Michel Brault, OQ, cinematographer, director, producer, writer (born 25 June 1928 in Montréal, QC; died 21 September 2013 in Toronto, ON). A pioneering documentary filmmaker, and the only Canadian to win the Best Director prize at the Cannes Film Festival, Michel Brault was one of Canada’s most acclaimed and revered filmmakers. A leading figure in the direct cinema movement of the 1960s, his shoulder-mounted, wide-angle shooting technique and his contributions to the design of the 16 mm Éclair cameras — as well as to such landmark films as Chronique d’une été (1961) — helped define the documentary aesthetic and influenced generations of filmmakers. He was a central figure in Québec’s Quiet Revolution and contributed as a cinematographer to some of the best Canadian films ever made, including his own Les Ordres (1974), his and Pierre Perrault’s Pour la suite du monde (1963), Claude Jutra’s Mon oncle Antoine (1971) and Francis Mankiewicz’s Les Bons débarras (1980). He received a Governor General’s Performing Arts Award and was made an Officer of the National Order of Québec.
Brault grew up in a wealthy family in Montréal. His stockbroker father and his mother, the granddaughter of former QuébecPremier Félix-Gabriel Marchand, wanted him to become an architect, but his true passion was for the cinema. While a student at the Seminaire de Saint-Jean, Brault’s burgeoning interest in photography was encouraged by a young man he met at summer camp in 1947, Claude Jutra, who enlisted Brault to help him edit his first short film, Dément du lac Jean-Jeunes (1948). Together they produced an experimental short directed by Jutra, Mouvement perpétual (1949), which earned a Canadian Film Award for Best Amateur Film in 1950 and attracted the attention of National Film Board (NFB) animator Norman McLaren.
Brault studied philosophy at the Université de Montréal (1949–50) and directed the short film Matin (1950). In the summer of 1950 he was hired as an assistant cameraman by the NFB in Ottawa, but he found the almost exclusively anglophone working environment discouraging and left after three months. In 1951, he joined the editorial team of the photography magazine Decoupages, where he wrote about photography and cinema. He also founded the film society Cinema 16 and worked for several years as a wedding photographer, becoming an expert at using natural light. After working as an assistant to Jean-Yves Bigras on La petite Aurore, l’enfant martyre (1951) and filming the Radio-Canada television series Les Petites Médisances (1953–54) with Jacques Giraldeau, he joined the NFB as a cameraman in 1956, shortly after it moved its head office to Montréal.
He shot two films in the Candid Eye documentary series — The Days Before Christmas (1958) and Police (1958), both directed by Terence Macartney-Filgate — and contributed remarkable ambient cinematography to Jutra’s first dramatic feature, Les Main nettes (1958). Brault was one of a group of young Québécois filmmakers at the NFB — which also included Jutra, Pierre Perrault, Marcel Carrier, Claude Fournier and Gilles Groulx — who revolutionized the practical, ethical and artistic approach to documentary filmmaking while capturing the burgeoning identity of Québec’s Quiet Revolution. The short documentary Les Raquetteurs (1958), a revealing portrait of communal life in rural Québec shot by Brault and co-directed with Groulx, set the template for direct cinema in Québec and abroad.
After seeing Les Raquetteurs and meeting Brault at the Robert Flaherty Film Seminar in Santa Barbara, CA in 1959, French anthropologist and filmmaker Jean Rouch asked Brault to come to France and contribute cinematography to the landmark documentary Chronique d’une été (1961). While in France in 1960, Brault consulted with the Éclair Corporation on the development of their lightweight, sync sound movie camera, the KMT Coutant-Mathot, the forerunner to the cameras that would revolutionize documentary filmmaking.
Returning to Canada, he continued to hone his fluid, direct cinema aesthetic as director of photography on numerous films produced by the NFB’s French unit, most notably: La Lutte (1961), an amusing film about wrestling that he shot and co-directed with Jutra, Carrier and Fournier; Golden Gloves (1961), a short about amateur boxers directed by Groulx; Québec USA ou l'invasion pacifique (1961), co-directed with Jutra; Hubert Aquin’s À Saint-Henri le cinq septembre (1962); and Les enfants du silence (1962), a touching film about deaf children that Brault also directed.Brault’s collaboration with Perrault on the classic Pour la suite du monde (1962), consistently ranked as one of the best Canadian films ever made, represents the crowning achievement of direct cinema in Québec.
After shooting Jutra’s semi-autobiographical, zeitgeist-capturing À tout prendre (1963), Brault began to move seamlessly between documentary and fiction. He directed the short fiction films Le Temps perdu (1964) and Geneviève (1964), the latter starring Geneviève Bujold. He also began to question the ability of documentaries to accurately reflect reality, saying "I don't know what truth is. We can't think we're creating truth with a camera. But what we can do is reveal something to viewers that allows them to discover their own truth."
