|James Bay (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
It is in the time-honored tradition that one does not speak ill of the dead that I comment on the death this week of Guy Borremans. He was the cameraman on the first film I ever made, for the Indians of Quebec Association, back in 1972. It was an impossible project, achieved without enough money, requiring all of us to work in almost inexplicably dreadful conditions, but it was Guy who had to work in the worst conditions, and he pulled it off triumphantly.
He wasn’t, shall we say, an easy guy to work with. But the obituaries written of him this week have described him as the best Quebec photographer of the 20th century, and other extravagant praise. He was a brilliant cameraman, and no matter that one might finish a job with him muttering that he was an impossible son of a bitch, one nevertheless had to honor him for the brilliance of his work.
The film, which somehow or other got finished, was called Job’s Garden. It originated in the fact that when the Indians of Quebec Association tried to deal with the Quebec government about their claim to their traditional land, they discovered that the government would not take any information they produced seriously, because --- well, simply because it came from Indians, and they seemed to believe that Indians didn’t know anything about the land of Quebec, even though they had been living on it, and making their living from it for generations untold.
So, they decided to gather a group of sympathetic scientists and send them north on a three week flash tour of the James Bay region so that they could produce some information the government would at least bother to read. They established a task force under the leadership of Dr.John Spence, an Irish scientist who worked at McGill, and someone in the association came round and asked if I would be interested in making a film about the task force.
As it happens I had not long before quit my job as a daily journalist, and was looking for work; and so had my friend Jean-Pierre Fournier, with whom I had been working on and off in the newspapers since the late 1950s. He like me, thought we should seize the opportunity to make a few bucks, and we decided to embark on the project, even though neither of us had ever made a film, and, not to put too fine a point on it, hardly knew one end of a camera from the other.
We didn’t know too many cameramen, either. But we both knew Guy --- he and his wife had looked after my four small kids for a couple of weeks while my wife and myself went on holiday to Mexico, and the main thing he left behind from that experience was a superb picture of our four children that we still cherish. We knew he was usually looking for work, just as we were. So we went to see him, explained the deal as far as we could --- which wasn’t very far --- and he agreed to take part in this mad adventure. My innocence of film-making was so profound that I had no idea that an assistant cameraman was needed, and urged Guy to try to do without one, something he agreed to reluctantly (because he needed the money so badly). Only later as shooting got under way, did I realize how ridiculous this gap in our team was, how impossible it made effective work, how foolish we were to undertake the job without this essential member of the team, whose primary concern is to keep the film magazines loaded at all times so that, when one magazine was exhausted, a new magazine could be clicked into place with the minimum delay.
Nor did we have a sound man, but we took care of this by having Jean-Pierre take a ten minute lesson in use of the Nagra tape-recorder from his brother Daniel, who was a professional soundman, and who sent us on our way with many expressions of dismay at what we were undertaking.
The vicissitudes that afflicted our unlikely triumvirate, going into the northern wilderness to make a film on a subject we had not decided upon, with the minimum of hired equipment, and with only one member who had any idea of how to make that equipment work --- all that is far too complex to describe here. I have described it in my book, written twenty-five years after the event, The Memoirs of A Media Maverick, but since this book sold only about 300 copies, and quickly disappeared from the small number of shops it ever got into, readers are unlikely to ever find a copy in these times.
On our first shoot, a meeting of the Fort George populace to hear what the scientists were proposing to do, we blew the lights of the village hall within minutes, Guy, bless his heart, developed a fever and stomach pains, and had to go to hospital, and we were immediately faced with the likely failure of our whole project, right off the top. Fortunately, Guy’s physical problems were not of lasting quality: apparently he had a tendency to be physically affected in this way whenever he started shooting a new film. So we survived that.
Within a couple of days we had decided to forget the scientists and to build a film around a local hunter and his wife, Job Bearskin, who promised to collaborate with us in the interest of making known the attitudes and opinions of his people about this massive project being built in their hunting grounds, entirely without their consent.
We took a trip up the La Grande river in a couple of canoes, Job leading the way and giving us the benefit of his superb knowledge of every rock and eddy on this magnificent river. Guy was euphoric when we reached the first rapids on the La Grande, a traditional meeting place for the community, who came up to net whitefish which came in from the sea every year to spawn beneath the rapids. The neighbouring forest was open, permeated by an incandescent sort of light, and sent Guy into reveries of pleasure, exclaiming that he had to come up there and live with these people. He managed to take some lovely shots of these forests, and others of uneerily beautiful quality, of Job going out into the river to check the nets he had put out the previous evening. But it was all too much for him: he returned from all this filming by throwing down his camera, saying it was impossible without an assistant cameraman, he had no time to consider the shots he was taking or should take, and he just couldn’t work like this anymore.
One could hardly blame him: but once again we were saved by the bell, a young Cree who had been trained in the Indian film crew at the National Film Board and had returned to his native village, Gilbert Herodier, now stepping forward to undertake the essential work of assistant.
On our return from that trip our project reached its lowest ebb: Jean-Pierre had been viciously bitten by mosquitoes and could scarcely see, so swollen was his face; I had entirely lost my voice; and Guy was oppressed by the lack of proper food --- we had been reduced to scrabbling around for food in the kitchen of the student residence in which we wee billeted.
Jean-Pierre unexpectedly had to return to Montreal to take care of his pregnant wife, leaving me to act as soundman --- undoubtedly the least able and worst prepared soundman in the history of film-making, whose sound --- which was supposed to be in sync with the pictures --- was totally out of sync, and the syncing up of which occupied almost half of the precious three weeks we had available for editing the film. In later stages of the project Jean-Pierre saved our bacon by using his excellent contacts in the Radio-Canada TV network to obtain a commitment from them to screen our film, and he also arranged for our outs to be sold to TVO, the Ontario government’s educational network --- both of which deals enabled us to struggle through the completion of the film without going into too drastic a debt. (The TV screening never took place, Radio-Canada submitting to pressure from the Quebec government not to screen the film. They did, however, honour our fee.)
Guy’s often splendid photography was the groundwork on which the film was based; and I played some small role in that by acting as assistant to Guy, carrying his camera through the bush after he made his shots and keeping him working in spite of all the discouragements of his terrible conditions of work.
So, somehow or other we got the film made. And the happy ending comes from the fact that even today Job’s Garden is immensely cherished by the Crees of James Bay, probably, I think, because one of Guy’s finest sessions of shooting came when Job Bearskin, having been up the river, gathered his old friends around a fire in his teepee, and they expressed what they thought of what was being done by the white men up the river. The faces of these men, behind the slowly drifting smoke from the fire, created a spectacle that I have never forgotten. And for me, that sequence alone --- one of the most moving ever shot as these magnificent old men expressed their opposition to the hydro project, can stand as Guy Borreman’s epitaph.
A son of a bitch he may have been at times, a difficult man to work with, but through it all he had the spirit and feeling to put on record the vast experience and deep feeling of these wonderful old men, who had lived their entire lives along the La Grande river, and to bring it forth so that those of us outside could begin to understand the human issues at stake.