Crac
Crac

Director: Frédéric Back (Canada)
1982 Grand Prize Winner


Ottawa 82: Crac (Frédéric Back)
Essay by Patrick Mullen



Few filmmakers can say they’ve won an Oscar for their work, and even fewer of them have lost an eye for it, yet Canada’s Frédéric Back has the unique ability to make both claims. The late Québécois auteur won the 1982 Grand Prix at the Ottawa International Animation Festival for his wonderful film Crac. It was at this time that Back lost his right eye following complications that resulted from using fixatives in an unventilated room, but his loss is animation’s gain. Crac displays remarkable vision.


The first of Back’s films to win the OIAF Grand Prix, Crac stands as a hallmark of the animation to emerge from Maison Radio-Canada. The film endures as an even greater milestone in Quebecois cinema. It’s an elegiac story with its whimsical, warm, and affectionate portrait of rural Quebec, but the film remains ahead of its time with its potent allegory of environmental responsibility.


Crac witnesses the growth of a family in rural Quebec through the eyes of a single rocking chair that sees the landscape change in many forms. Crac is a true family tale, as the idea originated from an essay that Back’s 12-year-old daughter about a rocking chair for class. Her essay spawned her father’s six-year labour of love, for Crac brings to life approximately 7000 drawings of coloured pencil on sheets of frosted acetate drawn over the course of fifteen laborious months. The final work delivers the whimsical and elegiac storybook aesthetic that typifies Back’s animation.


Crac was originally commissioned as a film for children and critics often describe it as such, but this fifteen-minute short offers one of the strongest portraits of Quebec nationalism in Canadian film. The film charts the journey of the chair from the moment the Quebecker fells the wood of a wild cherry tree, which breaks with an anthropomorphic ‘Crac!’ that gives the film its name. The film celebrates the rural life from its opening frame as the music by Normand Roger triumphantly heralds the woodsman as he trounces through the woods and chops the tree while squirrels and a friendly deer observe the action. Crac certainly seems like a children’s film from its introduction, but as Back gives life to the chair within the growing family, the film delivers a powerful portrait of the strength of Quebec in a time of change. It’s a timely parable for the province in the days following its first sovereignty referendum.


The chair represents the heart and soul of Quebec culture as it lives as a constant fixture in the household, rocking back and forth with the family’s calico cat, as it witnesses the children grow and leave the countryside while industry encroaches on the land. The film astutely connects the evolution in technology with generational changes as the children alter their attitude towards the chair as trains, automobiles, and eventually the Canadian landscape’s worst predator—condominiums—ravage the idyll lifestyle in which the chair resides. The kids are rough with the chair and break it in aggressive behaviour that shatters the sense of community that Back establishes in the early scenes of dance and play. The chair flourishes even after the owner discards it, for it survives by giving rest to a weary security guard in a museum, as it silently brings the memory of its country to life.


The rocking chair provides a salient metaphor for the endurance of a Quebecois spirit that thrives as change refashions the country. It embodies a salt of the earth characteristic that forms the mythology of Quebec culture, and it offers one of Back’s most powerful signatories among his films that, although considered children’s work, frequently contain rich allegories for the futures of both the natural environment and Quebec.


Crac similarly evokes its setting, place, time, and spirit through Back’s stirringly impressionistic style that situates the viewers as members of the community, like neighbours watching the action through frosty windowpanes. Similarly, the colours of the film are a fluid palette that grows with the rousing fiddle music and celebratory hymns that drive the dialogue-free narrative. Like Quebec, Crac grows quiet for a period as the chair sits contemplatively, but springs to life again in its own revolution of colours and energy that thrives in the afterhours of the museum.


The snowy landscapes of Back’s work, as well as the propulsive traditional song that begins the film, create a strong sense of place that is specific, but the resonance of the film is universal. “The film’s appeal derives not so much from the handsome animation as the human warmth that permeates the story,” wrote Charles Soloman in the LA Times following the film’s success and Crac remains a significant milestone for bringing a tangibly Canadian story to an international audience. Back’s warm, elegiac approach to the story lets the film reverberate strongly with viewers across generations with its forward-looking nostalgia.


Proof of Crac’s appeal to Quebecois, Canadian, and international audiences lives in its sweeping tally of nearly two-dozen festival prizes and, on March 29, 1982, Back won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short and helped establish OIAF’s longstanding legacy of Oscar winners—a feat he would prove again in 1988 with The Man Who Planted Trees. Back almost didn’t make it to the ceremony, but he changed his mind at the last minute and accepted his award wearing the patch of a man truly dedicated to his craft. Like the spirit Crac evokes so beautifully, this gift from the poet of Canadian animation will endure for years to come.

 


Pat Mullen is a film blogger at Cinemablographer.com, contributor to POV Magazine and The Canadian Encyclopedia, and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.