Lawrence Cote-Collins tracks her friend Billy’s conviction for murder and his lifelong struggle with mental health


Source: Visions du Reel


Dir/scr: Lawrence Cote-Collins. Canada, 2024. 108mins

Twenty years of a troubled existence pass before our eyes in Billy. Lawrence Cote-Collins’ deeply personal documentary relates the story of her friend Billy Poulin, his 2013 imprisonment for murder and the diagnosis of schizophrenia that became the key to understanding him. An energetic, inventive work is built around an extensive archive of Poulin’s own filmmaking, and should tempt festivals seeking challenging stories with a strong human connection.

 There is something of Boyhood in a film built around footage of Billy at different times over 20 years

Cote-Collins (the director of Ecartee (2016) and Bungalow (2022) met Poulin at Kino Montreal in 2008 and they subsequently worked together on the short No Pain, No Gain (2009). She ended contact with him after he assaulted her in 2010, but they reconnected years later, when he was in prison. At that time, Cote-Collins agreed to retrieve possessions that Poulin had left with a friend; these included a vast archive of cassettes, tapes and film that provided her with “a front row seat to Billy’s past”.

There is something of Boyhood in a film built around footage of Poulin at different times over 20 years. We first see him in 2002 as he speaks directly to camera, offering a pitiless summation of a life in which: “I have no friends. I smoke pot. I’m almost out of cash. I have nothing to do and I’m bored.” Exuding a manic energy, he treats the viewer as a friend and confidante, spilling out all his anxieties. He has a wild enthusiasm for making movies and telling stories, displaying a fondness for puppets, dolls, wigs and role playing. In a different life, he might have made a career from his passion.

Poulin’s own films are the heart of a dense documentary that is heavy with voice-over narration. Cote-Collins expands her focus to incorporate footage from the police interrogation at the time of Poulin’s arrest for two murders in 2012. (He was given a life sentence, with the possibility of a conditional release after 11 years.) She also includes fragments of her own story, telling of her alcoholic past, sobriety and decision to volunteer at prisons that eventually brought about the renewed contact with Poulin.

Cote-Collins echoes Poulin’s splintered, chaotic mind in the rush of the editing, the dynamic flow created by multiple cuts and the use of varied animation techniques, including stop-motion sequences, to convey emotional states. There are also excerpts from the endless pages of his diaries and notebooks that look like hieroglyphics.  It all makes for an exuberant, involving story that wants to understand Poulin rather than judge him. The film is dedicated to Poulin’s victims and Cote-Collins keeps the details of the murders to a minimum.  

The sharp focus remains on Poulin and his state of mind, leaving other key elements to one side. Poulin’s family cooperated in the film but are mostly off camera in brief excerpts of home movies from his childhood. The family perspective might, however, have proved valuable, and we are also left wanting more of Cote-Collins story and why her involvement with Poulin has meant so much to her. 

Poulin’s home movies, short films and rambling YouTube tirades reveal an exhausting personality delivering stream-of-consciousness rants to a world that offers him no comfort. At the time, they were both an attempt to make art from his life and a release for all the paranoia, disappointment and resentment building within him. Only in retrospect do they become cries for help – Poulin’s diagnosis of schizophrenia came once he was imprisoned.

The most satisfying aspect of this story is the way it ends, as Cote-Collins’ loyal support and proper medication help Poulin towards taking responsibility for his actions and starting to understand the illness that has defined his adult life.

Production companies: 9174-5018 Quebec Inc, LC2 Productions

International sales: Vuk Stojanovic.

Producers: Lawrence Cote-Collins, Vuk Stojanovic

Cinematography: Lawrence Cote-Collins, Sophie Lanctot, Benoit Rodrigue, Billy Poulin, Benoit Poulin, Josiane Lapointe, Pascal Brazeau, Sylvia Demarais

Editing: Josiane Lapointe, Alexandre Leblanc, Lawrence Cote-Collins

Music: Martin Roy, Luc Sicard