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2012 Outstanding Achievement Award: Michel Brault

I don’t know what truth is. Truth is something unattainable. We can’t think we’re creating truth with a camera. But what we can do is reveal something to viewers that allows them to discover their own truth. – Michel Brault

Michel Brault has said his goal as a filmmaker is to “bear witness to reality in order to effect change.” While the camera may record images, it’s the filmmaker’s responsibility to see.

Born June 25, 1928 in Montreal, Quebec, Michel Brault worked as a professional photographer before making the transition to cinema in 1947 when he helped Claude Jutra complete his first short film, Le dément du lac Jean-Juenes.

Today, more than six decades later, Michel Brault has contributed to over 200 films, and is one of the most accomplished, influential and revered filmmakers in the history of Canadian cinema. He’s a recipient of the Prix Jutra Lifetime Achievement Award (2005), the Governor General’s Award (1996), and an Officer of L’Ordre National Du Quebec (2004). He’s also the only Quebec filmmaker who’s been active in both documentary and fiction filmmaking for more than 50 years, having contributed to four of the 10 all-time best Canadian films as either a director or cinematographer.1

In 1956, Brault joined Canada’s National Film Board where he pioneered handheld camera techniques, significantly contributing to the birth of direct cinema. His ‘wide angle’ approach to cinematography captured a raw intimacy and musical rhythm that transcend space and time. Early films, such as the groundbreaking Les raquetteurs (1958), La lute (1961) and Québec-USA ou l’invasion pacifique (1961), exemplify this distinct aesthetic.

An eminent figure in Quebec’s Quiet Revolution, Brault believes in the power of cinema as a catalyst for change. During a time of intense social upheaval, he offered insight into the individual’s place within society while intuitively exploring issues of national identity in films such as Un pays sans bons sens! (1970) and L’Acadie, l’Acadie?!? (1971).

Brault’s expansive career is, in many ways, a philosophical exploration of cinema itself. In an acknowledgement that the cinematic medium is weighted by illusion, Brault continues to pose questions around the relationship of truth and perception in an effort to reveal the illusory nature of reality.

He explored these ideas through his collaboration with the iconic father of cinema verite, director Jean Rouch, on the film été (1960), and again with his directorial debut Pour la suite du monde (1963). Interestingly, it was during the shoot for été that Brault consulted with the Eclair Corporation to develop what would eventually become the first lightweight sync sound movie camera, a development that revolutionized the filmmaker’s ability to tell a story from the inside out.2

In 1965, Brault’s focus began to shift towards fiction filmmaking, as he openly challenged documentary’s ability to accurately reflect reality. In his 1964 short film, the lead character remarks, “Life is never as nice as it is in the movies. …why?” Brault embodied these questions in his later work, blurring the lines of genre and experimenting with content and form to unearth the heart of human existence.

His feature films Entre la mer et l’eau douce (1965) and Les Ordres (1974) struck a profound balance between direct cinema technique and scripted narrative, and introduced a hybrid approach that was entirely new to cinematic language.

A criticism of government oppression, the powerfully evocative humanized the political, resonating with audiences and critics worldwide. The film won three Canadian Film Awards and a Quebec Critics Association Prize, along with garnering Brault the Best Director Award at the Cannes Film Festival, which catapulted him into the ranks of internationally revered filmmakers. He’s the only Canadian to have received the Cannes honour to date.

Since the mid-1970s, Brault has continued to make films about the ideas that consume and inspire him. Working across genres, he has directed the documentary series Le son des français d’Amérique (1974-1980), a number of documentary shorts such as La comme l’espace et le temps/Ozéas Leduc (1996) and a handful of fiction features such as Les Noces de papier (1989) and Quand je serai parti…vous vivrez encore (1999). His cinematography appears in several major fictional works, including Claude Jutra’s Mon oncle Antoine (1971) and Kamouraska (1973), Anne-Claire Poirier’s Mourir à tue-tête (1978) and Francis Mankiewicz’s Les bons débarras (1980). His last documentary was La Manic (2002).

A filmmaker of incredible ethics and compassion, Brault’s films eloquently explore the transitional space between individual and collective community, identity and culture, past and present. His collaborative spirit and sense of wonder have influenced generations of filmmakers inspired by his integrity.

While his contributions to cinema are unparalleled, it’s his appetite for life that awakens the soul. He sees with an openness that lays bare experience, reflecting humanity back to us, revealing the essence of who we are.

— Michelle Latimer
Associate Programmer, Canadian and Outstanding Achievment

1 According to National Film Board of Canada’s website. www.onf-nfb.gc.ca/eng/portraits/michel_brault/
2 Mario Ruspoli, Le groupe synchrone cinematographique leger, 1963, p. 30.

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