Wednesday, 8 October 2014
At the LFF: "Guidelines/La Marche à Suivre"
Over the weeks and months ahead, I predict the hands-off, narration-free scenes-from-an-institution approach will come to appear as hackneyed a documentary tactic as the talking heads used in BBC4 rock primers. The LFF schedule this year offers up two eminent examples of the form in Johannes Holzhausen's The Great Museum and Frederick Wiseman's National Gallery; it also provides us with Jean-François Caissy's Guidelines, which picks its tableaux from the daily life of a Québécois high school - in much the same way Celina Murga's Normal School, which played at the LFF in 2012, did from its Argentine equivalent. (It was Wiseman who arguably initiated this cycle of scholarly observation with 1968's landmark High School.)
To be entirely fair, this National Film Board of Canada production has a specific educative bent: as the title hints, and the opening sequence of a car repeatedly attempting to plough along a flooded road further underlines, Caissy's interest lies in how we get from there (childhood) to here (adulthood), that tricky passage all adolescents must navigate whether they like it or not. The bulk of the film is drawn from those disciplinary and counselling sessions by which the school's administrators attempt to nudge disruptive elements back on the straight and narrow. These isolation sessions have an innate tension and fascination; they reminded me a little of the testimonies in Raymond Depardon's judicial documentary 10th District Court, which caught similar troublemakers a few steps further down the line. Caissy keeps his camera fixed on the pupil under scrutiny: some shruggingly acquiesce to the new paths suggested to them, while others militantly dig in their heels and deny all responsibility for their actions. (You can but wish their teachers all the very best.)
If there's a limitation to this approach, it's that it generates only cursory case studies: we see each student only once before Caissy cuts away to show their contemporaries letting off steam on skateboards or quad bikes, pursuing their own trails into the world. He's possibly more interested in guidelines as a theme or pattern (schoolbuses circulating in the car park, gymnasts and joggers moving in synch) than as anything that might have consequences, good or bad; the film possibly needed just a little more of the narrative impetus of Laurent Cantet's The Class, with its acutely honed feel for how these tensions can develop and dissipate over the course of the school year. Still, Caissy clearly has an eye for clean, striking images that speak to some wider form of freedom or restriction: there are enough of those here to keep you out of trouble for a good hour and a quarter.
Guidelines screens on Fri 10 at 6.15pm at the ICA, and again on Mon 13 at 9pm at the Cine Lumiere.