The line between what cinema is and what it ought to be is one that is being crossed increasingly rarely, according to film historian and critic AndrÃ© Habib.
Last Friday’s Mary Ann Beckett-Baxter Memorial Lecture held at Concordia University was called “Can we still think with images?” and headed by Habib and filmmaker Rodrigue Jean. The talk was preceded by a screening of Jean’s critically acclaimed documentary Hommes Ã Louer. The Jutra-nominated film is a series of interviews with 11 male prostitutes from across Montreal over the course of a year. It’s a harrowing and disturbing account of a dark pocket of society where prejudices abound. There’s no sugar-coating the facts in Hommes Ã Louer; it isn’t a Michael Moore-type documentary with a ton of voice-over and crazy graphs and music &- there are none. The audience is left to its own devices to make up its own mind about these men.
Habib wasn’t involved with the production of the film, but he is a keen supporter of Hommes Ã Louer and films like it. Too often, he believes films that are supposed to make you think actually just tell you what to think. Not the case with Hommes Ã Louer.
Habib and Jean first met after a screening of the director’s film. At that point, the fate of the film and whether it would even be released were unsure.
Having been moved by it, Habib became a “militant activist, fighting so that [Jean’s] film be recognized and released.” Hommes Ã Louer took over a year to produce and even longer to edit and put together (Jean had over 200 hours of material to go through), but the National Film Board had been blocking its release for over two years, worried about its length (a rough cut of the film was nine hours at one point) and lack of point of view.
Habib describes the lecture as a “philosophical show and tell”: the lecturers showed clips from two films out of Palestine and discussed how one was “telling you what to think” with the use of voice-over and other techniques, while the other, “through aesthetic distance and so on, opens up a space for thought.”
Habib and Jean also took on the Internet and its faulty promise of democratic participation. While the idea encourages everyone to participate and react to images online, according to Habib and Jean, the reality is that the images and the reactions they are supposed to elicit are diluted.
Another problem Habib sees is the reluctance for producers and distributors to get behind films like Hommes Ã Louer. He thinks they don’t have enough faith in the public’s ability to embrace non-conventionally-commercial films. There is also the trouble with publicity. How can films be expected to perform well at the box office if no one has heard of them? In Canada and Quebec, filmmakers and artists are dependent on other people to get the word out on their projects.
The increased access to multimedia, in the end, impairs the public’s ability to think on its own, Habib says. On television, he said, even though the images shown on news channels are “real,” they are “mediated through [a] narrative process.”
The problem is not unique to television or fictional films either. Some documentaries suffer from it, too. “The audience is taken by the hand and is told what they’re supposed to think and see,” said Habib. Voice-overs, narratives and music are three of many “problematic” techniques used by filmmakers.While they may feel they are being respectful of the audience by providing information, Habib believes they are actually “disempowering people in their own capacity to make ideas for themselves.”
Habib is not convinced that Hommes Ã Louer’s Jutra nomination for Best Documentary will translate into more films like it being made. For now, the sad truth is that worthy and informative films are becoming a rarer breed if they have no, low or uncertain commercial appeal.