I got a sneak preview of Dianne Ouellette's new film, Sisters and, as
with all of her films, I was very impressed. She used images and sound
collected over two years to create this 18 minute document of her
relationship with her younger sister, Allison. Ouellette presents a
vision, torn from half remembered dreams, woven together to present
memories and even, at times, to simulate memory itself.
Much of Sisters is filmed in a loose, home-movie-like style. The camera
is usually hand-held with the subjects appearing to be unrehearsed but
aware of the camera. This approach re-enforces a feeling that the film
is honest, that the pictures before us are of real people. By allowing
her subjects to directly face and address the camera, Ouellette
succeeds in convincing us that they are neither professional actors nor
are they trying to be. By separating them from the usual dramatic
model, we as viewers can only conclude that the scenes depicted must be
of real life.
One aspect of the film which stops us from viewing Sisters as merely a
collection of random home movies is the controlling force of Ouellette
herself. Voices on the soundtrack are not purely random but are often
directed. When we hear Ouellette ask her sister to "tell me a secret",
it becomes obvious that there is a specific secret she is fishing for.
When her agenda does not unfold naturally, Ouellette confronts her
sister, revealing the secret herself.
The hunt for the known is depicted visually as well. In one early
scene, the hand-held camera seems to be stalking an old house, creeping
around until the occupied front porch is revealed. Such segments
contain a yearning to share the mystery and the magic of these places.
To show and to tell is not enough. Cinematic devices are necessary to
convey the memory of the place rather than just the place.
Ouellette often uses the optical printer to step print her images,
slowing them down or even temporarily freezing them. In Sisters this
technique is most often employed on scenes of happiness and freedom.
These are the memories which linger, which happen very quickly but are
thought back upon in such detail and with such fondness that the
moments are trapped in time.
Hours of tapes were recorded for this film, some of which being done
without the subjects' knowledge. Children are heard singing, laughing,
and playing. In one case, we hear the voice of an older woman as she
suddenly realizes that the tape was rolling. She is genuinely
surprised. This "audio-verite" approach is not used to trick people
into revealing the secrets that Ouellette claims to be seeking, but
rather it is a way to collect naturalistic dialogue from untrained
Images, like memories, are not always distinct. Some scenes are stark
in both picture and sound. Dialogue occasionally drifts into moments of
triviality which are beyond the spectators' ability to contextualize
and find meaning in. Similarly, some images are overprinted, burning
out details into the void of white.
The imagery in Sisters takes us on a journey, but the destination is
not a "where" but rather a "when". Time is distorted, with roadside
views whirling by so rapidly that it seems like we are fast forwarding
through our minds. Back and forth through time, the film leads us from
event to event without landmarks. The two sisters do not even have the
courtesy to age so as to give us a chronology of events. There is no
linearity of memory. Our thoughts, as well are our family
relationships, exist outside of time.
A visually stunning scene which intercuts kids dancing in a circle with
a merry-go-round does little to expand the film as a documentary. It is
a flickering fragment of background justifiable only as an enhancement
to the emotional context of the film. This scene reminds us that, while
Ouellette is primarily using this film to express her feelings for, and
history with, her sister, it is also very much a film rather than a
book or poem or video. Ouellette's work is deeply rooted in formalism.
She seems to delight in breaking down the 24 frames-per-second filmic
image and exploring its limitations. This formalist aspect is never
forefronted but always lurks behind the Ouellette imagery.
At one point, the two sisters are sticking their tongues out at the
camera. The soundtrack contains the two of them commenting on how
disgusting this is to watch. They seem to be talking while watching the
film, foregrounding the watching process, as if they are sitting on the
couch as the home movie is playing. The spectator is drawn into
participating with the sisters in this viewing/remembering process.
One recurring scene shows Allison standing between the beach and the
town, pointing and talking. We hear her voice as she tells stories over
the scene. The stories were interesting and humorous, such as the one
about when they saw the actor Kiefer Sutherland at the Science Centre
in Regina but did not want to make a fuss. As with the rest of the
film, the lips and the words are out of sync. When the scene is
returned to, but with a different story, I began to wonder if the
specific story was relevant at all. The words seemed to be
inconsequential, the value of the scene is in the memory of the telling
of a story, any story. It felt like one of those perfect moments that
memory can never truly capture but that is relived indefinitely.
Another recurring scene takes place on the beach. This is the most self
conscious attempt to recapture childhood, or at least that childhood
remembered through "real" home movies. It was the last footage shot for
Sisters, taken on one of the series of trips Dianne took with Allison
around Canada and Europe. The final shot of the film is of the two
sisters happily standing together on this beach. They seem, perhaps for
the first time in the film, to be really close. Ouellette's films are
her beach, the place where she can be publicly revealing.
Voice and image seem to be tied closer together as the film progresses.
For example, as the voice of aunt Lillian says "you're leaving" the
accompanying shot is a viewpoint from the car as it pulls away from the
aunt's house. This may imply a certain finality to the film, and
perhaps even from this approach to filmmaking for Ouellette herself.
Her next project, being more dramatic in structure, will certainly be a
departure, a corner turned in the grand journey that is art and life.
As the most prominent images of Ouellette depict her holding a camera,
she remains the off-screen filmmaker, even when on-screen. This is who
she is. Just as the figure on the beach is buried to the neck, a face
framed by nothing but the abstract patterns emerging from the grains of
sand, Ouellette's identity is actualized only in the grain of the film