers that there are three versions of the script – the script that is written, the script that is shot and the script that is edited. Is this a perspective you would share?
CL: To me it feels more like a huge script that’s in movement till the end, maybe because my process is organic and I don’t separate these moments. I feel the writing and the shooting are where you get your narrative material, but the real writing comes during editing.
And from your experience of writing, directing and editing, how do you view the way in which the processes inform and educate one another?
CL: Not only do these processes educate one another, but I usually work them simultaneously so they end up merging with each other. I play when I write, I write or edit when I direct, and so on.
My screenplay was full of director’s notes and visual ideas. And then, before I started shooting, I didn’t prepare so much because I already felt ready. Glauco Bermudez and I just did a shotlist, not to follow, but to develop a visual language and to learn how to communicate together. I also spent a lot of time with Catherine Lachance, my first assistant to build a schedule based on priorities, and to be able to have blank space so that we had time to experiment during the shooting. So it really was research from the beginning till the end and the story was always open, and evolved through the processes.
In this industry to mix those processes when you have a limited budget comes with challenges. I have a better understanding now of how it is possible to leave everything open, and still be able to operate within a schedule and a work frame. It’s not impossible to change the usual process, you just need to know yourself and adapt the work flow to your creative practice.
Jacques, I have spoken with actors previously about the way in which music and dance influences their approach to acting, and I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on this point of discussion. Did you draw on your other creative experiences to help in the creation and performance of Paul-Yves?
JN: Cinema is the seventh art and I deeply live through the arts. In everything I do, I paint, I sing, I tell tales and act for the camera. Basically I was at the service of the art form – I was an instrument of the piece and the cause we wanted to represent. At that moment I was Paul-Yves, as I am a painter and illustrator; storyteller and performer in my real life. So yes, it did acknowledge my part.
The way in which ideas or stories take shape are divided between those writers who write through images, and those writers who perceive that stories are thought out through words. How does the process work for you? Does the idea emerge through images or expressions and words?
CL: Both, and sounds as well. When I write I often play repetitive minimalist music in the emotional tone of what I’d like to explore, and then I just sit and wait for ideas, words or pictures. When one comes I get physically involved. I jump into the mood of the scene, I talk out loud, act in my living room and sometimes record myself.
I try to provoke an emotion, to live it and then I sit and transmit it into actions or dialogue. While re-writing I look at what I have, put back the same song and try to think in pictures. I try not to see the film (this is probably the hardest thing to do for me), but to create strong poetic images.
I take the time to find words and to work the style so you can already feel the editing. Those words portray the emotion of the character, the rhythm of the scene, the mood, and the visual storytelling (art direction and photography). I love writing actually.
The first narrative feature to be shot in Atikamekw, did this add a dimension of pressure or responsibility? Before the Streets represents a meeting point between language and film, of which the latter offers a means of representing that language to an audience?
CL: It is the first dramatic feature film in Atikamekw made with the Atikamekw communities, and because they do not have a film history of their own yet, I had to think of ways to bring my ideas to life, in respect of who they are. I felt this responsibility the whole time. Even if it’s a fiction for the audience because their reality isn’t documented much on screen, Before the Streets was kind of a way to represent the Atikamekw people. And I was very aware of it.
So that was the hardest part of my job: I had the responsibility to be authentic to them and to myself as an artist. It was hard to find the right balance.
JN: The director made the film in a sincere way and without the Atikamekw language the film would not have been as authentic. At the same time it makes the viewer discover this native language, which is one that still exists and is still used. The fact that we played the characters in our language helped us to stay authentic and to play the characters correctly.
When asked about directing actors in a language not spoken by you personally, you said: “I listen to the music, the rhythm – but in fact I paid attention mostly to realism. If the emotion is sincere, it doesn’t matter if a few words are missing, what counts is the performance.” A filmmaker once described to me in an interview the writing as being like composing the score, and directing like standing on a podium conducting the orchestra. This observation connects with your own observation of listening to the music and rhythm of language. Outside of the soundtrack I always consider their to be a musical dimension to storytelling, performance and creativity in general, and I would be interested to hear your thoughts on this idea both in relation to Before the Streets and more broadly.
CL: Interesting… I can say I have a precise idea of the rhythm of the film since its inception. Not only do I use music to write, but I work the length of the sentences and punctuation to create a rhythm. The audience will never read my scripts, so it’s an exercise for myself. During the editing I like to search and effect the tone and mood with the audio. I can copy-paste a scene twenty times in a timeline, and then put a different sound on it (from natural sound to musical themes that are as far as possible from one to the other). Then I watch it to try to understand the emotion it creates and how it can affect the scene or the entire sequence.
What’s interesting is that music and film both work with emotions, so the movement we create with the material is the same in a way. During the shooting I was sometimes following the pace of the actors, but I would often direct during the scene so the actor could adjust the rhythm to something that felt right to me. Then again during the editing, I hear things with a certain rhythm. It’s very precise actually. Every silence has a precise length. There’s one sentence in my film that comes half a second too late in the editing, and every time I see the film it feels like the wrong note, or the wrong pitch.
