Dominic Gagnon: a filmmaker who innovates and disturbs
by Fanie Pelletier
This retrospective view is dedicated to the innovative and disturbing works of a non-conformist filmmaker: Dominic Gagnon. His films, halfway between documentary and experimental found footage, are made up of material found on the Internet, on free content distribution platforms to be exact. And, he is interested in a rather new phenomenon: amateur videos in the age of new technologies. These videos, contemporary “home movies” if you will, are clips you can find all over YouTube. Someone records their day-to-day, looks at the camera and shares their perception of the world with the entire virtual community on the web. First, Gagnon appropriates this material and later organises it to create a sole documentary. No need for shooting. His works are based on hundreds of viewing hours, an impressive archive located on several hard drives, a painstaking process of narrowing down the selection of videos and organising these fragmented utterances to create one meaningful entity. By synthesising the many unique perceptions of the world, his films are a documentary portrait of Western society 2.0. These videos, at a glance, seemingly trivial, mundane and with no value whatsoever in the Internet jungle, turn into unprecedented cinematographic material and reveal underrated vestiges, valuable, nonetheless, in today’s society.
Gagnon first experiments with this approach in the film RIP in Pieces America (2009). In this film, he presents a video montage of amateur American Net users of all ages. All locked up at home alone, each person records themselves with a low-resolution camera (a webcam, in most cases), and speaks to “the world”. These little snippets of the USA show us paranoid and survivalist Americans who share great solitude, political disappointment and distrust in the Government. If RIP in Pieces America (2009) is essentially made up of men’s videos, Pieces and Love All to Hell (2011) shows us American women’s point of view, and Big Kiss Goodnight (2012) focuses on only one odd character who goes by the pseudonym, Joe Talk. Gagnon creates a fourth film with found footage called Hoax_Canular (2014) along the line of his three previous works. This time the protagonists were teenagers and the topic was the end of the world. With the combination of all these pieces put together by the filmmaker, a disturbing portrait of the United States of America emerges from the depths; an atomised society that feels the need to get up on a stage and give a show in order to scream to the world “I’m here! I exist!”. Gagnon is here to reveal to the world the clouded and hidden face of reality. It is not about saying as much as it is about showing something that escapes the immediate perception of this subculture. In contrast to many other found footage filmmakers, who propose a look into the past, Gagnon focuses on the present and future. He offers these Internet videos as future remains of the society 2.0., somewhat the ultimate Society of Spectacle. The filmmaker hits the target with these poor quality videos, unaesthetically pleasing which make us keep on watching and listening to the people who talk just like any ordinary person and make us start questioning. His films are disturbing, always on the edge of bearableness, but infuse us with unparalleled power.
In his last film Of the North (2016), Gagnon tackles an issue that challenges all notions of documentary and ethnographic cinema: without a camera and in remote, he portrays amateur videos from the Arctic, mainly from indigenous communities. With this version 2.0. of Nanook of the North by Flaherty, minus Nanook, great controversy arose in Quebec which, despite the critics, have given it a place in the history of filmmaking.
Gagnon is one of the first ones to notice the anthropologic value of this repository of amateur videos and to conceive the web as a new place of public life yet to explore. Through his computer – his camera – he can now dive into the core of this alternative space where the outcasts find refuge: “there where life is rich and paradoxical”, as he says. With the desire to create films freely and in a different way, Gagnon sees an unconventional alternative, one of the most present ways to observe life, document it and question it with an economy of means and middlemen. Using the web as both material and subject places emphasis on this ever more necessary challenge to reinvent and adapt documentary practice to the new social and technological reality. By trying to “make movies about people who record themselves”, Gagnon introduces a new branch of cinema that seeks freedom and seeks to break with the traditional documentaries of our time. His films put in the spotlight the technological and social upheaval that is occurring which isn’t very different to what emerged in cinema towards the end of the 50s. The complete reach of his works is not yet known, but the controversy and the censorship that surround it lead us to believe that it could be an avant-garde expression of an important change in paradigm in the way of approaching the documentary practice. And, this is why his work deserves to be exhibited more than ever.
“My anger protects me!” Sat in his car, with a long beard and dishevelled hair, Joetalk100 talks to the camera. He has just got out of prison. He has diabetes. He keeps drinking cold coffee and smoking ciggies. A product of Italian immigration to the United States, he makes videos in which he expresses his indignation at the country’s downward spiral. A pressure-cooker on the point of exploding, Joe talks, surrounded by comments which, like the chorus of a classic tragedy, accompany him towards his destiny. Someone writes to him: “Maybe you just need a hug”. Gagnon, curious and amused, observes his questioning. (Luciano Barisone)
A film built on lies, assuming the end of the world on 21 December 2012 as the greatest of them. Conquering fear by manufacturing scares: that’s what the teens in Hoax Canular do with their webcams, unleashing rumours of the end of the world. This work with amateur online videos is a profound reflection on how young people are appropriating the angst being stoked by the media. The material of Hoax Canular comes mostly from 70 hours of videos recorded simultaneously on a single night – the night before “the great apocalypse”.(Paolo Moretti)
By putting almost 500 hours of films, posted on YouTube by hundreds of amateur Inuit filmmakers, together into a coherent form, Gagnon creates an anti-exotic and rhythmic Vertovian “Kino-Eye”, including hunting scenes, drinking sprees, oil rigs, jam sessions, exhibitionism, snow-mobile races… without forgetting the polar bears. A whole form of trashy and unbridled acculturation is revealed in this visual and audio potlatch – through the Inuit languages, a sort of ‘musique concrète’ irrigating the sound score – which takes apart the existing clichés about this people, too often confined to the borders of the contemporary world. (Emmanuel Chicon).
A man appears onscreen, announcing the end of the patriarchy and the coming of the matriarchy in the United States. Immediately afterwards comes a parade of women. They are in distress. They are afraid. They evoke terrible images of the future. Like the men of RIP in Pieces America, they are haunted by paranoid fantasies and move quickly from smiling calm to visionary hysteria. With the second part of a series devoted to an invisible United States, Gagnon draws a portrait of the demons that perturb the anonymous American masses, somewhere between provocation and human solidarity. (Luciano Barisone)
A new world order, control systems, the financial markets, the collapse of the economy, survival, hatred of politics, the Bible and the Constitution, Christian fundamentalism, instructions for insurrection, rebel songs… Through blurred images, masked or disguised, angry men talk to the camera: they distrust their government, they are armed and they rant. This film is an overwhelming and unknown portrait of the United States, a subversive and wild walk that mixes old prejudices and new angers, suppressed fears and paranoid fantasies, wacky funny stories and lucid assessments of the future. (Luciano Barisone)