CM . . .
. Volume XVIIII Number 2. . . .September 14, 2012
A portrait of the artist as an attentive, articulate, accomplished, and affable older man emerges in Léonard Forest, Filmmaker & Poet by Rodolphe Caron. In French with English subtitles, Caron’s documentary offers a compelling show and tell of Forest’s aesthetic by interspersing excerpts from Forest’s films, still photographs, and masked interviews involving the filmmaker and poet himself, his daughter, two of his former National Film Board (NFB; L’Office National du Film or ONF in French) colleagues, and a select group of scholars. This film pays homage to a man whose career has spanned 50 years, 30 of which he spent with the NFB. In that time, he collaborated on over 100 films by turns as a writer, script consultant, director, and producer. Caron reaffirms how instrumental Forest’s work has been in defining an Acadian consciousness.
Léonard Forest, Filmmaker & Poet unfolds organically and never feels forced: the pace is leisurely, the atmosphere meditative, the background music predominantly tranquil. The camera most often shows interviewees one at a time, although it also captures the reunion of Forest and two NFB colleagues, Olivier Fougères and Georges Langford, around a dining-room table. Such a focus on individuals or small groups, together with low-lit backgrounds, establishes intimate settings. By these means, the production compels viewers to slow down and contemplate Forest’s furtherance not only of Acadia and Acadians, but also of documentary filmmaking in Canada.
The initial frames depict Léonard Forest in front of his computer, sharing his philosophy of his craft, which blends a Romantic reverence for spontaneity with a postmodern regard for process (not just product) and inclusivity. “A film,” he begins, “is an adventure you agree to experience, a question you ask yourself, a dream to be verified. That’s why it’s impossible to answer the question, ‘What are you trying to say in this film you’re making?’ The answer’s in the film. It is not foreknown.” A little later he adds, “Making a film isn’t just harvesting preconceived images. It’s letting images and sounds spontaneously emerge, anticipating and allowing their dialogue” (7:30). It is this attentive, collaborative approach of Forest’s, his desire to give voice to the individuals on the margin of society, which Caron’s documentary highlights.
Subsequently, Forest relates a few personal details about his youth in New Brunswick as well as the circumstances that spurred his interest in filmmaking. From there, Caron coordinates a review of Forest’s films, weaving interviewees’ commentaries through excerpts from seven that date from 1954 to 1972. The narrative and visual images piece together for viewers the lives of everyday Acadians during that period of time. As Caron demonstrates, Forest’s films still resonate with contemporary audiences. In one especially telling sequence, Forest returns to the site of the 1956 Pêcheurs de Pomcoup (Fishermen of Pubnico). The residents are thrilled to have him in their midst, for, explains Ingrid Leon, a journalist originally from Pubnico, the people of Pubnico may not know Léonard Forest, but they know his film. Forest is visibly moved by the warm welcome he receives. He takes a genuine interest in the locals, asking after the actors, exchanging memories, his behavior confirming what Fourgères asserts in a voiceover: “Léonard has the fundamental attribute of liking people a lot.” Indeed, that affinity and respect for the participants in his films appears to be a Forest hallmark.
Forest’s remarkably long career, however, was not without its obstacles, as Caron reveals. Amidst the successes were instances of superiors threatening to veto a project that had already received approval, or levelling the criticism that Forest was “too fixated on Acadia.” In reminiscing with Fougères and Langford, Forest diplomatically explains, “That was simply the effect of one or two people in the administration at the time, who aren’t worth naming…who thought that a film project on Acadia was futile since Acadia didn’t exist, or wouldn't exist in 10 years or so” (41:30). Also, Forest’s appointment as executive director at NFB Montreal in the mid-1950s, though it resulted in the expansion of the NFB’s French program, meant that Forest put his own writing and filmmaking on hold as he mentored others. A final memorable issue arose when the NFB wished to establish a regional office in Halifax. Fearing this would suppress Acadian filmmaking, Forest and his colleagues lobbied for, and ultimately obtained, a Moncton office instead. On the whole, Caron portrays a man who met challenges calmly, confidently, creatively, and competently.
Throughout the film, interviewees describe Forest’s body of work in terms of its “intensity,” “humility,” and “tranquility.” They observe that it is “luminous,” “discreet,” and exhibits “finesse.” In making his documentary, Caron must have channelled Forest, for the same words apply to his film. Léonard Forest: Filmmaker & Poet is a beautifully rendered documentary that will engage viewers who harbor a curiosity about Acadia, Acadians, the NFB, collaborative filmmaking, or artistic expression. It is a fitting tribute to Forest’s Acadian-Canadian legacy.
Julie Chychota lives in Ottawa, ON, and facilitates communication for individuals with hearing disabilities by capturing speech as text on her laptop.
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