The Long And The Tall Of It
by Gerald Saul

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 performers.

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 emulsion.

Gerald Saul 2005