In the larger scope of things there’s a general mood, an arc that yes, can definitely sound like a classical music piece. When I was listening to different voice-demos to find the actress that would do a narration in the film, I asked my composer Robert Marcel Lepage to give me his thoughts about my options. I was shy to ask him about it because it certainly wasn’t his job, but he reassured me and told me that it was a relevant musical choice. He told me that films were like an opera to him and so all the vocal elements were extremely important. He then offered me a book called Opérascope that brings light to this theory. It’s next on my reading list.
The spatial setting is intrinsically linked to the feel of any drama. Alongside the spatial setting, language or accent will also inevitably play a part in creating a certain sense of feeling. How do you see space and language as something that creates a distinct sense of feeling?
CL: Outside the choice of the Atikamekw language, we gave a particular attention to the subtitles and the construction of the dialogue. I was privileged to be working with Robert Gray for my English subtitles, as I think he’s one of the best translators, and he has worked on some of Wim Wenders and Ulrish Seidl’s films.
In Before the Streets the language was very important to me, so I played with it in different ways. There were a few words in some scenes that helped accentuate the lack of possibilities, the affect of modernity or the incapacity to communicate. And in other parts of the story where the native tradition was more present, the construction of the sentences were made to represent a more ancient way of speaking. Sentences were longer and we used inversions. The choice of words was also richer. It’s a fine balance that was achieved to create feelings and to slide from one place to another. As an example, when two characters didn’t know how to communicate, I suggested using a repetitition of words.
The choice of the community filmed and the way I shot the town and the forest were also treated in that same way. In the beginning of the film the woods are hostile and almost scary with the electroacoustic music added to give it some sort of distance. At the end, the beat of the drum is drier and the sound of the forest is more open and welcoming.
JN: If we had filmed in a studio or place other than a native community, we would not have felt the same way. As actors also the location permeated us; the soul was there and the notion of territory was present. I think this is what helped us to truly live our reality. The director wanted to capture the reality of the natives and introduce it in a fictional context.
Through native traditions and the non-professional cast whose world is the setting for the film, Before the Streets represents a meeting point between the ‘real world’ or ‘spatial and cultural truth’ and the fictional drama. Having experiences of documentary filmmaking and now narrative fiction, I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on the divide and brushing together of fictional drama with reality. But also your thoughts on the complex nature of stories that have an intrinsic relationship between the two.
CL: I was a filmmaking mentor on many documentaries made by natives through the Wapikoni mobile program. When I started doing my own short films (essais, art videos, no budget films), I used myself as a subject and made a few autobiographical pieces that I would sometimes fictionalize, but in a realistic way. In those I would almost always work with non-actors because I had no budget, and it wasn’t allowed by the unions to not pay a professional actor their minimum salary. So I got used to it because usually non-actors are extremely realistic when they play a part that is similar to their real life. I refined this idea of mixing reality and creation in my short films as I believe it’s rich.
As a spectator I fell for the social realism cinema of Alan Clarke and Ken Loach. I thought of going in that direction for Before the Streets, as I wanted this film project to be a social one. But then I got taken by the story! The fiction I started developing took over and decided for me. In the end my film is probably hard to classify, as it’s anchored in reality that became very transcended.
The docu-fiction frontier in the film was thin as I chose some of the cast based on their link to my story. For example, the actor I chose to play Martial, the man whose task it is to get rid of the errant dogs in the community, had this job for years in real life. It was the same for the spiritual guide – the actor used to be a social worker who did this type of therapy with native kids, like his father taught him. The main characters of the brother and sister were real siblings, and all of the actors were really close to something problematic portrayed in the film. I found this not only to be creatively interesting, but also important. This is how I mixed fiction and documentary by basing it on their experiences, and it helps the scenes gain some authenticity, while the actors felt genuine emancipation.
In some of the scenes the difference beetween playing and (re)living the situation was also very thin. I did the scene after the suicide in one shot. The actors had to live it, but everyone was prepared in order to live the situation, and not act it.
Apart from this, we also decided to film things that were happening there around us in the community that was hosting our shoot, like the kids in the streets or the pow wow shots. We got permission to just show up and film what was actually happening. It was important to me to have those moments of reality. The idea wasn’t to re-create reality, but to sometimes capture it and to then create fictional passages in which it is staged.
One of the powerful themes of the film is how as individuals we are caught up in the cause and affect of our choices. Shawnouk’s journey to the Atikamekw village and his use of cleansing rituals echoes the spiritual nature of man. It strikes me that this aspect of the story could be seen to look beyond the Atikamekw culture on one level to an inherent spirituality in man. Yet it is within the turbulence of the cause and affect that our lives are structured around or upon.
CL: I’ve always been interested in making sense of life. To me, the meaning of life is the center theme of the film. In my life, from my childhood studies of religion to philosophy, it has always been my intention to explore this question. I lost my dad at the age of four and so the question of life and death was crucial in my development – it still is. I guess I’m very much into existentialism. I really like Albert Camus’ philopsophy on these questions. But his answers were not enough, and through the native traditions – the question of going back to your roots and identity – and the nature and biological aspects of life, I found some answers that were good for my characters, and for myself. So yes, I guess you can say there’s this wider answer portrayed in the film. Although I didn’t put too much of my own thoughts on the subject, although I wanted to draw from it.
