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Alternative storytelling

Yann Giroux’s Surveillant (Watcher/Overseer) is the longest film I’ve included so far, at over 17 minutes – but you can learn a lot from this award-winning film. Before you read further, I suggest you watch it.

What’s cool about it

Most modern films and TV shows stick pretty closely to a kind of filmmaking called ‘Hollywood continuity’ or ‘the continuity system’. This means shooting separate shots, which join smoothly together because the filmmakers follow a set of rules like the 180 degree rule, shot reverse shot, eyeline match and editing on the action, which I’ve described here.

But this is just one way to tell a story. Surveillant is a great introduction to some alternative ways of telling stories that don’t rely on the traditional continuity system.

The story

A young park warden (the ‘surveillant’ of the title) starts his first day in work and becomes the target of a gang of bored youth. In a conventional film, you would expect the young man to take on the gang, the gang members to see the error of their ways, or a hero to intervene.

Not in this film. There’s no satisfying resolution: instead, Giroux depicts the sense of boredom and unease by using a raft of unusual filmmaking techniques. He draws our attention to sounds, textures and patterns. There are dramatic match cuts between shots with the same framing or movement, and shapes and movements are repeated.

Surveillant doesn’t use ‘shot reverse shot’ at all. Instead it has long takes where the camera moves back and forwards seamlessly between extreme long shots, long shots and closeups. Sometimes it holds single shots for longer than seems comfortable. And it uses sound in a precise way to tell us about the characters and the story.

How it starts

Surveillant begins with a shot of a bike frame locked to a post, and a rock being used to smash the lock. Then it tracks back to become a flowing stabilised (‘Steadicam’) shot as a girl drags the bike frame along a path.

The girl lifts and throws the bike frame. The camera follows the motion, tilts up to the trees and spins, then down to face the surveillant, coming from the other direction, arriving on his bike – an ingenious way to switch from shot to reverse shot.

The boy unknowingly locks his bike to the post where the vandalised bike was taken from. The Steadicam tracks smoothly in and out to frame long shots and closeups, where most filmmakers would cut between separate shots. The shot ends with an intimidating closeup of the gang leader turning to stare straight at the camera.

Editing

Then there’s a striking match cut – with exactly the same framing – to the park keeper’s face, emphasising the contrast between the bully’s strength and the boy’s awkwardness.

Movement

In the next scene, we gradually realise that the gang in the park are circling the young man on their bicycles. This circle motif appears several times in the film. It suggests repetition and the continual circle of the boy cleaning up, the gang making a mess, and the boy cleaning up their mess.

As well as circling, shots track sideways, down walls or across the ground to reveal textures and graffiti tags. Actions and sounds are extended and repeated to emphasise boredom and idleness.

Sound

There’s no music or voiceover: all the sound is diegetic (it seems to be a natural part of the scene). But it’s been very carefully designed, with important individual sounds being isolated. In the first scene, sounds tells us about character: the girl gang member carelessly drags the broken bike frame along the path, and the surveillant arrives on his bike with the chain gratingly out of gear.

Sounds sometimes depict things that are off screen, like the banging noises outside the hut in the final scene. These asynchronous sounds are unsettling because we – and the surveillant – don’t really know what they represent.

Watch…

Yan Giroux is from Quebec, but he’s influenced by European filmmakers such as the Scottish director Andrea Arnold and the Hungarian Béla Tarr. For more examples of these kinds of filmmaking you could watch Arnold’s Red Road, Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies, or Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once upon a Time in Anatolia. (Warning: all of these films make for challenging viewing.)

Yan Giroux says

“One of the themes I explore most in fiction is masculinity and how it’s related to the alpha male. Generally in cinema, the alpha male means the hero; but in Surveillant, which features a struggle for territory, it’s exactly the opposite. It’s about encountering an antihero. You can see that I use long takes in this fiction film…I integrate the camera into the setting to make it more obvious. I want the spectator to live what they see.”
(Translated from an French language interview in lapresse.ca)

“I think this ending really completes what I wanted to do and asks some questions which widen the scope of the film. He gives up by barricading himself in his office, he cedes the territory (which had never been his) and doesn’t even try to exercise his authority. Maybe that’s not dramatic, but it represents an ending to his day. I had written an ending with a call to the police and a violent conflict in the park between the youths, but I cut it. That would have been too much and I didn’t want to bring in other characters and other issues. I also wanted to leave the situation in suspense: what could he do, to be fair? What would the other youths do? What would his whole summer be like if his first day turned out like that?…For me these questions are more interesting than a clear answer.”
(In response to a question about the ending on Vimeo, translated from the French)

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