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Francine Desbiens

Overview of work

Francine Desbiens

Filmmaker Francine Desbiens’s name is associated with the paper cut-out technique, which she has used for a number of purposes, deriving from it a variety of graphic styles. Her work provides a cogent example of the potential of this simple technique, which has played a notable part in the history of animation films at the NFB.

<strong><em>E</em></strong> (1981). © NFB<strong><em>Variations on Ah! vous dirai-je, maman</em></strong> (1985). © NFB
E (1981). © NFBVariations on Ah! vous dirai-je, maman (1985). © NFB

A review of Desbiens’s filmography must necessarily start with Ah! vous dirai-je, maman/ Variations on Ah! vous dirai-je maman (1985), a highly successful and unusual short that has become a classic among animation films by women. This highly personal work was in fact part of a trend in filmmaking that developed in the 1970s, which focused on the illustration of individual experiences. Although Frank Film (1973) by the American directors Frank and Caroline Mouris is considered the landmark of the genre, it was undoubtedly due to the work of a series of women filmmakers that the trend began to be seen in more and more animation films.

<strong><em>Draw Me a Song</em></strong> (1990). © NFB<strong><em>My Child, My Land</em></strong> (1988). © NFB
Draw Me a Song (1990). © NFBMy Child, My Land (1988). © NFB

Desbiens’s film, based on family photographs, is largely autobiographical: it is the story of a woman we come to know only through the places where she has lived and the objects that have surrounded her. Devoid of dialogue or special effects, the story unfolds in an unadorned stream of images, in a cryptic manner that forces the viewer to concentrate on following the inexorable flow of life.

Close on the heels of this masterpiece came Dessine-moi une chanson/Draw Me a Song (1990), a companion piece to Ah! vous dirai-je maman. Here Desbiens leaves aside her own story, that of a mother raising her daughter alone, to focus on that of the musician Robert M. Lepage, showing the relationship between a father and his son. While her earlier film was supported and structured by the music of Mozart, in Dessine-moi une chanson it is the film that provides one of the possible interpretations of the music. The graphic approach, however, is more characteristically that of her paper cut-out works filmed on a single level. Here she reverts to a style similar to the one she developed for Dernier envol (1977) as a result of her collaboration with Bretislav Pojar (whose assistant she was for Balablok, 1972).

The rest of Francine Desbiens’s work springs mainly from a concern for education and human rights. This is as true of her first film, Les bibites de Chromagnon/The Little Men of Chromagnon (1971), an imaginative introduction to the colour scale, as it is of her last one, Mon enfant, ma terre/My Child, My Land (1998), a vivid and moving polemic on the responsibility of Western societies for the tragedies inflicted by antipersonnel land mines. This film is intensely emotional but the key to its success is that it engages the mind as well as the heart. The filmmaker proves herself a redoubtable dialectician, implacably demonstrating in just four minutes the moral blindness of the West. What is more, for this film, using animation software instead of paper cut-outs, she employs the new resources at her disposal quite brilliantly to sum up both war and the deployment of mines, making an individual tragedy into part of a collective one.

Voir le monde/To See the World (1992) and Le tournoi/The Tournament (1994), two earlier paper cut-out films in the “Droits au cœur/Rights from the Heart” series, also embody this humanitarian ethic. The former of these short films is a kind of handbook summing up the themes of the series, while Le tournoi tackles the subject of equal rights and being different through the story of a little deaf girl playing chess.

In all her work, Francine Desbiens continues the tradition of social consciousness started by John Grierson, a tradition that Norman McLaren and René Jodoin – her mentors, together with Bretislav Pojar – helped to make an essential element in the NFB’s animation films.

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