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Hot Docs Film Fest 2018: ‘First Stripes’ Lacks Scrutiny Towards Its Subject

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First Stripes
Directed by Jean-François Caissy
2018/Canada

I grew up thinking that my career path was set in stone. My father was in the Canadian Armed Forces, and so were several other family members. I grew up on military bases, so most friends I had were other “army brats.” It was natural that I thought my transition to adulthood would involve the military and going through Basic Training, but though I never did take that path, I always thought there was something to the idea of at least going through Basic Training. First Stripes gives a glimpse into the first steps of a career in the Canadian Armed Forces, taking a fly-on-the-wall approach to what goes on during that training — with deceptively few warts revealed.

It wouldn’t be too difficult to argue that First Stripes‘s largest issue is that it comes off more like propaganda and a recruitment tool than a severe look at the institutionalized way that the Canadian Armed Forces builds character. I know people who have not made it through Basic Training, and others who have but ultimately switched their career path because of its fairly rote structure. The largest problem with the documentary is that its subjects end up a homogeneous blob of employees. As they’re yelled at and taught the importance of keeping up appearances and not letting pressure get to them, most lose any real individuality.

First Stripes

The idea of the military as a form of character-building that teaches ethics has always been the allure for myself. First Stripes does convey that importance, but it also shows a few moments where you can’t help but question some of the more misogynist ideals. There are women who go through Basic Training, and one even comments on the rudeness of the other men in her platoon. Those comments are shirked off as “everyone’s just under stress,” which is a lazy way of dealing with something — especially during a time when the whole point is to build the foundations of someone’s character. The guys get to keep being rude and believe it’s okay, while the woman learns to forgive things that may not be forgivable.

Ultimately, that’s where First Stripes lost me. It doesn’t feel like there’s any point to it other than to show what goes on behind the scenes. There’s no critical eye by the director, Jean-François Caissy. A lack of scrutiny and potency in the filmmaking keeps it from being elevated to something important. It reinforced my decision to not join the military, but only because I knew more than the documentary was showing. First Stripes has no bite unless it’s to the benefit of the Canadian Armed Forces.

Hot Docs

The Hot Docs Film Festival takes place from Thursday, April 26 to May 6. Visit the official website for more info.

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2 comments

Tony May 6, 2018 at 8:00 am

Interesting review. One of your comments jumped out @ me: “As they’re yelled at and taught the importance of keeping up appearances and not letting pressure get to them, most lose any real individuality.” I haven’t seen the film, but could it be that one of the subtler messages it was trying to convey was the loss of individuality? I’ve served a little bit in the CF Reserves, and I think that as much as military training is to increase resliance and impose structure, part of it is also to develop “team over individual” orientation. How well that works in individual cases is certainly open to debate. Again, I didn’t watch the flick, but what do you think of that theory? Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

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Christopher Cross May 6, 2018 at 11:03 am

Thanks for reading and commenting!

I would tend to agree that that is part of the purpose of Basic Training. The film does also focus on team efforts (you screw up, everyone screws up) but I wouldn’t say the filmmaker was trying to convey any message on the loss of individuality. I think that’s partly because he doesn’t really lean positively or negatively on the topic, he just shows it and as an audience member that’s what I took from it. The film seemed too preoccupied with trying to focus on the positive aspects, and while the loss of individuality in this situation could be positive, the filmmaker doesn’t feel a need to convey that.

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