Guidelines (La Marche a suivre): Berlin Review

Berlin Film Festival
A compelling documentary about Canadian high-school kids and how they deal with criticism of their behavior and their superiors.

Canadian documentary director Jean-Francois Caissy's third feature looks at adolescents in rural Quebec with a penchant for getting into trouble.

BERLIN -- Difficult Quebec high-school kids are the stars if not the subject of non-fiction filmmaker Jean-Francois Caissy’s third feature, Guidelines (La Marche a suivre), which explores, on a more abstract level, society’s opportunity to educate these youngsters before they’re left to their own devices and still-developing sense of judgment.

Though the film might look deceptively simple on the surface, as it edits together conversations of teachers with their adolescent charges about their unruly behavior and how it can be improved, Caissy and his editor, Mathieu Bouchard-Malo, manage to construct something that acquires a cumulative force that speaks compellingly and much more generally about the intersection of youth, education and personal morality than the specific cases of these often nameless, zit-sprinkled pieces of work.

In many ways doing for young kids what the director’s second feature, Journey’s End, did with the inhabitants of a rural retirement home, the films of Caissy, and Guidelines in particular, deserve wider circulation but might be hampered by his work’s seeming simplicity and, in the case of his latest, surface similarities to other recent Quebec features such as Rafael Ouellet’s docu-fiction hybrid Class of ’09 from last year.

Shot in widescreen by cinematographer Nicolas Canniccioni, the film opens with a car stuck in a mud pool on a country road, with the driver desperately putting the pedal to the metal, an apt visual metaphor for the position many of the students find themselves in as they’ve been given the means to move forward independently but are still struggling to actually make any headway. The kids think it’s all fun and games -- as evidenced by a gleeful male student filming the stuck car on his phone -- but the film goes on to show that the metaphor is an apt one, with Caissy integrating other silly stationary car games later on to reinforce his point.

The bulk of the film consists of one-on-one conversations between teachers or social workers and students at the Ecole Antoine Bernard in tiny Carleton-sur-Mer, in a coastal region of northeastern Quebec, just over 100 miles east of the Maine-New Brunswick border. Not a fan of shot/reverse shot rhythms or two-shots, Canniccioni and Caissy keep their camera often on the students as they try to explain their behavior -- which doesn't always seem possible since much of it isn't rational -- or are forced to listen to the school staff, sometimes with their eyes rolling (at least in their minds if not literally). Caissy thus often places the literal voices of authority in the invisible off-screen space, which underlines how most of the students seem to relate to their teachers, namely as people who don’t seem to be living in the same world at all and feel like unwelcome intruders from the outside.

There’s talk of bullying, of unnecessary disruptions in class, of students hitting or provoking each other, of smoking marijuana and of standing up for oneself or trying to pay more attention. William says things are "better now" since he's only been thrown out of class a couple of times this week. Kim explains why she got in a fight with another girl and how she could not imagine herself being in the other girl's place, ever. And Felix has to sign a contract that obliges him to behave in class.

But most of the kids are never specifically named (there are no captions) and their previous history is unknown and often only partially emerges from the conversations. This lack of specific details is actually helpful in that it creates a level playing field, making all kids equal and foregrounding their reactions to and interaction with their educators, which suggests how they deal with criticism of their actions and behavior; how they learn or sometimes refuse to take responsibility; how many students seem to operate on a kind of trial-and-error basis, still looking for what works for them and how things can make sense. As true teenagers, most are capable of thinking analytically about their own actions but still occasionally retreat into the child-like ways of instinctive and irrational behavior.  

Shots of the children during gym class or off-hours, at school as well as outside, where the seasons gradually change, put the process of growing up in a wider context that invites further contemplation and turns these specific cases into a more general overview of adolescents coming to terms with themselves and their behavior and how education plays a crucial role in this process.

Instead of a score, Caissy occasionally employs classical pieces by the likes of Brahms and Mozart.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Forum)
Production company: National Film Board of Canada
Writer-Director: Jean-Francois Caissy
Producer: Johanne Bergeron
Executive producer: Colette Loumede
Director of photography: Nicolas Canniccioni
Editor: Mathieu Bouchard-Malo
Sales: National Film Board of Canada
No rating, 76 minutes