Hot Docs Reviews: 'Guidelines' and 'Jutra'

Guidelines (La marche à suivre)
(Canada, 76 min.)
Written and directed by Jean-François Caissey
Programme: Canadian Spectrum (North American Premiere)
Guidelines might seem like a film about nothing on the surface. The quietly observational film by Jean-François Caissey, which comes to Hot Docs after a world premiere in Berlin, is powerful in its subtle simplicity. This NFB production offers a striking feat of juxtaposition as Caissey and editor Mathieu Bouchard-Malo create a back-and-forth dialogue on the daily lives of adolescents in rural Quebec. This deceptively modest film is one of the more formally ambitious Canadian productions at Hot Docs this year.

Guidelines offers a series of tableaux shots throughout the course of a year in the life of students in rural Quebec. The film opens with a seemingly random long take of a car splashing in the mud. It’s a striking shot, though, as the whir of the tires squeal and slosh in the muddy dirt road against the backdrop of the expansive wilderness. The shot is a head-scratcher, for sure, as Guidelines announces its title following the cutaway from the mud-slushed car.

The shot, however, signals the psychology that follows in the succeeding shots. The film presents a group of energetic children who are contained within the confines of their school-day structures, yet spend the time outside of school hours running wild in the open space around them. The crux of Guidelines comes in a series of shots depicting various students at the school as they discuss their behavioural issues with the counselors. The counselors, who are rarely seen onscreen, sit outside the frame and let the long takes of Guidelines capture the students in intimate close-ups as they detail stories of bullying and other school-yard incidents—one girl teases another girl just for the sake of it, while one fights with a brother—that supposedly disrupt the normal flow of life in the classrooms and the schoolyard. The film smartly lets the students articulate their own thoughts and ruminate on their own behaviour.

There isn’t anything particularly abnormal about the issues in the students’ sessions. There is, however, an unexpected frankness with which the students describe their altercations. They realize the effect their behaviour—teasing, fighting—has on their classmates, but the students brush it off with a kind of acceptance. It’s just part of growing up. The effect of Caissey’s lingering long takes, though, situates the viewer directly at the table with the students. Guidelines is less an experience of watching a film and more an act of listening to a conversation. Caissey lets the audience be an observer to the everyday life of these teenagers, and one becomes gradually involves in the kids’ lives as the film progresses.

One’s interest in the students grows as Guidelines creates a more comprehensive portrait of the students as the shots between their reflections illustrate their lives outside the school. The intermediary scenes of the film occur mostly outdoors where the students are free from rules and structure. They find outlets for their behaviour that convey a kind of youthful innocence. For example, one shot sees a group of students roll up to a wooden bridge in a car and rev their tires as they envelope themselves in a cloud of nasty smoke. The camera just sits there motionless while the kids burn rubber, yet Guidelines captures an accessible and uncontrived snapshot of youth.

The camera moves only once during all the long takes that comprise the 76 minutes of Guidelines. It’s during a prominent shot, one of few that show the interior of the school, and the camera follows one boy as he shimmies along the graduated brickwork of the hallway. He manoeuvers horizontally, crawling like a spider, and the camera offers its one blatant pan as it turns to watch the boy complete his funny traversal of the corridor. Boys will be boys, Guidelines suggests as the kids let loose with boisterous behaviour, but that hardly excuses the conduct they discuss with the counselors.

Caissey’s approach might be too taxing for some viewers since the slow stasis of the film could be too meandering if one doesn’t have a feel for the languid rhythm. However, the openness of Guidelines ultimately comes together for a universal portrait of adolescence. Caissey makes it feel timeless, too, by accenting the tableaux with classical music and by often leaving the ambient noise of the schoolyard to fill the soundtrack. Guidelines is powerful in its quiet observation.

Rating: ★★★½ (out of ★★★★★)

Screens with:

(Canada, 13 min.)
Dir. Marie-Josée St-Pierre
Jutra is a must-see doc for Canadian film fans. This brilliant short documentary from director Marie-Josée St-Pierre, co-produced by the National Film Board of Canada, is an ingenious tip of the hat to one of Canada's most iconic filmmakers, Claude Jutra. Jutra takes the filmmaker’s own words via an immersive mining of archival footage and it puts the great director in dialogue with himself using an intricate collage. The film was recently announced as a selection for the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes following its Hot Docs screening, so it’s safe to say that Jutra is going places.

Jutra packs a wealth of insight into a mere thirteen minutes as the interview footage with Jutra, and the filmmaker’s own playful words, are interwoven with excerpts of films like À tout prendre and Mon Oncle Antoine and with archival footage of home movies. This formally audacious film honours the director with its stylish animation as it makes the legacy of Jutra’s work the core of its inspiration while exploring the increasingly troubled psyche of the man himself. The animated rendering of the collage brings the Jutra of the archival footage to life by outlining him in a flickering aura that draws attention to the spirit of filmmaking. Jutra becomes darker as the animation guides the tonal shift that comes with Jutra’s account of his struggle with Alzheimer’s and the director gradually loses himself in his own drama. The film also features formal wizardry that cites Norman McLaren and other Jutra contemporaries in an all-encompassing short on one of the great pioneers of filmmaking in Quebec. This breathtaking work of art is worthy of the man to which it pays homage.

Rating: ★★★★½ (out of ★★★★★)

Guidelines and Jutra screen:
-Mon, Apr. 28 at 6:00 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox
-Tues, Apr. 29 at 4:30 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox
-Sat, May 3 at 4:30 PM at Cineplex Scotiabank

Please visit www.hotdocs.ca for more information on this year’s festival.