TIFF Review: 'Let the Daylight into the Swamp'

 Let the Daylight into the Swamp
(Canada, 36 min.)
Written and directed by Jeffrey St. Jules
Starring: Sean McCann, Diana Leblanc, Pierre Simpson, Colombe Demers 

Photo from the production. Courtesy of the NFB
Let the Daylight into the Swamp seems like it would make for a great double bill with Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell. (I haven’t seen Stories yet, so I’m basing this assessment on clips, buzz, and articles.) Let the Daylight into the Swamp is an outstanding meta-documentary, which, like Polley’s film, was produced by Anita Lee of the National Film Board of Canada. Swamp also sees one filmmaker, Jeffrey St. Jules in the case, intuitively probe his own family history.

Swamp makes its world premiere in the Short Cuts Canada programme at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. It’s sure to gain strong notice from discerning viewers thanks to St. Jules’ matter-of-fact and unsentimental reconstruction of his family history. “A family history is a bottomless swamp,” St. Jules states in the voiceover narration during the first part of the film. As St. Jules progresses his search for his family history within the three films that comprise Swamp, his study illuminates other perspectives that offer some catharsis for a troubled past.

In the three films – entitled “Mythology,” “Memory,” and “Documentary” – St. Jules assembles an impressive self-reflexive odyssey by interrogating the concept of the family. The film begins with a collage of old photographs and archival material that is blended in a Guy Maddin- ish pastiche of dramatic re-enactments. St. Jules reconstructs the story of his grandparents, who began in a small logging town – where all Canadian families began, the film playfully suggests – and they started as a happy but slightly unconventional couple. However, as the family moved to Kapuskasing, and Mr. and Mrs. St. Jules grew colder towards their roles as parents, the family soon dissolved when St. Jules’ grandparents went their separate ways and sent their kids to live with an aunt.

Along with the second hand stories and old photographs with which St. Jules constructs his scenes, Let the Daylight into the Swamp features some interviews with “Donal” and “Hélène”, two convincing surrogates for the grandparents, played by Sean McCann and Diana Leblanc, respectively. The “grandparents” reflect on how alcoholism, work, and other priorities lead them to give up their children. St. Jules furthers this sense of biography and uses old photographs, which allegedly tell the true story, to construct a sense of the consequences of the difficult decision made by Donal and Hélène. Additionally, animated snowflakes fill the distance between the family members; they also add a hint of constructedness to all the stories they tell.

In the final act of the film, St. Jules extends his query to other families and has strangers recall their own experiences of giving up their children. As frank and as poignant as the first two thirds are, the latter act of the film does an excellent job of extending the filmmaker’s personal history into a collective release by using the different stories to brighten the murky swamp of family history. Some of the most sincere comments in the film come from subjects who candidly explain that they made the right decision in leaving their children. Through the impressive mix of documentary, drama, and animation, Let the Daylight into the Swamp leaves viewers thinking about the consequences of such decisions, and it should ultimately have them reflecting upon – and questioning – their own family history.

Rating: ★★★★½ (out of ★★★★★)  

Let the Daylight into the Swamp plays in Short Cuts Canada Programme #5, which screens Wednesday, September 12 at TIFF Bell Lightbox at 6 pm and Thursday, September 13 at TIFF Bell Lightbox 4 at 2 pm.

Also reviewed from the Short Cuts Canada Programme are Frost, Dear Scavengers, Asian Gangs, and Bydlo. 

 For more info please visit its www.tiff.net.

The 2012 Toronto International Film Festival runs September 6-16.