JN: I believe that human beings tend to forget their spiritual side. The modern and western rhythm and the speed of technology bring us away from it. Man is made of four main principles: the mental, emotional, physical and spiritual. If one of these elements is missing the person is unbalanced. The spiritual often resurfaces when we are experiencing difficult times, but in my view, we should live our spirituality at all times. The recognition and gratefulness of what surrounds us allows us to become who we are and where we want to be heading. Without even concretely knowing where we’re going, but to trust ourselves and to acknowledge who we are. I believe that’s our goal.
We channel ourselves through art and art channels itself through us. It is an important symbiotic relationship. You are continually working on initiatives to try to foster creativity amongst the youth of your community Jacques, and I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on the importance of creativity on a personal as well as a communal and cultural level – the symbiotic relationship of people and art.
JN: Art has always been a part of cultures, no matter which. Art gives to a nation, a community or a tribe its identity. Through art, history is engraved. Through the moccasin, the bark, even the skin we remember. Without creation what do we have left? It is through this transmission, which is at the same level as education that we are brought to evolve.
Cinema can act as a window through which we can view other cultures. Of course with this comes a certain responsibility in that it has the sense of presence to forge an impression of history and culture. In relation to Before the Streets and the focus of the story, what are your feelings towards how this film offers a representation of Atikamekw culture, while offsetting the need to create an engaging story for the audience?
CL: I worked so much to develop a story that allows me to open a reflection and a dialog, while being interesting on different levels. So many films are about redemption and resilience. It is a wide human subject that we want to better understand. There are so many atrocities in the world that we need stories to help us relate to mankind, and it has been a necessity since the begining of time.
Redemption movies have this capacity to help us find answers, to be able to elevate ourselves. I mean we do need to try to make sense of our existence and it’s absurdity. In Before the Streets the characters are struggling with levels of ethical situations and they need to make choices. In my story the fact that Shawnouk goes back to the woods, to his native identity and finds redemption through native spirituality was an original way to treat this universal subject. I thought it was engaging to the audience because it’s a rare healing road that Shawnouk takes through reparative justice, and we were privileged enough to capture exclusive traditional practices seldom shown on film.
JN: Chloé prepared her project well and her approach brought the film to represent a genuine vision of an Atikamekw community. I personally didn’t feel the clichés, negativity and prejudice that some people and the media sometimes emphasize. She filmed well, including some problems, but also the path that the First Nations are taking to address the issues, the development, the territory, who we are and what we want for future generations was well represented for me.
Speaking with Carol Morley for The Falling (2015) she explained: “You take it 90% of the way, and it is the audience that finishes it. So the audience by bringing themselves: their experiences, opinions and everything else to a film is what completes it.” Would you agree and do you perceive there to be a transfer of ownership?
CL: Oh yeah! And I leave space open in the editing for this purpose. It’s important to me. It’s sometimes hard because there’s something strong that you would like to say, but I believe that the audience can be more intelligent than I am. So I put more meaning and sense in those spaces because of their own emotional experiences. It is something I am conscious about and so I leave these spaces open within or in between scenes.
As an example, until the last minute in the audio mix, I had one of the most beautiful Hubert Reeves astrophysics excerpt on the pow wow scene. I decided to finally take it out for this reason. It was hurtful, but necessary to leave that space for the audience to gather their own thoughts.
German filmmaker Christoph Behl remarked to me: “You are evolving, and after the film you are not the same person as you were before.” How do you view the way in which Before the Streets has shaped you both personally and professionally, and how do you think it has informed you moving forward from a directorial or storytelling point of view?
CL: On a professionnal level I’ve learned so much. It was a school where I was the student, the teacher and the principal all at the same time! I feel stronger now. I have years of thoughts about the medium, the process and I know myself better as an artist. And since it took me so long to do this project, I’ve evolved and adapted the story to my own growth.
The biggest change I experienced concerns the spiritual aspects of the film. It took me this film to understand that in this story, I was not only transmiting seeds of answers towards the meaning of life to the native people, but I was also giving these thoughts to myself. I’ll never be the same, of course. To work on a film that tries to make a difference within my society is something I’ve felt so much passion about. This is why for my next film, I’m looking for a story that is not only compelling in itself, but can also provide a social impact and a strong artistic point of view.
JN: Before the streets did not just bring me to make a step, but a great leap because it meant a momentum of opportunities for artistic creations. I feel like a person who was given the chance to rethink the world over again, and bring it the best. I feel that I have grown as a person and as an artist, and it has broadened my artistic vision. Mikwetc – thanks to Chloé, Before the Streets and life.
Before the Streets played at the 67th Berlin International Film Festival and the Seattle International Film Festival.
Paul Risker is an independent scholar and film critic who contributes regularly to Film International. He is an Editor for Mise-en-scène: The Journal of Film and Visual Narration, which will launch in Fall 2016.