An interview with the directors of the haunting documentary A Tent on Mars

0 Posted by - March 15, 2010 - Blog, Conversations, Screen

A year and a half ago a haunting and beautiful documentary emerged in Quebec. Une tente sur mars (A Tent on Mars) takes a meandering visual stroll through the Northern Quebec mining town of Schefferville and surveys the effects of industry on the local Innu people. It is a quiet and disarming poem against colonization, with some unsettling scenes of intoxicated aboriginal people and a very quixotic sequence involving a rambling anthropologist in a garbage dump with black bears prowling in the background.

What is most captivating about this 2008 film by Martin Bureau and Luc Renaud is its approach to storytelling. In typical Quebecois fashion, standard formulae are abandoned in place of a lyrical, non-chronological approach that emphasizes the aesthetics of mise-en-scène and a soundscape that is sometimes heavy-handed, but overall, hypnotic and dream-like. Art Threat had the chance to ask the filmmakers a few questions about the project.

Art Threat: A TENT ON MARS is not your standard doc – the narrative structure is very non-linear and creatively, you made choices with music, with cinematography and with editing, that amount to a stunning film that is at times perplexing. Can you talk about why you made the film the way you did, and perhaps why you feel this “way” of telling a story is different from other documentaries?

Martin Bureau and Luc Renaud: Firstly, we are a Painter and a Geographer. We communicate with the language (codes) of our disciplines. We also have backgrounds in video installation that have influenced the way we approach images. We have formed ourselves to the school of documentary out of an interest in the genre, but our academic backgrounds (Visual Arts and Geography) have given us different perspectives on documentary. We feel that this world was mostly «conservative» and that there is a place for us in the way we could treat the form and the content of our project. We filmed A tent on Mars over four years. Each time we were in Northern Quebec we accumulated images and sounds that came close to meeting our own anticipations but, we were constructing our film without imposing our own preconceptions of what we could shoot, such as the way news reports often do. We wanted to confront our initial ideas, not to impose them.

Following up on that, as a programmer and viewer of documentary I am aware of a huge difference between the ways Quebecois filmmakers make films and the ways the rest of English Canada does. Can you speak to this and perhaps discuss why you feel there is an aesthetic, structural and maybe even political difference between the two cinemas?

In fact, we are sure that you could talk more about the links or the difference between cinematography from Québec and English Canada. Unfortunately, we are approaching documentary with few Canadian references. Our roots are more related to Québec, France or USA. The great tradition of the NFB [National Film Board of Canada] surely contributed to the development of our craft. We could simply say that, on aesthetic and theoretical terms, we wanted to be close to our professional origins and interests. On the one hand, a good amount of historical facts to confront our lack of experience on the ground. On the other hand, a certain idea of what the film could do and even more the film we didn’t want to do. For example, we wanted to use metaphor to tell the story instead of being literal. Also, we absolutely wanted to exclude the classical structures of documentary: voices over images, chronology (timeline) and classical interview. In the way of «cinéma direct», the film needed to be carried by the characters and the meaning of the message delivered by them, according to our initial theory. That’s why we completely rejected the idea of chronology. In that sense, we could say that our work avoids the traditional form – could we say ethic? – of documentary.

In A TENT ON MARS you interview members of a small northern Quebec community, most of whom are aboriginal and most of whom appear intoxicated in the film or have their eyes covered, I’m guessing for lack of permission to film them. Can you discuss your relationship with the community: How much time did you and the crew spend with the people of Schefferville? Why did so many seem uncomfortable with appearing in the film, at least in ways in which they could be identified? Why do so many appear intoxicated – is this representative of the whole community? Was the method to interview people based on a model of selection or relationships, or did the crew interview anyone they encountered? What is your opinion regarding the sticky ethics around filming people who are intoxicated, and especially around representing aboriginal people in such a way?

It is surprising that you mention the subject of alcohol addiction since it is only developed for about 5 minutes in our film. According to the on-the-ground reality, it would have been easy to emphasize this problem in many Native Communities. But it was not the subject of our film. These individuals captured in just a few words a situation that concerns the whole community of Schefferville. We wanted to film them with respect. And we absolutely didn’t want to deny the on-the-ground reality. We used their words to link to the concepts of colonization and assimilation. Everyone in our film consented to be in front of the camera – that was very important for us. Doing documentary is for us a question of complicity with the subjects.

Also, we are not going in to a place for just 24 hours with this idea of being sensational or efficient, and lacking all subtleties.  We must not forget that my colleague Luc [the co-director] spent 15 months living in the Schefferville community. Lastly, concerning ethics, we really don’t want to deny reality, the way too many cameras did before us in the North.

Following up on this, your film states at the beginning that it is about “The colonized and the colonizers.” How do you feel art can make not only a contribution but an intervention in the equation of colonized and colonizer?

While we where constructing this film, we approached it as an art piece free of external constrains (such as those imposed by broadcasters and producers). If at the end, our oeuvre can be part of a public debate about colonization and even bring it to the political forefront, we will have the satisfaction of knowing that Art can indeed have a profound influence. But this is a long process that goes beyond making one film…

Speaking of the process of making films – what is your next project and when can we expect to see it?

We are actually working on another film on the theme of colonization but this time though the lens of colonial tourism.  We are analyzing the presence of Québécois on the beaches of Cuba as a form of colonialism.  Still, we are trying to be critical about our relationship with others!

Do you have a favourite documentary you’d like to share with us?

(Martin) In classical terms, I would say Pour la suite du monde and La bête lumineuse, two films made by Pierre Perrault in the sixties and the eighties. In my interest linking painting, video and documentary, I would say Yes Sir, madame!, a film by Robert Morin who is on the edge of documentary and fiction. I have seen recently a great film from a Belgian Artist named Johan Grimonprez : Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y . His cinematographical treatment about his subject of History of Terrorism in the airports is simply amazing.

Leave a reply