Marcel Carrière doesn’t act like a man who helped to change the course of cinema history. At the age of 83, he is still a boyish, endlessly curious and inventive character who spins the most amazing yarns. One minute he’s explaining how he helped top up Stravinsky’s hip flask with a nip of the composer’s favorite Johnny Walker, the next he’s explaining how he grabbed a few illicit shots of Paul Anka at New York’s Copacabana Club, right under the Mob owners’ noses by posing as a tourist. But most astonishing of all is the time he snuck some footage of Jean-Paul Sartre flirtatiously playing the piano to a young admirer, much to the chagrin of his famous partner, Simone De Beauvoir.
Carrière takes all these things in his stride, offering them up as amusing anecdotes, and it perhaps explains his approach to filmmaking. Under the banner of Direct Cinema, working with Pierre Perrault and Michelle Brault, Carrière helped give birth to a movement that was refreshingly ego-free and was the subject of a major retrospective at the Ji.hlava Intl. Documentary Film Festival last week. Was he surprised to be invited to Jihlava? He shrugs. “Well, last year there was a similar thing in Portugal, and so I had a kind of rehearsal there, and the year before it was in New York City. So I knew there was some kind of a revival of the Direct Film phenomenon going on – I guess It’s old enough now to be historical.”
Carrière’s contribution to documentary is one we take for granted now: sound. In the first half of the 20th century, cameras were constrained by a lack of synchronized sound, which meant that docs were very stiff and formal. “Prior to [us], there was very little direct sound,” he recalls, “which meant that you couldn’t film with real people, live.” Is that how Direct Cinema got its name? Again, he shrugs. “That name never came from us. What we were trying to do is to get films made that were close to the people and with the people. It’s the film critics and the university professors later on that named it. They called it Direct Cinema, Cinema Vérité, Cinema Vecu [Living Cinema] – all kinds of names.”
Asked how he came to be such an important part of film history, Carrière is incredibly modest. “Pure luck,” he says. “Pure chance. I was born in a small village in the Gatineau Hills. It’s about an hour and a half from Ottawa, along the Gatineau River, and the schools were run by nuns in the village. School went up to the ninth grade, and after that, most of the people didn’t go to school any more – that was the end – but my mother said, “No way!” So they sent us, my younger brother and I, to boarding school for a couple of years. My father was already working in the city. So we decided to sell the house and move there, where I did four years in a technical school studying electronics and electricity.”
“I was always working in the summertime,” he recalls, “and I was registered at the local university to come in for the second year – because of my previous studies, I skipped the first year. Then I saw in the local newspaper that the National Film Board was asking for summer students to be assistants in sound. Well, that sounded good! So I applied and I spent the summer there. I was trained for a year, very intensively. And after that they said, ‘Off you go,’ and I spent 10 years working as a sound engineer. I worked on about a 100 films. Never, never, never stopped. In the meantime, I got married.” He laughs. “Luckily, my wife knew about the kind of life I was going through. We had two children and for both of them I came back the night before they were born.”
It was through the National Film Board, which was founded in 1939 by an Englishman, John Grierson, that Carrière met Perrault and Brault. “When I got there,” he says, “most of the technicians came from England, and they were trained in studio work. So when they came they came to Canada, all the documentaries were done in a scripted, studio way, with big lighting and narration. But in our films, we were a small group. There were three of us: Michelle was the director of photography, I was on the sound, and Pierre… Well, Pierre had never done a film before. It was a different approach to cinema. And at the Film Board we had a bit of a problem because they wouldn’t let us do it at the beginning. They thought it was crazy.”
Crazy or not, the three would have the last laugh, although, sadly, Carrière is the last man standing when it comes to taking credit for that success. “I’m the only survivor,” he sighs. “Yes, everybody is gone, and I’m not young anymore.” He smiles. “But I’m still around…”