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Filmmaker Marie-Julie Dallaire explores the power of music

Cinema grad reflects on her latest documentary Big Giant Wave and her roots at Concordia
September 15, 2021
By JP Karwacki, BA 11

Marie-Julie Dallaire on set with the violinist Director Marie-Julie Dallaire (right) with violinist Ezra Azmon on the set of Big Giant Wave.

To watch her latest film is to see some of the most deep-set qualities of award-winning Montreal filmmaker Marie-Julie Dallaire, BFA 92, play out on the screen. 

Big Giant Wave (2021) is an art documentary exploring the power of music and why it affects us so profoundly. From the rhythms of the natural world and sounds in the womb to tribal, symphonic and club music, the film examines our connection to music through ethnomusicology, spirituality, neuroscience, music therapy and through the eyes of artists themselves.

The film's imagery of musicians, crashing waves, thumping nightclubs and orchestras overlapping in a continuous, fluid motion were all shot in black and white in order to shine a spotlight on the film’s soundtrack.

“I try never to do the same thing twice. Some directors like to maintain a style, but for me, I always need a new kick,” says Dallaire. “My closest friends said Big Giant Wave looks like me. It’s funny, I was surprised by that comment, to see my personality reflected like that.” 

Canadian filmmaker Jean-Marc Vallée — who directed Dallas Buyers Club and Big Little Lies — serves as one of the film's executive producers.

'I'm always looking for the viewer to live an experience'

While often categorized as a documentary filmmaker, Dallaire began her film career studying fiction at Concordia’s Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema. From splicing film in the basement of the Visual Arts Building on René Lévesque Boulevard — then home of the cinema school — to enjoying a rare, one-time class under Quebec filmmaker André Forcier, Dallaire's experience in the Department of Film Production left its mark.

“For me, a documentary is a narrative piece of art in the same way as fiction. I want people to dive into my films and forget about whether it’s documentary or fiction,” she says. “I’m always looking for the viewer to live an experience.”

As a young filmmaker, Dallaire was among the directors of the collective fiction feature Cosmos (1996), which received the Cannes Film Festival’s Director’s Fortnight Award.

Eschewing the use of classic interviews and scientific explainer segments in Big Giant Wave, Dallaire instead opted for quotes and dialogue with a more atmospheric impact. “It’s more like lyrics in a song,” she says.

“I like to step back and let my characters forget about the crew. We don’t just shoot — we talk and make a connection with one another. They have their lives and I’m curious about them; this is what nourishes the film. Otherwise it’s cold,” she says.

Dallaire's controlled spontaneity doesn’t come without dedication. Just as Big Giant Wave took six years to complete, the director spent two years following Father Emmett “Pops” Johns, BA 74, LLD 97 — one year to research and another to film — for her 2006 film Notre Père (titled Father in English), winner of the Dworkin Foundation Award and nominated for a Prix Iris.

‘I’d go back if I could’

“It’s hard to know where it all comes from, but I know I learned a lot at Concordia,” Dallaire says. She’s grateful for the people she met who became friends, partners and colleagues, for her teachers, crews and access to equipment and expertise. “I’d go back if I could!”

Since graduating, Dallaire has worked as a writer and director in film, television and advertising. Her credits include directing the second unit on Denis Villeneuve’s 2016 Oscar-nominated sci-fi drama Arrival, as well as the Télé-Québec documentary series Un monde sans pitié, nominated for a Prix Gémaux (2010). As a young filmmaker, Dallaire was among the directors of the collective fiction feature Cosmos (1996), which received the Cannes Film Festival’s Director’s Fortnight Award.

Big Giant Wave premiered at Montreal’s International Festival of Films on Art and screened in English and French (Comme un vague) in cinemas across Quebec in spring 2021.

Where to watch Big Giant Wave

  • Limited release on Crave
  • Sudbury Cinefest: September 18 in person in Sudbury, Ont., and online within Canada from September 19 to 24
  • Festival les Percéides: September 21 in Percé, Que.
  • European release: October 2021

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