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Paying Attention: Antoine Bourges Discusses "Fail to Appear"

Talking to the Toronto-based director about working with non-actors, seeing people through institutions, and noticing the everyday.
After making a series of films set in or around Vancouver's Downtown Eastside (an area that blatantly externalizes the city's socioeconomic disparities), Paris-born, (now) Toronto-based filmmaker Antoine Bourges' turned his eye towards Canadian social institutions and support networks, particularly for those struggling with mental health issues or addiction. More specifically, he looked at their fundamental inadequacy—not through a feature-length exposé, but by observing the individuals that often bear the brunt of the cost. The film, Fail to Appear, charts the meeting of two such individuals: Isolde (Deragh Campbell), a well-meaning, but inexperienced social worker, and her client Eric (Nathan Roder), a man charged with theft and awaiting a court hearing, first introduced solely by a case file. Pointedly bifurcated to follow each character individually, the film structures itself around negative spaces, various gaps—in personal attention, social interaction, and institutional bureaucracy—and the incremental weight of what gets lost therein.
Fail to Appear is a considered expansion of Bourges’ approach in his previous film, East Hastings Pharmacy (2012)—retaining a similar documentary-like verisimilitude and use of non-actors—though it does trade in the compressed tension of that work for something more diffuse. Nonetheless, it’s an effort born of intelligence and boundless curiosity—a finely crafted web of disconnection that methodically explores the limits of control. Following its premiere in the Future//Present program of the 36th Vancouver International Film Festival, we had a chance to discuss the film with its director.