Wanting more artistic autonomy, Brault left the NFB in 1965 and founded his own production company, Nanouk Films, although he continued to collaborate with the NFB on several occasions. The first film he directed outside the NFB — the feature Entre la mer et l’eau douce (1967), also starring Bujold — perfectly demonstrates his ability to combine the documentary impact of direct cinema with the emotional richness of fiction.
Brault, who also said that his goal as a filmmaker was to “bear witness to reality in order to effect change,” explored issues of Québec’s national identity in such documentaries as Perrault’s Un pays sans bon sens! (1970) and L’Acadie, l’acadie?!? (1971), which he co-directed with Perrault. His most political film, Les Ordres (1974), was a vérité-style dramatization of the 1970 October Crisis that won Canadian Film Awards for best film, director and screenplay, and earned him the Best Director prize at the 1975 Cannes Film Festival.
As a cinematographer, Brault contributed to some of the biggest Québec films of the decade, including: Jutra’s Mon oncle Antoine (1970), widely considered the greatest Canadian film ever made, and Kamouraska (1973); Francis Mankiewicz’s Le Temps d’une chasse (1972) and Les Bons débarras (1980); and Anne Claire Poirier’s Mourir à tue-tête (1979). He was also involved in two important documentary series made for Québec television. With André Gladu he produced and co-directed Le son des Français d'Amérique (1974–76; 1977–80), about the traditional music of francophone people throughout North America. For the NFB he shot La Belle ouvrage (1977–80), about traditional customs and antiquated, nearly obsolete professions.
Brault’s high standing did not deter him from making short films. A Freedom to Move (1985), the first Canadian film shot in the 70mm Omnimax format, was made for Expo 86 in Vancouver; Diogène (1990) played at numerous international film festivals; and "La dernière partie" was a segment in the omnibus feature Montréal vu par... (1991). He was also one of the first filmmakers to work with digital video (e.g., Tu m'aimes-tu in 1991); his company Nanouk Films increasingly worked with digital video and multimedia into the 2000s.
From 1987 on, he made most of his feature films for television, including the Prix Gemeaux-winning Les Noces de papier (1989) and Shabbat Shalom! (1992), and Mon amie Max (1994). These three films explore questions of immigration and interpersonal relations in Québec society, or present the experience of being an outsider in one's place of birth. He returned to a highly political subject with his final film, Quand vous serez parti... vous vivrez encore (1999), a historical drama based on the Rebellions of 1837 and the history of the Patriotes until 1838, when 12 of them were hanged.
Legacy and Tributes
Brault died of a heart attack at age 85 while en route to the Film North festival in Huntsville, ON, where he was to receive a lifetime achievement award. At the Toronto International Film Festival, just prior to Brault’s death, director Denis Villeneuve told the Toronto Star, “When I was designing the shots for Prisoners, I was thinking of Michel Brault. There’s a lot of confidence and simplicity, and strength in his work, and a lot of ambition at the same time… There’s inner strength, kind of Nordic strength, and calm in his work.”
Following his death, Québec Premier Pauline Marois, announcing special aid to expand a cinema special-effects studio, took a moment to “underscore what a giant Michel Brault was, with all his talents and everything he left as a legacy.” The British newspaper, The Guardian, called him “one of the great unsung heroes of cinema.” Actress Micheline Lanctôt told Radio-Canada, “Michel had an exceptional eye. He had a vision that was very personal and very original. I don’t think it can be replaced.”
See also: The Cinema of Quebec; Top Ten Canadian Films of All Time.
Film of the Year (Pour la suite du monde), Canadian Film Awards (1964)
Special Award (Pour la suite du monde), Canadian Film Awards (1964)
Best Feature Cinematography (Mon oncle Antoine), Canadian Film Awards (1971)
Best Feature Cinematography (Le Temps d’une chasse), Canadian Film Awards (1972)
Best Feature Direction (Les Ordres), Canadian Film Awards (1975)
Best Original Feature Screenplay (Les Ordres), Canadian Film Awards (1975)
Film of the Year (Les Ordres), Canadian Film Awards (1975)
Best Director (Les Ordres), Cannes Film Festival (1975)
Victor-Morin Award, Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste (1975)
Molson Prize, Canada Council for the Arts (1980)
Best Achievement in Cinematography (Les bons débarras), Genie Awards (1981)
Best Achievement in Cinematography (Threshold), Genie Awards (1983)
Prix Albert-Tessier, Government of Québec (1986)
Best Direction: Dramatic Series or Mini-Series (Les Noces de papier), Prix Gemeaux (1990)
Best Direction: Dramatic Series (Shabbat Shalom!), Prix Gemeaux (1993)
Governor General’s Performing Arts Award, Lifetime Artistic Achievement, Governor General’s Performing Arts Awards Foundation (1996)
Officer, National Order of Québec (2003)
Lifetime Achievement Award, Prix Jutra (2005)
Outstanding Achievement Award, Hot Docs Canadian International Film Festival (2012)