Quebec Film History: 1896 to 1969 | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Quebec Film History: 1896 to 1969

This entry presents an overview of Quebec cinema, from its beginnings in the silent film era to the burgeoning of a distinctly Quebec cinema in the 1960s. It highlights the most important films, whether in terms of box office success or international acclaim, and covers both narrative features and documentaries. It also draws attention to an aspect of filmmaking that still has difficulty finding its place: women’s cinema.
Proulx, Maurice

This article is one of three that surveys the history of the film industry in Quebec. The entire series includes: Quebec Film History: 1896 to 1969; Quebec Film History: 1970 to 1989; Quebec Film History: 1990 to Present.

Early Years

The first public film projection in Canada took place on 28 June 1896 in Montreal. The Lumière operators presented their Cinématographe, creating great excitement in Québec. Some Quebecers decided to show films in different parks and venues. Among them, Léo-Ernest Ouimet occupies an important place. He opened Montreal’s first permanent movie theatre, the Ouimetoscope, in 1906. He also began shooting local films. These included L’Incendie de Trois-Rivières (1908) and Le Congrès eucharistique de Montréal (1910). Ouimet was a director, producer, distributor and exhibitor. He founded Specialty Film Import. In the late 1920s, he launched the newsreel series British Canadian Pathé News.

Ouimet, like other filmmakers, wanted to set his works apart from foreign productions by focusing on local subjects and national history. In 1912, Frank Beresford, the founder of British American Film Manufacturing, filmed The Battle of the Long Sault. He also participated in Kenean Buel’s filming of Wolfe; Or, the Conquest of Québec (1914). Joseph-Arthur Homier directed two works of fiction: Madeleine de Verchères (1922) and La drogue fatale (1924). However, his production company was out of business by the mid-1920s. This was due to a lack of production means and access to facilities that were controlled by American or English Canadian companies.

Another company adopted a completely different strategy. The Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) was intent on producing films of national interest that supported its commercial activities. It had already commissioned the series Living Canada (1902) from Manitoba farmer and filmmaker James Freer. In 1921, it founded Associated Screen News (ASN). It was headed by former Canadian Government Motion Picture Bureau director Bernard E. Norrish. ASN made itself known through its Canadian Cameo series (1932–53). Most of the films in this series were directed by this country’s first great director, Gordon Sparling, who began working for ASN in 1931. Among his most popular films were Rhapsody in Two Languages (1934), House in Order (1936) and Ballet of the Mermaids (1938). ASN also had studios and laboratories, making production easier. It also offered services to other producers and distributors.

Sparling, Gordon

Early Ethnographic Filmmaking

Starting in the 1930s, ethnographic filmmakers emerged. These non-professional filmmakers, often priests, made 16mm films that served educational or promotional purposes. One of the first of these filmmakers was Albert Tessier, whose work is considered a precursor of direct cinema. (See also: Documentary Film.) His goal was to promote the beauty of nature, traditional rural life and French Canadian nationalism. His name was given to the lifetime achievement award in cinema bestowed by the Quebec government since 1980.

Maurice Proulx is more famous because he filmed, in the 1930s, the settlement in the Abitibi area (En pays neufs, 1937) and in the Gaspé Peninsula (En pays pittoresque, 1939). Being an agronomy professor, many of his films dealt with agriculture and rural life. He shot many films for the Service de ciné-photographie of Québec, since he was close to Liberal Premier Joseph-Adélard Godbout and Union nationale Premier Maurice Duplessis.

The third important figure from this period is Herménégilde Lavoie. He began making films such as Les beautés de mon pays (1943) for the provincial Tourism Office. After being fired in 1947, he produced industrial and historic films. He also shot many feature length documentaries in the late 1940s and early 1950s depicting the life of convent communities. The last name worth mentioning is Louis-Roger Lafleur. He was an Oblate who shot many important ethnographic documentaries on the Algonquin people of Northern Quebec. He paved the way for all filmmakers who turned their camera towards Indigenous peoples in Canada from the 1960s until today.

Formation of the NFB

By the time the federal government founded the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) in 1939, Quebec films consisted of the work of these few enthusiastic amateurs. Their films, in addition to their undeniable cinematic qualities, provide valuable ethnographic documentation. The early filmmakers found a natural outlet in the Service de ciné-photographie, founded in 1942 by the Quebec government. Its mandate was to meet certain propaganda and educational needs. But it was ill-equipped to do so, as it had a small staff and worked only in 16mm. The NFB did not have these constraints.

