Directors Mathieu Denis and Simon Lavoie received a special mention at the Generation 14plus Awards for their ambitious and thought-provoking film Those Who Make Revolution Halfway Only Dig Their Own Graves (Original title: “Ceux qui font les révolutions à moitié n’ont fait que se creuser un tombeau”). Over the course of its 183 minutes running time, the film follows a group of four young students who are disappointed and dissatisfied by the outcome of the student protests of the “Maple Spring” in 2012 and form a radical splinter-group. Through its narrative, the film explores the possibilities of what could have happened, if some of the students felt the urgency to continue their protest in a violent way. The fictional narrative includes documentary fragments of worldwide protests of the last few years to put its story into a contemporary, political context.
I sat down with directors Matthieu Denis and Simon Lavoie before the film’s European Premiere at the festival and talked about the form of the film, their influences, Jean-Luc Godard and the film’s difficult reception in Canada.
Next Projection: You have co-written a script together before (Laurentie) – how did you come together for this project and how did come up with the initial idea for the film?
Mathieu: It goes back to the first film that we did together, which is called Laurentie. It is a film about political disengagement, apathy and cynicism. It was released in the fall of 2011 in Canada. We were invited to screen our film at student societies during the student protests in 2012. That was the starting point of our new film. We met a lot of students while they were on strike and out in the streets protesting. Obviously we thought they were very inspiring at that time and they were reacting very strongly to Laurentie because they said “Your film has a vision of a very stagnant society but you got it wrong, because we are out on the streets now, protesting”. We thought, let’s talk about it again six months from now. Of course the movement did kind of collapse over itself shortly after that. Following that, Simon and I were wondering what had happened to these people who had been so engaged and motivated. That was the idea of how this film came about. We were wondering if it would be possible that some of them would still want to be militant but in a different way because maybe their bitterness and anger from 2012 could bring some of them to reach out to more radical means.
Next Projection: The title of the film – Those Who Make Revolution Halfway Only Dig Their Own Graves – is quite long. Can you elaborate on why you chose it?
Simon: This particular quote is from Saint-Just, a French revolutionary from the 18th century. It captures the essence of the film pretty well because when you don’t succeed to bring social change, there is always a backlash. That’s what happened in Quebec a few times for example when we tried to reach our independence in Quebec and failed twice. After these failures we noticed that there was a bitterness and sadness within the society. It was quite the same feeling at the end of the strike and the government, that people were fighting against, came back into power even stronger than before. That’s why this quote was so accurate to this film.
Next Projection: Can you talk a bit about the artistic and stylistic choices you made especially regarding the opening sequence, the intermission, the quotations and the alternating aspect ratios for example?
Mathieu: The underlying reason is that we thought we were portraying very radical and revolutionary characters and that it would be wrong to portray them in a classical way. It would be counterproductive and a mistake to film them in a conventional way. The characters say “no” to any norms and conventions and so the form of the film had to be as radical as they were. That was an early idea. We always saw this film almost as an essay in which we can use quotes, dance, photography and theatre. A certain point of the film is very local and we wanted to transcend the event and put it in a relationship with history.
Simon: We also had total freedom as filmmakers with this film and we wanted to be bold.
Next Projection: How much were you influenced and inspired by Jean-Luc Godard’s La Chinoise? There are quite a few similarities.
Mathieu: La Chinoise obviously was an inspiration but it is quite different from our film regarding its tone. There is a short film Godard directed called De l’origine du XXIe siècle in which he is using sound footage, excerpts from his films, music and texts, for example. These films were made in the spirit of creative liberty. The will not to conform to how things are supposed to be made was very inspiring. We were also inspired by Quebec filmmaker Gilles Groulx and Philippe Grandrieux’s documentary It May Be That Beauty Has Strengthened Our Resolve: Masao Adachi. All of those works were inspiring to us because they pushed the boundaries.
Next Projection: You make use of archival footage within the film. Besides the student protests, what protests are these clips from?
Simon: All the footage comes from the Internet and we wanted to include it because it represents the times we live in. We wanted to put this local event in Quebec into a wider context. In the early 2010s there was the social movement of the “Arab Spring” and somehow people ended up calling the movement in Montreal “Maple Spring”. It is a name we dislike because it doesn’t seem like we take ourselves seriously. We used the footage to draw a parallel to the worldwide protests that had a much greater impact.
Mathieu: These events were interesting to us because one of the themes and questions of the films is “How do you remain an idealist and a militant over time? How do you change the world that we live in?”. This is one of the underlying themes. The “Arab Spring” was a big moment of freedom and of hope for many people while it was happening, as well as the protests in the Ukraine for example. But where are they now? It was the same thing with the “Maple Spring” and we were wondering about its legacy.
Next Projection: Your film is receiving quite mixed reactions in Quebec. Why is that?
Simon: The young students that were involved in the protests feel like we were not accurate in portraying what had happened. I think it is a misunderstanding because they way the film is packaged by the distributors may look like the film is precisely about the student protests but it goes beyond this. The students of the protests feel that they were betrayed, which was not our intention. Despite that, we are happy that the student protests of 2012 return to the news and we talk about what had happened because when the protests stopped, they almost disappeared as if they never existed.