Entrevue avec Melanie Shatzky & Brian M. Cassidy (« The Patron Saints »)

 Don’t miss the incredible film The Patron Saints, by Mélanie Shatzky and Brian M. Cassidy, presented in the Canadian Competition, today at 7:30 pm at the Cinémathèque!

What exactly is that nursing home where you shot the film, where both disabled people and old people live? How did you find it?

It’s primarily a nursing home, but they also care for people with developmental and mental disabilities. We never intended on making a film about the elderly. We happened upon the nursing home while shooting a short narrative film called The Delaware Project. We shot a couple of scenes in the nursing home for that film, but those scenes never made the final cut. A year after finishing The Delaware Project, we were thinking to ourselves that the nursing home was worthy of further examination. We felt there was a real richness and deep sense of humanity that we’d scarcely seen on film. With that in mind, we decided to head back and make a documentary.

How long did it take to prepare the shooting? Did you spend a lot of time there before you started shooting? How long was the shooting itself?

In total, we worked on the film for a period of 5 years. We were editing alongside the shooting, so the film began to take shape early on in the process.

Was it difficult to have all the authorizations to film in that place, and especially to film the people?

We were very fortunate that the administration, staff and families were very welcoming of our presence. When we were around, they felt that the residents were being paid attention to in a way that they hadn’t previously been. Unfortunately, a lot of the residents only receive occasional visits. Some residents are very fortunate and receive weekly or even daily visits. But then there are others that receive only one or two visitors per year. In a sense, our presence helped fill the gap.

Obtaining releases wasn’t too complicated.  For the residents of sound mind, we had them sign their own releases. And for residents that weren’t quite of sound mind, we asked their families to sign on their behalf.

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You probably had some ideas in mind at the beginning of the project. How did they change in front of this particular situation, those people who are impossible to control?

We really didn’t have any preconceived notions of the shape of the film before we started shooting. The only thing that really changed fairly early on was the narrator. We initially intended to cast the hairdresser as our narrator. She was in a unique position because she was the sole person responsible for making the residents feel beautiful, and she worked out of a storage room in the basement of the nursing home. We interviewed her extensively, but it eventually became clear that she was too camera shy to be our narrator.

How did you meet the « narrator », and when did he become the link between the scenes, as he is in the final film?

We met, Jim, our narrator, while we were shooting The Delaware Project, which was a couple of years before we started shooting The Patron Saints. From the get-go, we were kind of intimidated by him. We thought he was either a biker or part of the mafia. Once we got to know him, we discovered that he was the kindest, most empathetic, thoughtful and soulful human being. He, also, was in a unique position at the nursing home. He had had a stroke a few years before we started shooting, and half of his body was paralyzed. He needs around the clock care and is dependent on others for any kind of mobility. He’s only in his 50s and is completely lucid, and yet most of those around him are a generation or two older than him and are dealing with either Alzheimer’s or senility. Whereas others in the film are at the natural end of their lives, his life seems to have been prematurely aborted. He carries a lot of sadness with him, and gossiping about his fellow residents is his main source of light.

There is a lot of « mise-en-scène » in The Patron Saints. What directorial choices did you make, from an ethical point of view? 

There seems to be an unusual line of thought in how documentaries should be crafted…that somehow the more casually they are shot, the more truthful and ethically ‘correct’ they will be. We largely work from a place of intuition—a sense of what feels like the right choice to express how we feel about what we are seeing. Often our mise-en-scene decisions have to do with attempting to close the gap between viewer and subject…in other words, if a situation is uncomfortable for the subject within a scene, it ought to be uncomfortable for the viewer as well. Sometimes this is achieved through raw, direct observation, while other times it must be expressed through careful, reflective compositional/directorial choices.

How do you two work together, from the writing to the editing?

Our collaboration is pretty seamless. We’re a married couple and we’re inseparable. The basis of the collaboration is really a shared sensitivity to the world around us. We notice the same things, and want to see the same things on the screen. Collaborating, for us, doesn’t start and end when we’re working on a given project. We just have a shared vision.

The film is not a simple recording of the events taking place in the nursing home, but seems to be the expression of a larger picture… There is also a lot of humor (dark humor). According to you, what does that nursing home say about our lives?

We feel that the film shines a light on those that are otherwise ignored. Often, when we tell people about our film, people tell us that the subject matter is too uncomfortable for them to engage with. We feel the film is a confrontation for a lot of people. It forces them to confront their loved ones’ mortality, their own mortality, their sense of responsibility in the face of an extinguishing life…

Nobody listens to those people who do not communicate in a regular way, and yet they have incredible things to say. Are you particularly interested in marginal people and their relationship to the world, and in those questions they raise? 

We work on a lot of different projects together: photography, documentary and narrative films. With all of our projects, we’re really looking at people who are facing desperate circumstances in their own lives, and the creative ways they try to counter their own desperation.

You just shot Francine, a fiction. Was it a very different experience? Or do you consider it a similar way of making films?

The shooting schedule for Francine was only 21 days. It was a challenge—there was no time for rehearsals or revisions. We had to be on our toes at all times. It was really quite intense, but we felt that that intensity lent itself to the storytelling.

In the future, will you keep switching between fiction and documentary?

Yes.