How do we capture values on film? Collaboration, can we film that? How do we capture autonomy, creativity, openness. How does one film respect? Such are the questions any qualified documentarian might ask themselves when beginning their next project. After all, are they not working in a medium in which no particular outcome is for certain? In which the story’s emotional appeal may rest upon the mercy of their lens’ physical contents? Yes, these are queries that should be addressed regardless of the film’s specific subject matter. This is mainly due to the very ideals of autonomy, creativity, respectfulness & openness to collaboration being some of the most important qualities a competent non-fiction film(as well as its director)can consist of. The fact that these very same questions are asked within a film about the learning process itself is just too fitting. So much so, that it simply verifies that regardless of one’s own experience, education is an endless cycle of cognizing life’s many endearing lessons.
Liane Simard‘s feature documentary, Il était 6 Fois(Once Upon 6 Times), is the product of documenting the same six children over the span of six years. What makes this idea stand out even more is that it all takes place within an alternative schooling system in Quebec, Canada. The film takes it upon itself to provide both a general account of alt. education, as well as an intimate look into the relationship between a mother and son over said timespan. That said, Simard’s son, Arnaud Simard-Chabot, acts as the film’s main protagonist as we travel half a decade in just under an hour’s duration. With the metaphoric opening of a school’s front gate, the story commences by introducing us to the establishment’s unique curriculum. A grading system which not only infuses, but emphasizes the comprehension of “values” as the basis of its educational philosophy. As we see Simard begin to document the unique schooling process, the audience will get to know these kids individually via mini-interviews scattered throughout the movie’s progression. A sincere resonance of contentment and happiness is felt through these children’s interactions with the camera, as we are meant to perceive the potential benefits found in a more focus oriented educational environment. Besides, what child doesn’t want a school that disavows the dreaded idea of homework? Even I’m envious of that aspect alone.
However, it isn’t necessarily the film’s subject matter that is able to emerge as a selling point all on its own. True, the real time growth of a cast may draw upon the likeness of Michael Apted level wonder, but I digress. The real fascination to be found with this documentary is in its structural execution. Separated in the form of chapters, we follow Arnaud and the rest of the class from the first through sixth grades. With each chapter, which the director describes as “times”, lasting no longer than 10 minutes each(if not much shorter), we get not only a sense of the children maturing over time, but an almost allegoric representation of how quickly time flies as a mother watches her baby grow up. This example of artistic nuance is only one of many by which the film is founded on. the whole movie itself acts as a sort of impressionistic video essay on a child slowly approaching adolescence. Everything from the non-traditional editing structure to the poetic shots of empty seats and the eye lines of children as they play, are the things that make this film somewhat of a cerebral experience. Though not always easy to follow due to its sporadic sense of visual flavor, it could prove to be an endurance test for those who prefer the more tranquil experience. For those who have a more avant-garde taste for their cinematic preference, this should be right up their alley. With said visuals being accompanied by Simard’s passionate narration, what we end up with is an abridged, six year long home movie presented at its absolute most human. It is not until the film’s halfway point that the narrative reorganizes its primary motivation of documenting alternate education altogether. Instead it begins detailing the inner-most feelings of a mother as she watches her son’s childhood slowly fade away before her eyes. As maturity sets in, we as the viewer get to accompany Liane as she eventually realizes her little boy, “Isn’t a baby anymore”.
The footage itself, though not of top tier quality, nor the most steady to say the least – shot almost completely handheld – is surprisingly appropriate for the subject and general mood of the picture. The subject of the Shaky Cam Aesthetic is a topic that has been of much debate for the majority of current independent cinema. Perhaps described best by video essayist Nelson Carvajal, the idea of shooting without the aid of a tripod is an art explored far too little. One by which Simard explores to masterful execution. In a 2011 article, Carvajal writes:
“Anyone who knows my shooting style knows that I’m not a fan of tripods. To me, most static “pretty” shots that I see from other indie filmmakers represent an analogy for an elusive Hollywood-esque model of moviemaking….
…I suppose this is why I embrace “direct cinema” filmmaking so strongly. I love grabbing the camera and just improvising as I go. It’s a shooting style that liberates my senses; it awakens me.”
Thus, I find it a breath of fresh air to see another confident picture shot freely in the same vein of Adam Small’s Another State of Mind or even David Lynch’s Inland Empire. It’s a feeling of true indie prowess if anything. This is aided further by some very clean sound from both the narration and source audio throughout the film. Even though crafted in the means of a six year stint, the quality never shifts, remaining somewhat solid for its entirety. This is otherwise the most common aspect that can plague and film of this nature, yet Simard avoids every pitfall of this regard. Although the audio itself may not have any issues, being a French language film subtitled in English, the captions themselves can be quite the task to read from time to time. The words blend effortlessly into white backgrounds noticeably often and at times even shift origin points due to name cards temporarily taking up their regular section of the screen. Luckily though, it was one of the only aspects of the film that would nearly pull me out of the experience. Considering this is solely a technical issue and one that only effects those who do not speak the native language, Once Upon Six Times‘ ability to provide a great cinematic experience is without major blemish.
In the end, Once Upon Six Times is a great excursion back into the realm of childhood. With a special spotlight given to the lesser known options for a youth’s healthy educational development, it works on both an informative and emotionally engrossing level. It’s a film that proves to us that listening to 1st graders discuss deep opinions can be just as engaging as a world panel’s socio-political debate. One that examines how evocative imagery can potentially speak just as proficiently as any well tailored screenplay ever could on its own. Though definitely not for everyone, at its core it’s still a very relatable chapter in the context of parenthood. In a very prominent way, Liane and Arnaud Simard have realized the value of creative collaboration through sheer respect for one another’s role in the project itself. A testament to the school’s very curriculum in which they called their set for six years straight. And with the metaphoric closing of a school’s front gate, the story in question, was told.
Runtime: 52 min
Language: French(English Sub.)
Overall Score: 3.5/5
Once Upon 6 Times will have its World Premiere in France on December 1st, 2017 as part of the 12th Festival of Educational Film in Evreux. Said screening will be followed by a panel discussion with the attending audience.