Profiles

Bonnie Sherr Klein: Radical Icon

Named to the Order of Canada in 2013, Klein has created controversial activist films for over 40 years

Harmonie (1977) / courtesy Bonnie Sherr Klein

GETTING A FIRST LOOK AT MONTREAL in 1967 was, for Bonnie Sherr Klein, something akin to a star-struck young actor arriving in Hollywood with a suitcase full of dreams.

An American in love with Canadian documentaries, she had been dating young doctor Michael Klein for a few months when he was ordered to sign on for the Vietnam War. Michael decided he would go to jail rather than serve an unjust war, but Bonnie proffered another option: “‘You can got to jail if you want, but if you want to get married and move to Canada, I will.’ So that’s what we did.”

In Montreal, Bonnie would become a groundbreaking filmmaker, directing the classic Not a Love Story and other productions of the National Film Board’s feminist Studio D. She and other Studio D filmmakers were absorbed with the tumult of the moment, but collectively they were creating a vivid history of the second-wave women’s movement that challenged every assumption in the 1960s and ’70s.

Klein’s work would also result in Order of Canada honours earlier this year. She was surprised and thrilled that her country of choice “would honour a dissident artist like me.” After gathering her breath, though, she knew it was also an opportune moment to speak out about the rightward drift of the country, from foreign policy to cuts to vital services and culture. “Losing the public support for the arts, which is what I loved about Canada, is just scary,” she says. “I’m very sorry.”

Shameless: The Art of Disability (2005) / Photo by Rosamond Norbury, courtesy National Film Board of Canada

IF YOU WERE TO MAKE A DOCUMENTARY about the life of Bonnie Sherr Klein, you might begin with the old episodes of Dick Clark’s American Bandstand stored at L.A.’s Museum of Television and Radio. Look long enough at the ducktails and bobby socks and you’re bound to eventually glimpse a certain tall, dark-haired dancing teenager from West Philadelphia.

Klein grew up in West Philly in the 1940s and ’50s as the old Yiddish neighbourhood was turning black. “Black kids taught me to dance and play basketball. I went on American Bandstand,” she says. There was something else she learned from her black friends: the ugliness of American apartheid. So, just as the civil rights movement was getting under way in 1956, 15-year-old Bonnie Sherr stepped on to a bus and made the short trip to Baltimore where she joined a sit-in protesting a restaurant’s refusal to serve blacks. “It was a mixed group of blacks and whites and we sat at the lunch counter. It was exciting.”

Back in Philadelphia, she considered her future. Klein thought about rabbinical school, “but women couldn’t become a rabbi then,” so after graduating high school at 16 she studied teaching at New York’s Barnard College, then theatre at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Tech, then film at Stanford University.

It was a fine time to be undergoing a post-adolescent search for self. Besides the civil rights movement, there was the French New Wave and nuclear-disarmament protests, method actors and beat writers. “I wore all black for four years,” she says. “Poetry, jazz, intellectual stuff.” Klein was drawn to the arts, and depending upon when you met her those years, her main interest was acting, directing plays, dance, or literature. The movies, curiously enough, didn’t draw her interest until she had passed through those other arts. Studying theatre at Stanford in 1963, she needed an elective so she enrolled in the minuscule film programme. “In the basement of the theatre department was this tiny documentary department. It was a one-person department. We were shown lots of documentaries from the National Film Board—and I had never seen a documentary.”

She fell hard for the movies. “It pulled together my interest in teaching and in social change. I had found my thing.” Her first student short documented farm workers organizer Cesar Chavez’s first march on the state capital. The nearby Bay Area was at the heart of the New Left and the counterculture, and she threw herself into all of it, from free-speech rallies in Berkeley to stopping military trains in Oakland to “be-ins” in Golden Gate Park to the first Trips Festival in San Francisco’s Longshoreman’s Hall. (She was one of those who famously drank the punch spiked with LSD.) “Really all the stuff. But it was clear to me that my contribution was going to be in films.”

Legendary American documentary filmmaker George Stoney was a visiting professor during Klein’s last year. As socially conscious as any of the student radicals, he became Klein’s mentor and offered her a job working with him in Greenwich Village. Back on the east coast at the end of 1966, she was asked to join friends on a holiday excursion to the Virgin Islands. She met fellow traveller Michael Klein on New Year’s Eve. “We fell for each other.” A few months later, Vietnam dissenters Bonnie and Michael showed up in Canada during Expo 67 festivities. “Canada was exuberant and proud and alive. And there were all the filmmakers I love.”