However, in the early years, the NFB was primarily an anglophone organization. Dubbed versions of English-language films were made for Quebec. Little thought was given to French-language production. Under the circumstances, Vincent Paquette, Jean Palardy and a few others did heroic work. After the Second World War, they were joined by Roger Blais, Raymond Garçeau and Bernard Devlin. A francophone team took shape and encouraged the emergence of Quebec filmmaking within the NFB. However, in its infancy, it was not always differentiated from anglophone production. Sometimes it even produced films in English. It achieved its best results when reacting to some specific event. Les Reportages, for example, was a noteworthy series that began offering biweekly newsreels in French in September 1941.

Feature Film Boom After the Second World War

After the Second World War, there was a period of active feature film production in Quebec. The war caused a scarcity of French-language films and sent some French filmmakers into exile in Quebec. As a result, feature filmmaking blossomed in 1944 with Le Père Chopin. This film helped create a new, vertically integrated industry, with international contacts and religious support (both financial and ideological). Other Québécois were eager to produce films. They hoped to recoup their expenses on the local market and find distribution abroad.

In 1947, Québec-Productions (QP) released Fédor Ozep’s Whispering City/La Forteresse in English and French versions. This psychological thriller did not achieve the commercial success the producers had hoped for. QP had to modify its aspirations and be content with local markets. The company therefore drew on the highly popular subject matter of radio dramas for its next three films (1949–50). Another company, Renaissance, wanted to make Catholic films. It released Le Gros Bill, directed by René Delacroix and Jean-Yves Bigras in 1949.

Gélinas, Gratien

Both companies tried to break out of the strictly domestic market by arranging co-productions with French companies. But these efforts failed, and they reverted to Quebec themes. The films’ relative success did inspire several other smaller outfits to produce a total of seven feature films. Two of them were in English and most of them were adapted from theatrical dramas. Paradoxically, two of these became the most famous of the era. La Petite Aurore l'enfant martyre (1951) by Jean-Yves Bigras, tells the story of a child tortured to death by a stepmother who is destined to be hanged. Ti-Coq (1953) by Gratien Gélinas, is a drama about an illegitimate orphan, Ti-Coq, whose fiancée is persuaded to marry another man while Ti-Coq is overseas during the war.

In 1954, after 19 films, the feature film industry in Quebec collapsed. Television dealt a fatal blow to an industry made vulnerable by its mediocrity. Today, these films have great value as social documents. In the 1940s and 1950s, Quebec transformed from a traditional, agricultural society to an urban one. Its films seem to defend the traditional social order, especially the role of the clergy. However, a closer look reveals the contrary. The characters and themes of these films evoke a generally negative impression of Quebec society. They depict a society in transition, in which the traditional Catholic values were being questioned.

NFB French Unit and the Quiet Revolution

Throughout the next decade, feature films and private production were virtually nonexistent. A few semi-professionals produced work for the Quebec government. Thus, the only place where Quebec film survived was within the NFB. A number of brilliant filmmakers joined the NFB during the 1950s: Louis Portugais, Michel Brault, Gilles Groulx, Claude Jutra and others. They and the NFB “old-timers” finally had opportunities worthy of their talents.

This explosion of French-Canadian films was the result of three developments. First, the NFB moved from Ottawa to Montreal in 1956, allowing Quebec filmmakers to live and work in Quebec. Second, in 1957, public attention focused on francophone filmmakers who were not being given the same opportunities as their anglophone colleagues. As a result, French and English productions were separated administratively and financially. This ultimately lead to the creation of a distinct francophone studio at the NFB. Third, television demanded large amounts of material. Both popular entertainment and artistic innovation received as much support as films for government departments and educational institutions. Examples include the Passe-Partout series (1955–57), the 26 dramatic episodes of Panoramique (1957–59), a landmark for Quebec fictional cinema, and the Temps present series of the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Brault (left) and Perrault shooting Pour la suite du monde
Brault and Perrault shooting Pour la suite du monde. Photographed with incredible sensitivity by Michel Brault, Pour la suite du monde yielded some stunning imagery and was hugely popular when it was released in Québec

Filmmakers were also pushing the technological limitations of their equipment. They were trying to improve their ability to capture natural sound and images while on location. In 1958, Brault and Groulx produced Les Raquetteurs. The film was important socially as a statement of Quebec’s awakening. It was also noteworthy technologically as a key step in the development of direct cinema, a documentary genre that merged technological achievements (e.g., lightweight cameras and sync sound) with ideological and social aspects. Direct cinema was spearheaded by Quebec filmmakers such as Brault, and at the same time by the NFB’s Candid Eye series.

This period was one of profound social change. Maurice Duplessis died in 1959. The Liberals under Jean Lesage came to power in 1960 and the Quiet Revolution began. French Canadians became Québécois, and film helped to express that change. Les Raquetteurs went beyond picturesque scenes to stress membership in a national community. The early 1960s accelerated the development of Quebec cinema, both within and outside the NFB. People such as Brault, Pierre Perrault, Jutra, Pierre Patry and Fernand Dansereau were eager to go in new directions.

