Wednesday, April 11, 2012

You’re supposed to build the city, not deconstruct it. (The films of Antoine Bourges)

The Canadian filmmaker Antoine Bourges’ first short film Hello Goodbye (2008) follows the foreign exchange student Park (Joshua Pak) on his first and final day of university. At the beginning Park has trouble making friends and then, on his last day, he has trouble saying goodbye. “All good things come to an end,” he murmurs. In this fifteen-minute short film, like in life, everything goes by too quickly. What stands out in Hello Goodbye is how Bourges films the first and last day. The different time periods are filmed as if it was the same scene with the transition shot between them being seamless: you see Park arrive in his classroom where he meets a girl and starts to unpack his things and, in the same shot after she leaves the frame, Park starts putting his things away in the box as the girl returns, now wearing winter clothes, talking about how quickly the year went by and she returns to him a couple of DVDs that he leant her. Park sees his student organizer, who he will present his final architecture project as a gift, and has one last game of foosball with a friend. The ambient score by Patrick Beechinor is trance-like and Beechinor, who is also the cinematographer, shoots in a style that is geometrically composed where Vancouver is presented as a bustling metropolis - a dynamic background to this somber story.

This invisible transition from ‘Hello’ to ‘Goodbye’ might be the key to look at Bourges next couple of films: Woman Waiting (2010) and now in his latest pharmaceutical hybrid-fiction East Hastings Pharmacy (2012). Where in Hello Goodbye the year at the University of British Columbia (which Bourges also attended) is passed over. In his next two films Bourges takes this ‘in-between’ time and makes it the focus. As he captures people that are in search of something whether it is when they are between homes and searching for a new apartment or during their daily visit to a methadone clinic. What Bourges seems to be doing is trying to find action within inaction. Where Bourges' Hello Goodbye resembled the photo-conceptualist work of a Jeff Wall which emphasized long takes and open spaces, his more recent works are micro-narratives of people in institutions, like the documentaries of Frederick Wiseman and Allan King, with a Pedro Costa-like sense of hybridizing fiction and non-fiction through documenting grim social realities.
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To describe Bourges filmmaking process on East Hasting Pharmacy here are my translations of Bourges’ answers from a Cinéma du Réel interview between him and Stéphane Gérard.

On these methadone pharmacies:
“They interest me because they are ideal places of observation on the everyday life of the neighborhood [East Hastings, Vancouver], one of the poorest in North America, with a high rate of criminality and prostitution. Everything is organized for these residents: the neighborhood is isolated, the people don’t leave and the pharmacies are the only place they check into everyday.”
On how Bourges filmed East Hastings Pharmacy:
“I decided to create a replica of a real pharmacy and to have my own space, so now I had the possibility to work with a tripod, and I no longer had to follow people or hide, because I could control the place. At the beginning I wanted to film in long-shots a bit like Depardon but I realized that I couldn’t because of this glass window. I could not get between it and that you are either on one side or the other, and that because of this you inevitably have to pick a side. The shot / reverse-shot formula was functional. It wasn’t so much a demanding condition instead it was the default.”
On the actors:
“The visitors are all patients of the neighborhood, I met them in the pre-production of the film. I asked them to go to the counter where they would ask for their dose of methadone and to act as they are used to. It was them that guided things because it is them that have the experience, I relied on them.”
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“When a patient is prescribed methadone, he or she must attend a pharmacy that is open every day of the week. In most cases, the directions on the prescription will indicate that the dose is to be dispensed daily, and that the consumption should be witnessed by the pharmacist.” – Pharmacy Methadone Maintenance Guide, College of Pharmacists British Columbia.

This inter-title that opens East Hastings Pharmacy is a good enough starting point to discus what goes on at a methadone clinic. Some further information (though I’m not passing myself as an expert): methadone, or dolophine as it’s also known, is a designed psychoactive chemical to be used medically as a painkiller as substitute for harder drugs, like heroin. Although it perpetuates physical dependence, the goal is to provide a clinically supervised, stable dose of a particular opioid in order to provide a measure of control to both pain and cravings.

In East Hastings Pharmacy you see a varied group of patients coming in, on several different days, for their daily dose of methadone. The young, plain-faced pharmacist (Shauna Hansen) works with the older pharmacy technician (Luis Figueroa) who provides her with the properly measured quantity of pills and liquid. The film begins in the morning as you see Shauna on her cell phone sitting behind the counter as you hear the door rattling and the people outdoors laughing. The pharmacy is a site of rituals and procedures, repeated interactions and slight differences, things going smoothly and confrontations. One patient says to the pharmacist regarding the television that plays cartoons and the news, “You seem to watch the same show every day?” And the pharmacist responds, “Well, we don’t have too many options here, unfortunately.” Some of the events that happen include: one woman, who wants to have her medicine to go (“carries”) so that she can spend more time with her son, is told again that the pharmacy can’t do that as she has lost that privilege. Another patient, who appears to be of upper-middle class, easily picks up ‘carries' and then he goes out to enjoy the nice weather. Another patient is bargaining for some methadone, as her prescription didn’t account for one day. While another patient gives the pharmacist a hard time to use the phone, which she does not have permission to share.

The cinematographer Lindsay George creates succinct images: that of close-ups of hands picking up pills and drinking from a cup, and shot / revere-shots of the patients and the pharmacist. The pharmacy is a medium-sized open white room, which is a little scuffed. It includes a few plastic-and-steel chairs and a water-tank. The people that come through it are varied and include men, women, first nations etc. The visitors are given the space to speak for themselves, which gives this unscripted film a level of authenticity. You can hear one of the guys sharing his life philosophies: “Or you can say, you know what, I had enough, I want to do something positive.” And no one is ever identified, except for during the credits, which gives the film a universality, as if this is happening all of the time in most urban centers.

What East Hastings Pharmacy achieves is a clear-eyed and objective look at a methadone clinic. As Mel Hurtig brings up in The Truth About Canada there are problems in Canadian national healthcare. And as Rachel Giese brings up in her article The Errors of Their Ways (The Walrus, April 2012), on the death toll of medical mistakes (“Yet as the tools for healing proliferate, so do the difficulties in determining and executing correct diagnoses and treatments; each discovery creates new opportunities for mistakes, side effects, and dangers.”); there is much to be gained from improved protocols, teachings, and decisive action. There are people’s quality of life and lives depending on it.

East Hastings Pharmacy will have its Canadian premiere on Monday April 16, 7PM at Jackman Hall as part of the program A Place in the World at the Images Festival. And can be seen online at the mubi website during the festival.