Joannie Lafreniere is a master of sound, and images — both still and moving. She blends fiction and documentary techniques with a rare freedom. Lafreniere’s most recent film, La Femme qui a vu l’ours/The Woman Who Saw the Bear won a raft of awards including three Grand Prizes at the Prends ça Court Awards; Best Canadian short film at the Moncton International Film Festival; People’s Choice Award at the Festival international Images en Vues; and the Flash Forward Prize for photography at the Magenta Foundation Awards.
Laurence: You started as a photographer. What made you transition to video?
Joannie: In 2011, I entered a competition that took 10 people on a tour around the world. We had four days in each country to do a film and only found out where you were going next in the airport, at the end of those four days. The idea of traveling without knowing where you were going next was exhilarating. I had seen the advertisement for it on TV when I was little and even then was totally convinced: my dream was to apply when I was old enough.
I had never shot video before so for the purpose of the application, I did three films, trained in a program and I was chosen to participate out of 600 applicants. A good friend of mine was also selected so we went together on this tour around the world. We did six movies in two months.
Laurence: Can you tell me about some of those movies?
Joannie: We first went to Tahiti, the result of which was the worst film I have ever made. But then we went to Japan and finished a fictional story about Rockabilly — Strangers, imagine Tarantino on acid. I still love that movie a lot.
Then we went to Cambodia, where I filmed a profile on a man who was obsessed with the 1960’s and owned a boutique hotel called 1969. In Sri Lanka, the film was about the caste system, but we narrated it differently. The plan was to walk around the streets of Colombo in search of a special moustache. It was a random hunt, a person’s moustache could determine their caste.
Laurence: What was the impact of that experience?
Joannie: It was wonderful. I met and connected with a great group of people. The environment wasn’t competitive, but it was challenging and it introduced me to a new creative medium [video]. Before starting, I had always thought photo and video were the same. This trip completely reversed that notion: the two are very different languages, each with their own advantages and drawbacks.
Both mediums are linked by my curiosity. It’s still the only reason why I do documentaries. I love human beings and the camera is a pretext for encounters. It’s quite an exceptional privilege: if you are genuinely curious about people, they in turn are generous and let you learn about their lives.
Laurence: What did you next?
Joannie: I started to work in TV producing documentary stories. I did another absurd movie about a quest for Santa Claus. Both were fun projects that did not pay very well. Then I worked with NFB (National Film Board of Canada) on a few interactive projects as well.
NFB is an institution that offers three departments: documentary, animation and interactive. Documentary is traditional in its approach, animation is widely liked, and interactive is the most forward thinking in terms of new technology. I did two projects with the interactive department.
Laurence: What kind of work did you do with NFB?
Joannie: The first film was Des Maux Illisibles, a project on illiteracy that I co-directed and co-conceptualized with three other people. The film followed three different illiterate people and their daily struggles. Before shooting, I had never asked myself what it meant to live without reading.
The strategies these people invented in order to get through their days shocked and inspired us. One of my favorite parts about the film was its interactive elements: we made the letters on the screen blurry, almost illegible, to help the viewer empathize directly with the characters’ struggles.
The other project was Ferme Zero, a sad story about the diminishing tradition of family farms in Canada. At first we didn’t know how to shoot it. While thinking up ways to film the subject, someone mentioned the idea of talking to a property auctioneer. I thought that was a great idea, so I found a list of farms for sale. The auctions for those farms became the angle with which we documented the story. We presented two points of view: that of the auctioneer, and that of the family. The final piece was an amalgamation of sound, photo and video.
Laurence: You just released a short movie about a female taxidermist called The Woman Who Saw the Bear. Could you tell us how the movie came about?
Joannie: I met the protagonist, Lucille Côté, while working on another project. I was looking for kitsch environments and got in touch with her. I went there and found her fascinating. This woman was only about 100 pounds and 5 feet tall and would carve up a bear with bare hands.
It took me two years, but I called her and asked if I could go hunting with her. We went together with her boyfriend to the forest. There I discovered a world of people who lived completely at the margin of society. I went back every season for two years: each time we either hunted, worked on her animals, or went fishing. From our time fishing, I only kept one scene but it’s one of my favorites. She’s on the boat, singing, doing exactly what makes her personality so unique.
Lucille is a natural person without filter, without an internal nervousness: the ideal character for a documentary.
Laurence: What was the final outcome of the project?
Joannie: It took three different forms. While I was working on the movie, the project was presented in a gallery. There was an exhibition with my photos and video clips along with Lucille’s stuffed animals. In the meantime we released the film that premiered at the Regard sur le court-métrage film festival in Saguenay.
It was great because it took place in Gaspesie, where she lives. The screening room was full and fortunately the movie was received well. Honestly, people love Lucille. At the end of the screening they would push each other to talk to her like fans at a rock concert. Given the fact that people normally distanced themselves from her because of her marginal place in society, it was a kind of a sweet revenge.
Laurence: In the movie, you experimented with animation and photographic frames. How do these kind of stylistic experiments shape the story you’re telling?
Joannie: I used animation in The Woman Who Saw the Bear to depict the beheading of animals when I felt that filming it would overwhelm the viewer. Instead, animation helped to hold their focus, remind them that they were watching her craft, her profession, and not to focus on the gore.
I love staging. I don’t think that doing documentary prevents you from doing funky things. And staging doesn’t have to make a scene inauthentic. In fact, I love when things are frozen, when the movement comes in my frame and I don’t need to change the position of my camera. It makes for a nicer shot.
What I love about video is its flexibility: rather than being tied to a particular form, video offers you the opportunity to mix traditional techniques or completely new ones.
Laurence: Your language is definitely imbued with fiction. Tell us more about your direction.
Joannie: I studied journalism but found it very square. I would have loved to be a music critic but was not ready for all the sacrifices that go along. Then, I discovered photography with an old Minolta camera that was so heavy, I could have killed an animal with it. That Minolta was the first step to everything opening up.
Even though my photos were bad at the time, I knew the career would would lead me to people and new experiences. But photography in the traditional sense still wasn’t enough: studio work bored me. Instead, I found useful my love for costume and staging. I didn’t want to photograph for photography’s sake, I wanted to create and experiment and for my photographs to document from those explorations.
In the end, my profession isn’t really fixed in photography either. I do photo, video, direction of photography and artistic direction. I work on a variety of projects, anything to keep me from corporate work. I’ve always preferred to have less money and more fun. This lifestyle serves as proof that anyone can do documentary without being tied to a narrow scope of clients and distribution. It’s all about finding your own system, especially now that there are so many possibilities. Just find the model that fits you!
Laurence Cornet is a writer, a photography critic and a curator based in Brooklyn. Her clients include L’Oeil de la Photographie, The Magnum Foundation, Images magazine, Vice, MSNBC, Vogue and Camera.