Julie Perron is a filmmaker, producer and screenwriter in documentary and fiction whose work revisits the people and words of times past to better propel us to the future. She selected five films on VUCAVU exploring the themes of portraits. Arts journalist, Brendan Kelly from the Montreal Gazette and CBC Radio, interviews Julie below about her selection, her process and the rich documentary tradition in Quebec.
Image of Julie Perron

Selection by filmmaker, Julie Perron 

Interview by arts journalist, Brendan Kelly 

Julie Perron makes unique documentaries that often focus on unusual characters. She burst on to the film scene with Mai en décembre : Godard en Abitibi, a fascinating look at Jean-Luc Godard’s surprising attempt to kick-start a television revolution in Rouyn-Noranda in 1968. She also profiled a member of the French resistance in her film Lucie de tous les temps as well as examining the daily life of a renowned Montreal artist in Pierre Gauvin, un moine moderne. Her latest film, The Sower, is the portrait of an offbeat seed company owner who combines concepts from Avant Garde art with those from Agriculture.

Brendan Kelly: How did you decide which films you wanted to pick for VUCAVU.

Julie Perron: At the end of the day, they really were my coups de coeur. As the viewer of a film, what affects me the most is that it can reach everyone. It has to have a real desire to communicate something, to reflect on life, and to express emotions. I chose many films from Quebec because that is what I know best. But I also chose films from other regions of Canada. Art interests me and so do portraits.  

This is why I chose Jennifer Alleyn’s film about her father, My Father’s Studio (about the painter Edmund Alleyn). It is a wonderful work of documentary. She really allows us to discover this man while, at the same time, showing us how she is reflecting on her father’s oeuvre (Jennifer Alleyn).

I also chose a film about a male belly-dancer. I think we can showcase films like this on VUCAVU. It is not so much the cinematographic form as just wanting to show it. It’s called La danse orientale avec un twist (Belly Dance with a Twist) (Gilda Boffa).

The following film is a piece about a young woman from Manitoba who tries to get her grandmother to admit that she is Métis. The film examines the negotiation of indigenous and Métis heritage. This film one is called Mémère Métis (Janelle Wookey). The dramatic effect of this film is very strong.

I just now realized that I chose two other films about grandmothers. I chose Irène au coeur de lion (Josephine Mackay), the story of a woman involved in the Second World War. Her granddaughter also made this film. I also chose Léa Pool’s feature film La femme de l’hôtel (Not included in this selection). I remember that the first time I saw it was just when I was starting to think about making films but there weren’t that many films directed by women at the time. It was life-changing for me. I saw that film and I thought, “Ah OK! There are women who also make films!”

The choice of this film also led me to think about how we distribute films here in Quebec. Before Les films du 3 mars, there was the Cinéma Libre, and the former really took over from latter in the sense that Cinéma Libre was very important in terms of distributing Québécois cinema when our cinema was still in its infancy, and was a very important player in it’s evolution over the years. Les films du 3 mars re-released many of films from Cinéma Libre’s catalogue history and Ceux qui ont le pas léger meurent sans laisser de traces (Bernard Émond) was one of them.

Finally, my choices are fairly eclectic and I didn’t try to analyze them too deeply. However, I realize now that I chose films made mostly by women, about portraits and films about the relationship between art and identity. The only thing they all have in common is that I really like all of them! It’s as simple as that.

I saw that film and I thought, 'Ah OK! There are women who also make films!'.

Still from "Irene the Lionhearted"

Brendan Kelly: What projects are you working on right now?

Julie Perron: I currently have two film projects in production, namely a documentary that takes place in northern Greece that paints the portrait of a village of refugees at different points in history. The topic is particular timely and relevant today given that we’re in the midst of a worldwide crisis. I am also working on a feature film that is partially fictional and autobiographical and for which I am currently looking for a producer. It’s the story of a young girl and her relationship with her grandfather that takes place in Montreal during the 1976 Olympic games.

BK: Did you always want to make documentaries?

JP: My urge to do so began when I was working on something else. I was doing my masters in education, and my research was examining the usage of media in education. My project was to create a multimedia platform to distribute Quebecois cinema. In the process, I met Guy Borremans, a photographer and an important director of photography from the Direct Cinema movement here. Guy showed me photos of Godard’s visit to Abitibi and there was a program for first time filmmakers offered by the National Film Board at that time. It was in the context of this program that I submitted my project in 2000.

BK: Why did you think that Godard’s trip would make a good documentary?

JP: It was a very rich story and I am very lucky to have been able to make my first film with that material. Godard is perceived as something of a demi-god, but in this story, he doesn’t come off looking so perfect. I liked playing with the sacred image we have of Godard and showing him in another light.

BK: Your next film, was quite different from this...

JP: Yes, very much so. It presented a portrait of Lucie Aubrac, a member of the French Resistance. I met her by accident in a Paris elevator. I was living there with a friend and I’d always meet this older lady in the elevator. I really had the urge to get to know her better. She seemed like a real Parisian to me. I am really passionate about history and I thought she could help me to better understand French history. I had no idea that she was Lucie Aubrac. That was quite a nice gift. I was then told more about who she was and that there had already been numerous of TV shows about her as well as a feature film. This didn’t scare me away. I decided that I could do something totally different with her story. I wrote her a letter and as I was slipping it under her door she opened it. She said her eyesight wasn’t very good and asked me to read her the letter. Which I did. She immediately said, “That sounds like fun.". 

I am really passionate about history and I thought she [Lucie Aubrac] could help me to better understand French history.

BK: For you, what is the essence of documentary filmmaking?

JP: For me, it’s all about meeting people. It’s their different personalities. I don’t make films about people. I make films with them. I involve them in the process, in the creation. I share my ideas. We work together.

BK: Do you think that documentary has changed in the last 15 to 20 years?

JP: Yes and no. We often confuse the term documentary with the term journalism. During Pierre Perrault or Michel Brault’s era, documentary was already quite different. Pour la suite du monde, a 1963 NFB film made by Brault, Perrault and Marcel Carrière is a good example. There are characters, there’s film direction, and there’s poetry but there is no narration. In Direct Cinema, it’s all about the image and the aesthetics of it. When Pour la suite du monde was presented at Cannes in 1963, it was a major film event for the world of cinema, not just for documentary.

BK: It’s interesting that you mention Pour la suite du monde because we have such a rich documentary tradition here in Quebec.

JP: We’ve forgotten this. We don’t think about it.

BK: When you think about almost all of Quebec’s pioneering Fiction Film Directors--Denys Arcand, Brault, Gilles Carle – they all got their start making documentaries for the NFB.

JP: I think that’s what makes our filmmaking scene so special. We have a direct connection to the real world.

BK: Is it tougher today to make documentaries compared to when you started out?

JP: Yes. Television distributors now provide even more financing but they also have very strict rules. This means that a film produced for TV will sometimes have trouble finding an audience outside that realm. In earlier days, TV buyers were more open to the idea of letting films be distributed for festivals or theatrical screenings. 

When "Pour la suite du monde" was presented at Cannes in 1963, it was a major film event for the world of cinema, not just for documentary.
Pour la suite du monde

Still from NFB's "Pour la suite du monde"