the devil's share Luc Bourdon

The Devil’s Share paints an impressionistic portrait of Montreal in the 1970s

Luc Bourdon on the sequel to his acclaimed 2008 collage film The Memory of Angels.

the devil's share Luc Bourdon
A clip from Clément Perron and Georges Dufaux’s C’est pas d’la faute à Jacques Cartier as featured in The Devil’s Share

Luc Bourdon’s 2008 collage film The Memory of Angels was a surprise hit, staying a total of 13 weeks in theatres – impressive for any film, much less an impressionistic collage of clips from thousands of films from the NFB archive. The Memory of Angels used clips from the ’50s and ’60s to paint a fragmented portrait of Montreal as it was – or as it was captured by the filmmakers of the period. The Devil’s Share picks up where the previous film left off but, as Bourdon points out, both the material he had to work with and the final product are somewhat different. In fact, The Memory of Angels had been intended as a one-off.

“If there was a period in history that I wasn’t interested in, it was this one,” says Bourdon. “It had already been explored and dissected at length, and it was full of traps! The body of work wasn’t the same, either; there wasn’t as much to discover from the late ’60s and ’70s, it’s very documented already. The years I focused on in the first film, I discovered that world while making it. I had thought, ‘If I’m discovering this, others will want to see it too!’ I don’t pretend to be smarter than anyone, but I figure that my discoveries might benefit from being passed on to others.”

“From 2008 to 2013, people were constantly asking me when the next movie was coming. People wanted a sequel, but I kept insisting ‘No, no, no, I can’t make the same movie twice.’ Then a few things happened and the potential for this particular film opened up, independently of any strategy that I may have had when I made the first film. (…) It’s a period that demanded more work, because I decided to take a different path. The first film was very intuitive, very spontaneous. This time, there was more muckraking, so to speak. I had to go about it in a very systematic way.”

The era from which Bourdon sources clips was a markedly different one. The NFB had been created to serve as a film service for various ministries and governmental organizations, but by the creation of the National Film Board’s French office in Montreal, it had moved into a more political and filmmaker-driven realm. It meant that the form of the films changed – but also that many of them were a lot more familiar to audiences.

“The Challenge for Change program made a big difference in their output at this point,” he explains. “The program used smaller cameras – 16mm, early video – and used it to bring regular people into the world of cinema. Regular people could participate in cinema. That was completely new and, wow! It was fundamental – for anglophones as much as francophones. The output changed radically; the films aren’t as technically sound, but the films are serving the people. These films became important – and there was a phenomenal amount of them.”

As you may suspect, a project of this scope takes a lot of work. Bourdon first watched roughly 2,000 NFB films (shorts and features), taking copious notes about scenes and shots that may work in his vision. The list was scaled down to roughly 500 films containing usable footage, which was further pared down over time. The finished film contains scenes from roughly 200 films. As Bourdon was working from whatever print was available in the pre-production stage, many of the films (320, to be exact) he selected had to be remastered and restored by the already existing department at the NFB.

“That’s when the real work begins,” Bourdon explains. “You have to break apart every element, find every puzzle piece, remove them from the film and file them. The majority of films had 20 elements – sound, picture or both – that we could use, so that’s roughly 6,400 elements that you have to piece together. It’s pieced together little by little, in little piles that eventually become sequences. None of the sequences recreate the original editing; they’re always spliced together with other footage. I have no interest in lifting a sequence from a film and dropping it wholesale in mine. Everything has to be grouped together – all shots of the country are together, all shots of the city at night are together. (…) At some point, all of these individual wagons connect together in a train. Even then – I could still have a full hour of images of the country!

“The first edit was five hours and 20 minutes long,” he continues. “In the end we got it down to an hour and 40 minutes. It wasn’t too hard. Michel Giroux (the editor) and I were happy with it. There’s nothing we felt we had to leave out. It’s partially because the film’s narrative structure is based on the province’s political timeline – because we knew it’s what we wanted the least of in the film. It’s the most well-known, most saturated material we had. We agree we had to evoke it in an impressionistic way – the political angle is there, but it’s pretty tenuous if you compare it to everything we had available. We had to trace the line of the political stuff in order to know what we could take out. If you put everything in, it makes it easier to know what you’re taking out. (…) In any case, it’s all subjective. I’m sure you could’ve made one, just as I did, and that your film would be very different. Once in a while, we’d match up.” ■

The Devil’s Share opens in theatres on Friday, Feb. 16. Watch the trailer here:

The Devil’s Share trailer

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