NOTEBOOK: Could you tell me about how the project came about?
ANTOINE BOURGES: It originated from when I lived near Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. I would often overhear case workers and their clients talking and discussing in coffee shops. I was very interested in these conversations they were having, because at first I couldn't quite identify the relationships between these people. It just became something that I found quite fascinating. There was this mix between people talking about things that are very deep and personal, things that you would maybe only tell a friend—and at the same time there was a weird sort of protocol behind it, something more normalized.
NOTEBOOK: Was your interest in making this film about an organization like MOSAIC [the organization for which Isolde works, in the film] specifically?
BOURGES: That organization is purely fictional. But I didn’t want to make a film about a specific support service agency. I was interested in how they worked, but I was more curious about the dynamics between a caseworker in those agencies and how they go from client to client and things like that.
NOTEBOOK: Did you ever want to make the film about a specific institution or organization, or did no existing one fit what you wanted for the film?
BOURGES: I wanted the film to be fundamentally about these two characters: a caseworker and the client or potential client. The institutions and organizations you see throughout the film are there because they happen to be in the way of the pair's crossing paths. I am very interested in the relationships between individuals and institutions and I think that’s there in the film, but the institutions aren’t really the main interest of the story.
NOTEBOOK: Which I suppose is why you chose to make the film a narrative as opposed to a documentary.
BOURGES: Definitely. The film is mainly a fiction. I have an interest in these institutions that is documentary-like. There’s something about the way people behave when they’re in a situation—like in a courtroom or in the office of a social worker—something that forces them to present their case or talk about their everyday suffering in a way that’s just a little bit more formal, more theatrical. Institutions restrain people in their speech, but at the same time, you can still sense the emotions that seep through the restraint. That’s what interests me: seeing people through institutions. That’s the recurrence in the work that I’ve done so far.
NOTEBOOK: Your previous film, East Hastings Pharmacy, is built mostly on interactions with non-actors playing themselves or versions of themselves. Was there something similar here? Where did you get inspiration, for example, for your two main characters, Eric and Isolde?
BOURGES: Isolde is a purely fictional character, but I spent a lot of time with various caseworkers, so she is a combination of some of the people I’ve met. But she’s also a way to facilitate access to a certain world that I was interested in representing. Eric is definitely a combination of specific people that I’ve met through talking to people in and around where I live in Toronto. Through different organizations, I met people with a history of mental health and listened to stories of their problems and dealings with these social institutions.
NOTEBOOK: How rigorously did you script the film in terms of dialogue? How much was improvised?
BOURGES: That depends on the specific scene. For a lot of the scenes with the non-actors, usually, we did some sort of semi-improvisation. The goal in those was to make the situation easy for the non-actors, to make them feel comfortable and allow them to share some of their insights about a scene. Often we’d create a situation—in our case, a workshop in a social worker agency—that I’d seen from research, but had never actually participated in. So to have the non-actors share their own experiences, or tell me how it actually works, or how they would intervene in a that setting, was very useful to me. When it came to some of the scenes with the caseworker, or the scenes that involved more narrative, those were fully written and scripted. The directing of performances was different, too. It was more about finding the right tone and pace.
NOTEBOOK: I wanted to ask specifically about the courtroom scene during which Isolde first sees Eric. Logistically, how did you shoot that? I’m not sure where it was shot, exactly.
BOURGES: I’m not sure I’m allowed to say precisely where, because I think there's something in the contract that doesn't allow me to, but it’s not super important. It’s just a courtroom in downtown Toronto that we got access to through our producer, Karen Harnisch. In this building, the courtrooms “belong” to the judges that work there, so all they required was for us to pay for security. The courtroom itself was free. As long as we proved that we were not making a commercial project—a commercial film or actual advertisement—then we could use it. So we just had to show that we were making a low-budget festival film.
NOTEBOOK: I wouldn’t have expected it to be so easy to get access to a courtroom.
BOURGES: Neither did we. We toyed with the idea of staging it or trying to find the set of an old TV show that had somehow left their courtroom intact, because we really didn’t think that it would be possible. But then we figured that we should just ask and so we were really pleasantly surprised.
NOTEBOOK: Did you shoot there over a short period of time?
BOURGES: Everything we did in that space was done over three days. There were some things we shot outside the courtroom—specifically, in the courthouse and the hallways. A lot of the difficulties working with non-actors is that you can’t necessarily have everyone free at the same time, because people have jobs. It’s not easy to have everyone come at 6AM sharp and do a whole twelve-hour shoot as you would on a regular film. We just didn’t have the budget to have people show up at that time and have that kind of a workflow. So we just needed more time, typically, to get what we wanted.
NOTEBOOK: How long did you conduct research on the film for?
BOURGES: All in all, probably a little over a year, a year-and-a-half, including just meeting people, following some caseworkers, going to court, seeing how the mental health court works, seeing the difference between a mental health court and a regular court. And also just meeting people that have the type of life that Eric has. It’s mainly getting access and finding people that takes time. Once you find people that are interested in helping you, the progression is a bit faster because you discover so many things and the subject itself is so rich.
NOTEBOOK: A really striking aspect of the film is its neatly bifurcated structure: the first half dedicated to Isolde, the latter half to Eric. Did you know that you wanted that progression from the start?
BOURGES: After acquiring this interest in the interactions between caseworkers and their clients, I could never quite access meetings between caseworkers and clients, because these are private. So my research mostly involved researching people separately. I would speak with people that were in the position of clients and people that were in the position of social workers. So the way the film formed was through separate portraits. As I wrote it, I liked how it evolved in my head: the idea that the caseworker’s portrait would be independent from the client’s and that when put together, neither would necessarily have a strong effect on the other—one wouldn't necessarily change the life of the other. The trick was to have their narratives cross, but for each to not have a strong effect on the narrative arc of the other. It was instinctual—just how I felt about the whole film.
NOTEBOOK: That’s really interesting, since I’d never considered that their meetings would, of course, be off-limits, so you’d have to research them separately.
BOURGES: It would have been possible to write the film so those elements were more combined. But, for me, it was about how you meet people over time, how you experience these meetings, the observations you make and how they shape the idea of a film. Another interesting thing was the documents that court workers and caseworkers handle when they deal with clients, and discovering that a caseworker often doesn’t meet a client before deciding to work with them. All they have to go on is a document. So you discover this character, Eric, through a referral form; he's present from the beginning without ever having been physically present. And it's the same thing with Isolde: Even though she’s absent in the second half of the film, hopefully her image stays there. Working with these kind of delays for the audience was something that interested me, formally.
NOTEBOOK: The film really does work around these structuring absences.
BOURGES: I found, too, that the documents, when you read them, don’t necessarily tell you that much about the characters. That’s what was interesting for me: that gap between how this person is described, the types of charges he has, his history, and the actual person you meet. It’s this gap between the text—the image—and the presence.
NOTEBOOK: Doubling back to Isolde’s character, was it a deliberate decision to make her someone new to social work? Was that just a way of giving the audience an easier entry point?
BOURGES: Part of it was the entry point, part of it was the idea of having someone who would be more guarded and who wouldn’t reveal as much. When case workers have more experience, they’re more able to act like a friend, like someone who’s quite close to a client. But at first—from what I’ve observed and what I’ve heard—there’s still a little bit of a distance because they don’t quite know how to find that boundary. And at the same time, because the job really requires connecting with people, because you want people to explain what their problems are, there's something difficult for this character to negotiate.
NOTEBOOK: Your previous films were all sort of set in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Are you interested in exploring the environment of Fail to Appear further?
BOURGES: I’ll always have this interest in people going through these kinds of systems—that will always stay with me. But I don’t know if my next film will be as close to that as these previous ones are. I might go a bit further. Really, what motivates me to make a film is curiosity about things that I pass by every day and don’t quite notice. Eventually, I start paying attention—and people, like these caseworkers, are an example of that. The next film will probably have a similar thrust, but won’t be specific to a particular institution.

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