First Stripes reveals how training designed to equalize recruits ends up reproducing a conservative set of norms.
This is an excerpt from the ebook The 2019 Canadian Cinema Yearbook, which also contains an in-depth interview with the film’s director, Jean-François Caissy, and the film’s editor, Mathieu Bouchard-Malo (who also edited Genèse and The Great Darkened Days).
First Stripes begins and ends with the same military graduation parade. A Steadicam shot marches along the ceremonial procession of solemn-looking army recruits, their movements stiff, their faces expressionless. But once the young men and women pass beyond the curtain separating them from their family and friends, their bodies take on a whole new shape. Plasticity returns to their limbs and emotion to their faces. This is where Jean-François Caissy’s verité documentary takes us: behind the curtain, behind external appearances, to follow a group of Québécois recruits to the Canadian armed forces through the 12-week basic training boot camp. The film reveals how training designed to equalize recruits is yet another machine that reproduces a conservative set of norms.
The contemporary Canadian military is distant from most Canadians’ lives. In contrast, stories about our southern neighbour’s armed forces inundate our popular culture, through movies, television shows, sporting events, and news broadcasts. Yet despite the efforts of the 2006–2015 Conservative government (and the directorial career of Paul Gross), pop culture provides few glimpses into the Canadian forces. That’s not surprising: the Canadian military has a budget over 30 times smaller than the United States’. First Stripes helps answer the mystery of how the Canadian military’s training compares to the extreme boot camp gauntlet often featured in American popular culture.FIRST STRIPES helps answer the mystery of how the Canadian military’s training compares to the extreme boot camp gauntlet often featured in American popular culture. Click To Tweet
Caissy undermines expectations by following the entire class of recruits as a group rather than focusing on specific individuals. His aesthetic strategy follows the military’s goal of de-individualizing, often framing recruits in identical medium close-ups. The editing also works to treat the recruits as fungible: when the class introduce themselves, the cutting speeds up and each of the subsequent five recruits receive shorter introductions. Each recruit identifies the military as a clear next step in their career path. Their reasons for choosing it range from the search for an honourable job, to a need of discipline, or a desire for adventure. It remains unclear throughout whether any of the trainees realize that they’re repeating the cliches of military propaganda. Do they really believe these to be their motives, or do they just not want to admit that they’re in desperate search of employment? Notably, these scenes are the last time the recruits appear relaxed, their eyes active and bodies animated. As the film progresses, we see the characters’ faces harden.
Many of the recruits state up-front that they’re pursuing military careers that won’t take them into war zones. This is in line with the way the Canadian military presents itself in television commercials, where recruits are shown using their technical military skills to help communities; the emphasis isn’t on combat. Yet war remains the overwhelming focus of basic training. For example, an officer shouts the goal of a drill “is to kill people or fucking get killed. That’s it. That’s all!” It’s a far cry from the optimistic peacekeeping image taught in Canadian schools and promoted internationally. War is, according to the recruitment ads, supposedly only a small part of what the Canadian military does. Yet the tradition of obedience in a war setting continues to dictate a training process where every aspect of the day is surveilled, centred on conforming recruits into a set norm.
This model of behaviour follows the stereotypical view of a traditional masculine soldier: stoic and physically strong. To create uniformity, male recruits have their heads shaved and their haircut inspected every morning. However, while female recruits are admonished for wearing any makeup, they can have shoulder length hair. The differences in hair illustrate how the military remains a highly gendered space where men can be the military’s ideal of interchangeable anonymity but women perpetually stand out through their differing hair styles and uniform cut. By propagating this masculine ideal, basic training ultimately entrenches patriarchal norms that make the army more welcoming to (certain types of) men.'By propagating the masculine ideal, basic training ultimately entrenches patriarchal norms that make the army more welcoming to (certain types of) men.'Click To Tweet
Caissy draws attention to the military’s gendered culture by filming all recruits in the same style of shot — so when men and women are treated differently, the differences stand out. At one point, Caissy cuts back and forth as one man and one woman each attend private debriefings with their commanding officer. The recruits are shot seated in a medium close-up while the officer is outside the frame, only his voice perceivable. If we only saw the woman’s debriefings, it would seem fair to read her treatment as standard military procedure. But when each debriefing is edited down to the same subject, there is a marked difference in how the male and female recruits are treated, both in tone and content.
For women to survive in the military, they must learn to conform to masculine norms while always being under suspicion as outsiders. In the debriefings, the officer is far friendlier with the men, acting as a sort of tough love older brother figure. He tells the man that though boot camp will be hard, “we’ll have fun, we’ll laugh”. The same officer tells the woman she needs to be careful about having the correct attitude after she replies to him with a “no” rather than “no, master corporal”. Later, he tells a woman complaining about sexist jokes (the Canadian military has a serious rape culture problem) that she needs to “grow a shell around yourself”. In comparison, he tells the male recruit that he may need to mature a bit, but such “jokes” are fine as long as they are not said to anyone who outranks you, nor repeated in public. Instead of perceiving such “jokes” as a problem, the commanding officer believes they are beneficial to making tougher soldiers — a logic that normalizes casual misogyny.Caissy draws attention to the military’s gendered culture by filming all recruits in the same style of shot — so when men and women are treated differently, the differences stand out.Click To Tweet
There is seemingly little space to change values in the military, because its inherently hierarchical structure inevitably reinforces the status quo. Recruits are trained never to question anything and, as an officer tells one male recruit, “one day you will play the same game” – those who get ahead do so because they thrive in the system. Notably, all the instructors we see or hear are men. Women are only present as recruits. The “skills for life” that the recruits learn include perpetuating patriarchal norms.
Tobias Lindholm’s A War is the rare fiction film to look at the systemic problems in the military: when a commanding officer breaks with procedure to save a colleague’s life, he ends up killing many civilians. The film follows this man through the aftermath of this decision as he stands trial for his actions. In ‘71, soldiers are considered by their superiors to be so interchangeable that they’re expendable, meaning the protagonist’s life is in danger when he, a British soldier, gets separated from his unit deep in IRA territory. Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper and Peter Berg’s exceedingly jingoistic Lone Survivor are stories of military men who see combat as another day at the office: they’re good at their jobs, and we see the painstaking discipline that goes into it. There’s almost no combat at all in Journey’s End, a film about the final few days of a British WWI troupe who are effectively waiting to die in an anticipated German attack: they work overtime to maintain a masculine, though no misogynistic, ideal to prevent themselves from being undone by their PTSD.
To read our interview with the director and editor of First Stripes, purchase a copy of The 2019 Canadian Cinema Yearbook here.
Get the ebook to take home the article & read more about First Stripes
Discover the best Canadian films of 2018 and 2019 through conversations with the filmmakers, guided by the Seventh Row editors in our inaugural annual book, The 2019 Canadian Cinema Yearbook.
The book also contains an interview with director Jean-François Caissy.