In 1963, a new era began inside and outside the NFB with two key films: Pour la suite du monde (1963), a documentary by Perrault and Brault; and À tout prendre (1963), an autobiographical fiction feature by Jutra. The former, through its technique and the importance it gave to the spoken word, marked another major step in the development of direct cinema. The latter, a personal statement by Jutra, was an example of films being produced by nationalistic filmmakers throughout the world. Groulx’s Le Chat dans le sac (1964) was one of the best films to that time about petit-bourgeois youth. The prolific Jean Pierre Lefebvre directed Le Révolutionnaire (1965), a fable/commentary on society. Gilles Carle, who had been with the NFB since 1961, was working on his first feature, the comedy La Vie heureuse de Léopold Z (1965).

Poirier, Anne Claire

Coopératio, a private company, tried to get the industry moving again. Its director, Pierre Patry, made Trouble-fête in 1964. In the space of just over a year, he made three more films. Others also tried feature films, working privately or for the NFB or the Quebec government. Examples included Arthur Lamothe, Denys Arcand, Richard Lavoie, Anne Claire Poirier, Jacques Godbout, Bernard Gosselin, Georges Dufaux, Clément Perron and Jean-Claude Labrecque, among others. Ferment and change were occurring in all aspects of the arts. Film forms evolved to meet the needs of the filmmakers. Direct cinema in all its variations, auteur films (documentary or docudrama) and every genre of commercial film were attempted.

Perrault dominated direct filmmaking of this period with his saga of the people of Île-aux-Coudres. With his cameramen, Brault and Gosselin, he wanted not only to observe and record the awakening of the Quebec nation but to also play a part in that awakening. Yet direct cinema was not limited to nationalistic subjects. Some producers wanted to use the techniques for social action films. (See Social Justice.) A number of these efforts took place within the framework of the NFB program Société nouvelle (the francophone equivalent of Challenge for Change). It involved the filming of those in marginalized communities, often with the participation of the subjects themselves. The program made its debut in 1968 with Fernand Dansereau’s St-Jérôme and lasted more than a decade. Others at the NFB concentrated on the rights of workers. Denys Arcand’s extraordinary On est au coton (1970) was the victim of political censorship for six years. Others (including Dansereau and, most notably, Lamothe) left the NFB to work more freely. Lamothe's Le Mépris n'aura qu'un temps (1970), an account of workers’ exploitation, provided an unprecedented economic, social and political analysis.

Between Perrault’s approach and that of the activist films, arose many other forms of direct cinema. They were united only by their technique and their methods. This kind of film moved steadily to the forefront. Another significant figure in the late 1960s and early 1970s was director-cameraman Labrecque, who had a talent for grasping the mood and significance of an event, and to convey the feeling of having been there. This can be seen particularly in La Visite du général de Gaulle au Québec (1967) and La Nuit de la poésie (1970).

Industry Organization

During the 1960s, the film community in Quebec began to structure itself. The producers created their professional association (Association des producteurs de films du Québec) in 1966. Technicians founded their own union (Syndicat national du cinéma) in 1969. The Association professionnelle des cinéastes was formed and a few years later published the radical manifesto Le cinéma: autre visage du Québec colonisé (1971). However, the organization folded in 1972. The following year, the directors founded the Association des réalisateurs de films du Québec.

The Quebec government modernized its legislation and structures. It transformed its censorship bureau into the Bureau de surveillance du cinéma, and its film board into the Office du film du Québec. After the creation of the Canadian Film Development Corporation (CFDC) in 1967 (now Telefilm Canada), Quebec filmmakers lobbied the provincial government to have a law on cinema and a similar film funding corporation. Thus, the Institute québécois du cinéma (IQC) was founded in 1975. The Loi sur le cinéma was voted on by the Liberal government and implemented by the Parti Québécois, which came into power in 1976.

This article is one of three that surveys the history of the film industry in Quebec. The entire series includes: Quebec Film History: 1896 to 1969; Quebec Film History: 1970 to 1989; Quebec Film History: 1990 to Present.

See also: Cinémathèque Québécoise; Canadian Film History: 1896 to 1938; Canadian Film History: 1939 to 1973; Canadian Film History: 1974 to Present; Canadian Film History: Notable Films and Filmmakers 1980 to Present; Exhibit Eh: Canadian Film History in 10 Easy Steps; Documentary Film; Canadian Film Animation; Experimental Film; Film Distribution; National Film Board of Canada; Telefilm Canada; Top 10 Canadian Films of All Time; Canadian Feature Films; Film Education; Film Festivals; Film Censorship; Film Cooperatives; The Craft of Motion Picture Making.

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