Gabor Szilasi Joannie Lafrenière

An inspirational look at Gabor Szilasi, one of the great photographers of Quebec life

Filmmaker Joannie Lafrenière puts the focus on love and curiosity in the photographer’s work.

Over the past five years, documentary filmmaker Joannie Lafrenière has established herself as a must-watch filmmaker thanks to her playful style. With short documentaries like Snowbirds and King Lajoie, she chooses eccentric subjects and blends their unique world outlooks with her candy-coloured aesthetics. With a background in photography and a penchant for big personalities, her first feature film’s subject, Gabor Szilasi, feels like the perfect match for her singular vision. 

Gabor Szilasi was born in Hungary in 1928 and survived the war and unrest of the post-war period. Before immigrating to Canada in 1957, he documented the Hungarian revolution in his hometown of Budapest. Upon arriving in Canada, he started working for the Office du Film du Québec and became a great documentarian of rural Quebec. His photography, inspired by the social realist movement and photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson, was warm, naturalistic and humanist. He not only sought to document the people he met but got to know them as well.

By the time Szilasi sits down to make Gabor with Lafrenière, he’s in his early 90s. He’s still working and still moving. Rather than stick with a talking heads format, Lafrenière emphasizes interpersonal relationships, such as Szilasi’s visit to a barber or a birthday party, leaning heavily on the intimacy built into their friendship. Rather than be spoken at, we’re invited to share in Szilasi’s life and work. Rather than just being told his work is essential, we feel it as he stops by a casse-croute he visited in 1970. He shows photos of people gone and lost, buildings torn down and landscapes obscured by new growths. The photographs are not abstract but instead tied to the history of people and the land. The approach is refreshing and centres on the importance of art in our lives and memories.

The framing of the film not only personalizes the relationship we have to Gabor’s art but also focuses on capturing Szilasi’s life as it is now. We hear from family and friends who worry about his health and celebrate his passion. When we hear from his family, wife, daughter and grandson, we understand that the scope of someone’s impact on the world transcends their work. Szilasi’s life’s imprint on the world transcends his photography; it’s felt in his family and his friendships.

Gabor is occasionally interrupted by vignettes featuring Lafrenière at motels that explore their friendship. While sometimes off-putting, it also highlights the friendship central to the film’s making. Lafrenière makes it clear that her work exists in large part in her introduction to Szilasi’s photographs, and the film also exists, as is, thanks to the friendship between them. Rather than merely a cold and objective document, the movie sparkles thanks to this central intergenerational friendship of two photographers enamoured with the people and culture of Quebec. 

While drastically different in style, both artists are bonded by a common goal and a shared love. The synthesis propels the film in unusual directions and creates a unique documentary landscape. While far from Lafrenière’s most constructed works, her curiosity about people’s spaces and things adds a new layer of dynamism to the film. The personal nature of the interviews is further emphasized by a sense of space, as she frames people in places and with objects that seem to vibrate with personal significance. While toned down compared to the maximalism and animation she uses in her other films, her voice still carries and emphasizes the personalities of all subjects. 

Gabor stands out as a great portrait of an artist at work. It’s also an optimistic portrait of Quebec that emphasizes the possibilities of a multi-lingual and multicultural environment as a landscape for personal expression. While the film also covers its share of tragedy and heartbreak, it continually returns to the importance of love and curiosity as pillars of a life well-lived. ■

Gabor, directed by Joannie Lafrenière

Gabor is screening in Montreal theatres now.

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