Bringing Northern Horror to France

I don’t think the French like our film Conibear. No one has come out and said so yet, but that’s the message I’m getting. You know, the type of message you got from your mom when she saw your first tattoo… a forced half-smile with a severe look that says she is utterly disappointed, and then ne’er a word about it again.

I lived in southern France for four years when I was a teenager. I cruised the streets of Toulouse with a motley crew of wonderful people who took me under their wing, treated me like one of their own, yet retained a general fascination with having an “étranger” as their buddy. Before hitting up the Clermont Ferrand Film Festival in the Auvergne, where Conibear played, I traveled to Paris and then to my old stomping grounds in Toulouse, to visit my old friends.

It’s quite possible the French are simply not in the mood right now for a film about chaos, torment and death by firearms, and I don’t blame them.

The first friend I showed the film to was my buddy Yoann, along with his wife, in Paris. After dinner, we sat down to check it out, at their request. I generally never push this flick on anyone. It is many things, but one thing it most certainly is not is the feel-good film of the year. I could tell about two minutes in that it wasn’t going that well. I’m not sure if it was because Yoann had just smoked a massive “petard,” but there was a heavy silence that hung in the room and a look on his face that said “Mais c’est quois cette merde?” He seemed annoyed, almost. After it was over, he asked me why it was only filmed in slow motion. That was the end of his review. His wife said nothing.

In Toulouse, we went out and lit up the town. The old crew was back together in great form and I was asked 100 times over that evening to make sure to send the link to the film the next day so everyone could see it. I’m not sure if it was because we were all suffering greatly from the night, before but I have yet to hear back from anyone who received the link. It’s been two weeks now. The only person since who mentioned anything was my friend Greg, who after an entire evening together two days later, made quick, cold mention that the film was “inquiétant.” Nothing more.

France had changed since I lived there 23 years ago. It had just survived two years of horror between the Charlie Hebdo and Bataclan attacks. Two of my friends have friends that were killed at Bataclan. Yoann had tickets to the Eagles of Death Metal concert that night, but got called into work at the last minute. It’s quite possible the French are simply not in the mood right now for a film about chaos, torment and death by firearms, and I don’t blame them.

I’m not looking for pity here. I’ve been told by others that it’s one of the most hauntingly beautiful things they’ve ever seen, a film that lingers in the mind long after it is over. Those are great compliments. And Conibear was chosen to play at Clermont Ferrand, known as the “Cannes of short film festivals,” so it’s doing pretty well for itself.  

Bulckaert and Saravanja headed to the showing of their film at Clermont Ferrand | Photo courtesy Jay Bulckaert

On its face, Conibear is about two trappers who lose their minds and then their lives on a sub-Arctic trapline. Deep down, it’s about extreme isolation and alcohol abuse, topics we learned about intimately when we were filming a reality show called Fur Harvesters NWT a few years back. It does not represent the life of any trapper we know or trappers in general, and it is not making a statement against the fur industry, an industry we fully support.

But if you’ve spent enough time in the bush, especially in the North, then you’ve met men who are pushing the edge of sanity, and you’ve seen what isolation can do to a human being. What’s more, when you take all of that and then soak it in booze, the combination can leave you with sweaty palms the morning after a bender, thinking about how you narrowly escaped death the night before. Ultimately Conibear is about the utter brutality that the North can deliver to your soul if you’re not careful. It’s a warning to myself, in fact, because I’ve toed that line of sanity a few times. I have had close calls with booze-addled firearm jackassery, and those memories make me nervous to this day. I actually see it as a responsible piece of filmmaking.

Our film screened with 10 other Canadian films at Clermont Ferrand in Telefilm’s Not Short on Talent Program. Nearly every film that played in that program was some weird, twisted and dark story. I’m not sure what’s wrong with us Canadians: too much cold on the brain? Or maybe it’s because we mostly live such lucky lives, lives that are free from real struggle or terror, and so the opposite is what comes out of us artistically. It made me think about my French friends, their reaction to the film, and wonder if we also had suffered the same way nationally at the hands of terror, would we have instead made some lighter fare? For the record, my mom would be happy if we did.

The reaction to our film from all the international people we met at Clermont was a resounding thumbs-up, though. I made a point of listening and looking at the audience as they watched it and you could tell people were almost holding their breath the whole time. I’m pretty sure I heard someone dry-heave at the back of the audience when Pablo Saravanja’s femur snaps in the trap, and there most certainly was a collective sigh of relief when the credits rolled. Conibear has a severe effect on people. It’s the film equivalent of crossing paths with a black wolf who just stares at you dead in the eyes for 10 unrelenting minutes.

As much as we learned a lot from our time in France about the reality of the film industry, I think we unwittingly taught people a lesson that night about what it means to be a Northerner and about our style of community filmmaking.

That is the allure of cinema for me: we get to play god in people’s lives for the duration of the films we create.

No one cared about the trapping or the fur industry on display, which was something we had actually prepared ourselves for, just in case there was backlash. What people reacted to most about our film was the North, the rugged landscape we proudly come from. So we became the “Northerners” to everyone we met. And we met a shit-ton of people. Pablo and I made a point every day to get out there and hammer the networking thing, and it worked. We were invited to dinners and parties until we couldn’t do it anymore. We walked away with a hundred new contacts from all over the world and very real potential co-producing opportunities in France, a personal dream of mine. I’d choose Europe over America any day as a second home to make cinema. And Europe is specifically interested in Northern Canadian content.

As Northerners, we are used to feeling remote and cut off, but all you have to do is go to a festival and make your presence known. The film industry lives at festivals like Clermont Ferrand, and once you get your head around the schmoozing thing and “being on” all the time, it turns into a lot of fun. You start to recognize people, you talk to people who know others that you met at the last festival you were at, and you suddenly realize that we are all there, no matter what our stature is, because we love cinema. You realize you are a part of a global family of cinema.

I am in love with cinema. I am in love with it so much that on our last night in Clermont Ferrand, instead of getting much-needed rest, Pablo and I decided to rally the troops and shoot a short film in the streets at 4 a.m. Our actors were film directors and festival directors we met over there, Pablo’s partner Laura, and anyone else who wanted to come aboard. We made the story up in the moment, everyone helped direct and it was a wacky and wonderful collaboration of cinephiles, loosened up on French wine, doing what we all love.

The short is called Le Dernier Morceau (see below for a link to its trailer) but before I sign off, the last thing I’d like to write is that I guarantee no one, in the history of the Clermont Ferrand Film Festival, has done what we did that night. In the North, we live in a place where we are so community-minded, so family-and-friend-focused and that is simply how we’ve learned to make our cinema through the years. As much as we learned a lot from our time in France about the reality of the film industry, I think we unwittingly taught people a lesson that night about what it means to be a Northerner and about our style of community filmmaking.

Saying goodbye to some festival friends | Photo courtesy Jay Bulckaert

Le Dernier Morceau from aRTLeSS Collective on Vimeo.

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