Doc Does It with a Song — and Then Some

in 16th Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival

by Fritz de Jong

In his 1978 film Passe ton bac d’abord, Maurice Pialat followed a group of teenagers on the brink of adulthood. Set in the French mining town of Lens, the film portrayed kids who weren’t all too motivated to live up to the movie’s title, which means “first pass your exams”. What could life after school offer a young person, except a boring job or unemployement? Although clearly set up as a drama, Pialat’s use of young amateur actors who were improvising their dialogues gave the movie a documentary flavour.

Some 35 years later, documentary maker David André elaborates on the same theme, in Chante ton bac d’abord: “first sing your exams”. We’ll get to the singing later. André set his movie in the same remote region of France, the Nord-pas-de-Calais, in the ocean village of Boulogne-sur-Mer — just an hour’s drive away from Lens.

The film — which goes by the English title We Did It On A Song — centers on 17-year-old Gaëlle, an outgoing girl who dreams of becoming an artist. In a beautiful and quite surprising opening sequence we see Gaëlle boarding a public bus, taking her seat and bursting into a song. Interior shots are smoothly cross-cut with exterior shots, while Gaëlle is lip-syncing to pre-recorded music. The scene effectively becomes a video clip and oversteps the boundaries of the documentary genre. More of these songs will follow, performed by Gaëlle and friends. Also, we hear Gaëlle introducing characters and events in voice-over: a device more suited to a narrative film than to a documentary.

So, why then was We Did It On A Song selected in a documentary festival? Because it remains at its very heart a documentary. David André spent a whole year with Gaëlle and her band of friends, filming them inside and outside of their school. Not only do we meet Gaëlle’s working class parents, who fear that an art school education may not offer their daughter any economical perspective. A completely different relationship exists between the cynical clown Alex, who is a bassplayer in his father’s rowdy pub rock band. Alex’s father, a believer in the principles of anti-authoritarian upbringing, gets violently frustrated when he sees how his son’s school results are beginning to deteriorate — even to the point where Alex may not pass his exams.

If documentaries are defined by a full commitment to realism, We Did it on a Song doesn’t pass the test. But it does when we define documentaries by their honesty and truthfulness. Truthfulness can be found everywhere in André’s film. It’s found in the natural and lively interaction among this tight-knit group of adolescents, and it’s found in their more complex interactions with parents and teachers. But above all truthfulness and honesty are found in the songs. The lyrics to these songs were writtten by the adolescents, who took the opportunity to express their teenage angst in personal lyrics that are both simple and effective. The songs deal with big questions: who am I, what are my dreams and expectations, what do I want to do with my life? Questions that even adults may find difficult to answer honestly. The songs and lyrics offer the viewer a glimpse in the minds of the protagonists.

The technical setup of these musical numbers may not be the stuff that documentaries are made of. The feelings expressed in these songs are, however, a direct result of the process of making this documentary. A documentary that is at the same time entertaining, touching, funny and profound. On a different note: Gaëlle might be a star in the making. The camera doesn’t just love her, it adores her.

Edited by Michael Pattison