The Canadian film that more people are likely to talk about, passionately, appreciatively, than any other this year is Michel Brault’s Les Ordres. Following its first showing with English subtitles at the third annual Canadian Film Symposium recently held in Winnipeg, a capacity crowd of 600 people stood up, applauded and cheered. (The film has grossed $500,000 to date in Quebec and will open shortly in all other provinces.) Since Michel Brault is the distinguished cinematographer of Mon Oncle Antoine and Kamouraska, among others, it’s no surprise that Les Ordres is a beautiful and disciplined movie, but what brought the Winnipeg audience to its feet was the film’s moral and political importance.
Almost five years have passed since the imposition of the War Measures Act (the “orders” of the title) and though most Canadians were panicked at the time by what Prime Minister Trudeau called “a state of apprehended insurrection” in Quebec, many have since realized — as the years passed and no proof was produced — that invoking the War Measures Act was an immoral bungle.
Everything one sees in Les Ordres is based on fact. Having interviewed some 50 people who were victims of Canada’s police-state spree, Brault distilled the details of many lives down to five fictional composites; then he added a narrative structure to give the story coherent shape and maximum artistic impact; finally he hired skillful actors (notably Hélène Loiselle and Claude Gauthier) to portray these characters (a taxi driver, his wife, an unemployed father, a social worker, a doctor) with flawless dramatic authority. The result is a film with the immediacy of an important news story and the concentrated power of a careful work of art. While the method is not new, Brault makes such brilliant use of it that Les Ordres becomes exemplary film making.
Both in person and on film, Michel Brault is a quietspoken man of principle. Though Les Ordres is a damning indictment that will skewer the consciences of many Canadians, it never once raises its voice or resorts to cheap cinematic shocks. In scene after scene, even when the content is morally outrageous, the film addresses us with calm, eloquent dignity. The film asserts that the sweeping provisions of the War Measures Act (searches without warrants, wire-tappings without court orders, imprisonment up to 90 days without formal charges being laid, the suspension of bail and civil rights) did not help catch any terrorists: instead the law was used by the army and police to arrest more than 400 people on no stronger grounds than rumor or suspicion. We watch them being stripped, searched, humiliated and psychologically tortured. We watch them being jailed, from one to six weeks, and then released as capriciously as they were arrested.
Sometimes when artists know they are morally right they get shrill and stylistically careless; but in Les Ordres Michel Brault has made a modern film classic. As in the novels of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, or the investigative journalism of All The President’s Men, Les Ordres exposes the moral squalor of governments that rule by offering the public illu-
sions, evasions and conjurings. More than 80% of all Canadians approved the War Measures Act when polled on the subject in 1970; now in Les Ordres they can have the scales torn from their eyes and see, for the first time, what they were supporting. Incidentally, two government agencies, the National Film Board and the Canadian Film Development Corporation, turned down the script for production, which is why it has taken more than three years to reach the screen. The CFDC, to its credit, had second thoughts, and finally gave Michel Brault the investment he needed to complete production — but only when they were satisfied that the “political situation” was defused. That shows the inherent danger of government support for the arts when films can be made only when they have minimal social impact.
For four days at the Winnipeg symposium (sponsored by the Canada Council and the University of Manitoba) film makers, distributors, producers, provincial and federal government officials gathered from all parts of the country to discuss the state of Canada’s film industry. Or, what’s left of it: major English film production is down from 13 features in 1972, six in 1973, to four in 1974. Much of the criticism was well-founded. But no matter what the failings of the CBC, NFB, CFDC, foreign-owned theatre chains and distribution companies and the Secretary of State’s department, ultimately the responsibility for the depressed condition of Canadian films lies with the people who make them. Over and over again, especially in English Canada, we get films that don’t connect with anybody. Films with no social awareness, no concept of audience and poor thematic choices. No quota system, or government-run chain of theatres, or box-office levy, will induce the public to like Child Under A Leaf, Only God Knows, Journey, The Supreme Kid, My Pleasure Is My Business, Sally Field good And Co. (this one was so unappealing that half the audience at the symposium walked out on it) among many other box-office bits of poison. By films that connect with people, I mean anything from Deep Throat to Scenes From A Marriage, films that people really want to see. Too often the trouble with our films isn’t that they are “bad” but they are made in a social vacuum. There too, Michel Brault’s Les Ordres is wonderfully instructive: when a Canadian film is made from deeply felt conviction, has something to say and speaks clearly, accepts a modest budget and shows a reasonable competence in technical and artistic execution, there is usually no want of an audience and no quandary in our film industry.
RECOMMENDED: Once Upon A Time In The East by André Brassard and Michel Tremblay (using characters from both of Tremblay’s famous Québécois plays Hosanna and Les Belles Sœurs) is an abrasive satire that uses sexual metaphors (lesbianism, transvestism and sadomasochism) to advance political points about the relationship of French and English Canadians. The metaphors are, ultimately, fuzzy, but Tremblay has an hypnotic sense of drama and exhilarating wit.
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