Soldiers grow up fast
A photographer by training, I’ve always taken an intuitive approach to documentary filmmaking, working mostly incrementally, with no script or main characters. Of course, the topic has invariably been something that stoked my curiosity; but the research process for each new project only gets underway once I find a space to create, one in which I feel I want to work and where I sense the film will be able to unfold naturally.
PREMIÈRES ARMES is the third part of a five-documentary series that’s a free-flowing meditation on the stages of life. This seemingly ambitious undertaking took shape quite spontaneously. The first in the series is LA BELLE VISITE (2009), a film about ageing, shot in a seniors’ home. LA BELLE VISITE went on to screen at the sixtieth Berlinale. During production, the fact that it was shot over a long period of time in a controlled, routine-driven environment allowed me to anticipate events well in advance. This meant I could work on my scenes prior to the actual shoot: a great luxury in documentary filmmaking. So for my next film, I naturally wanted to replicate the same conditions, though this time with younger subjects so that I could explore new areas. This led to LA MARCHE À SUIVRE (2014), a film about teens that was shot at a rural high school. Ironically, I got the idea to continue the series during my second trip to Berlinale when, after a screening of LA MARCHE À SUIVRE, a viewer asked me what age group I was planning to tackle in my next project.
The overarching premise for PREMIÈRES ARMES is the lead-up to adulthood: that period between eighteen and thirty when we struggle to find our place in society and make certain choices, including choosing a profession. I chose to focus on the training of young army recruits. While the focus here is not an obligatory rite of passage (as it was with my first two films), the topic afforded a sort of condensed view of the road to adulthood: the young soldiers are suddenly burdened with major responsibilities, forcing them to grow up fast. On another level, the military has always fascinated me. It’s a parallel world to civilian life and pretty well the polar opposite of what I do, and I felt an irresistible urge to explore it through the camera. There was no ideological or political bias; I just wanted to give rise to an encounter between this institution and my filmmaking approach.
The film’s structure evolved organically: shoot for twelve consecutive weeks (i.e., throughout what’s known as ‘basic training’), using the drills to propel the action. It took us nearly a year to get permission to film, but the Canadian Armed Forces finally granted me carte blanche. (Jean-François Caissy)
The inner workings of a world governed by its own rules
Jean-François Caissy is an independent artist whose work spans cinema and the visual arts. Offering one of the most original perspectives in Québécois documentary filmmaking, Caissy takes in-depth looks at microcosms of society, combining a strong sense of composition with a humanist approach to the topics he addresses. He employs a rigorous technique in his series of films exploring three different stages of life. LA BELLE VISITE (2009) and LA MARCHE À SUIVRE (2014) tackled the topics of old age and adolescence, and now, with PREMIÈRES ARMES, he provides a rare look at the beginning of adulthood – that period when individuals must begin to build their future and make important choices, including deciding on a career.
As they undergo twelve weeks of intensive training, a group of young civilians is gradually moulded into soldiers. This basic military qualification, a prerequisite for joining the Canadian Armed Forces, becomes the gateway to exploring the inner workings of a world governed by its own rules and values. Avoiding a judgmental approach, PREMIÈRES ARMES observes the process through which candidates are trained and integrated into the army. Thrust into an austere environment where discipline reigns supreme, the recruits submit to learning the ropes with mixed feelings of apprehension and enthusiasm. They understand that, from now on, the group takes precedence over the individual, and country comes before self.
Most are in their twenties; some already have children. They joined the army for different reasons: for the challenge, to have greater job stability, out of a need to belong. Together, they make up a disparate cohort of men and women. From the first day of enlistment to the graduation parade at the end of training, PREMIÈRES ARMES provides a glimpse into a unique world, charting the journey of a group with little experience in the ways of military life.
The filmmaker takes a rigorous observational approach to capturing this world. He shuns all commentary, opting instead to film the life experiences that emerge in the course of a routine interspersed with symbolic activities and enduring rituals. The camera focuses directly on the daily activities of these young adults, recording gazes and gestures that express their individuality better than words. In rare private moments, they communicate with the outside world and reflect on what they’ve left behind. A steady stream of unexpected events leaves the recruits with no downtime. Viewers, too, are swept into the whirlwind of a training process that sometimes makes us forget the real purpose behind this career choice. (National Film Board of Canada)