Sunday, September 16, 2018

Nate Hood on First Stripes (2018) Camden International Film Festival (2018)

You can’t sneak Wagner’s Prelude from Das Rheingold into a film about soldiers and NOT be making some kind of statement. The piece—one made ubiquitous by countless movies and TV shows in need of stock classical music denoting triumph and majesty—was used by Wagner in the first scene of the first part of his Nibelungen cycle to represent the very creation of the cosmos itself. So when Jean-François Caissy uses it to accompany footage of new recruits in the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) on patrol, the only interpretation possible is that we’re watching the birth of something powerful and great, something mighty and eternal. That’s not the kind of message that mixes well with what otherwise aspires to be a strictly cinéma-vérité exploration of the 12-week basic training of new recruits into professional soldiers.

Seemingly heavily influenced by American documentarian Frederik Wiseman, a filmmaker who’s turned his persistently objective gaze on his own country’s social institutions for the better part of sixty years, Caissy seeks to not only examine his young recruits but the CAF themselves and how they produce a sterile environment that psychologically strips the individuality away from its trainees for replacement with a collectivized, self-sacrificial mentality. (“It’s Canada before yourself,” one officer booms.)

But unlike Wiseman who liberally turned his camera on the administrators and bossmen of the institutions he probed, Caissy rarely shows the commanding officers, even during training exercises, choosing instead to focus on the steely-eyed, blank expressions of the soldiers as they receive orders, reprimands, and assignments. Sometimes this is used to great effect, such as a scene where the soldiers are taught the byzantine, labyrinthine differences between orders and directives from various agencies like the DAOD, the CFAO, and the CBI: they struggle to stay focused and awake as their unseen instructor drones on and on about protocol. In other sequences such as a recruit getting interrogated by his sergeant for accidentally leaving his cell phone on during an inspection, the creative decision seems arbitrary. Perhaps Caissy was uncomfortable with doing anything that might humanize the officers over the recruits—doing so could have easily made the film less an exploration of humans under difficult conditions then a recruitment tool advertising the CAF.

But the choice of music—not just the aforementioned Prelude but other classical flourishes—tip Caissy’s hand in way he probably didn’t intend.

Rating: 6/10

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