Klein sent the NFB a copy of her student film For All My Students, about teaching in the black community. Hearing nothing back from the NFB, she went to its headquarters in Montreal. She was handed back her package, unopened. So the determined filmmaker took a stroll through NFB central, knocking on doors with familiar names on them, including producer John Kemeny, who offered her work on the spot. She stayed with the Challenge for Change programme, which Kemeny co-founded, for three years, starting with a series on that other Chicago community organizer, Saul Alinsky. Among the highlights of Klein’s Challenge for Change work was VTR St-Jacques, which foreshadowed the day when everyone would carry a camera phone. In the film, the accessible video tape recorder empowers a struggling neighbourhood. “The idea of VTR was that people could have their say with their voice heard and their image seen,” says Klein. “I think that’s the through line in all my work—to enable people, to give people the tools to express themselves.”

The art of Klein’s cinema would progress during her years at the NFB, from the talking-head shots in the Alinsky films to the striking imagery of Harmonie (about artistic creation in an idyllic summer camp). “I certainly unashamedly started out as a message-maker—the whole idea that the content of film is so important that aesthetics is less of a consideration,” she says. “Of course, that evolved. The aesthetic of film is integral to the message. I was lucky enough to be at the Film Board and supported by the best crews in the world. And film is collaborative.”

In 1970, Bonnie and Michael, with two young children in tow, relocated to Rochester, N.Y., for his work, and she started a community television program. After a few years, anxious to return to Montreal, she called the NFB. Her timing was impeccable—the Board had just started a women’s studio. “I knew [Studio D founder] Kathleen Shannon from Challenge for Change. She was brilliant and wise and she was alcoholic and difficult. But she was a mentor to a huge number of us. She was truly an inspiration.”

Everything, including gender revolution, was on the social agenda in the 1970s and Studio D was in the thick of it, unveiling women’s history and resistance through films such as Anne Claire Poirier’s They Called Us Les Filles du Roy and Anne Wheeler and Linda Rasmussen’s Great Grand Mother. Studio D would continue on through the 1980s and into the ’90s. Alongside Klein’s films were such renowned documentaries as Margaret Wescott’s Behind the Veil, Terry Nash’s If You Love This Planet, and Lynne Fernie and Aerlyn Weissman’s Forbidden Love. “Studio D was a total integration of film and the movement. We were inspired by and inspired the movement,” she recalls. “It was really heady. Intellectually it was incredibly stimulating. Every idea was a new idea. Discovering the patriarchy behind every corner. The whole movement about violence against women was unheard of. It was just a soup that was constantly bubbling.”

One of Studio D’s 1970s subjects, Patricia Gamer of Klein’s film Patricia’s Moving Picture, captured the era’s spirit of unstoppable progression when she discussed on-screen the experience of finding her inner feminist: “I feel much better, but when you feel better you want to feel better and better.”

Not A Love Story (1981) / courtesy Bonnie Sherr Klein

THERE IS AN EXCHANGE in Not a Love Story when the publisher of pornographic magazines tells his interviewer, Bonnie Sherr Klein: “The greatest turn-on for a man is to have a woman kneeling at his feet performing fellatio. Greatest turn-on.”

Says Klein: “Is that market research that tells you this?” Then she looks away, a combination of dismay and disgust.

The genesis of Not a Love Story was an encounter with racks of pornography at a Montreal convenience store. Klein wondered what her eight-year-old daughter Naomi “would make of it because she couldn’t miss it. This was a bright kid, a little girl.”

Not a Love Story dissects the pornography industry and its impact, featuring commentary by such feminist legends as Robin Morgan and Kate Millett, and talks with women who were directly involved, focusing on burlesque dancer Lindalee Tracey. It is a prime example of a film that inspired and was inspired by the movement of its day, playing a major role in establishing pornography as a feminist issue. When the film was released in 1981, it raised debate everywhere it screened and was widely seen, with runs at New York’s legendary 57th Street Theatre and a Montreal multiplex.

“A Film Board guy said it was undistributable at first, then he sold the rights to a company that distributed porn movies. We saw an ad for it in Washington, D.C., with porn movies. We forced the NFB to buy it back. In the year we distributed it, there was always someone crying in the restroom afterwards. People still tell me that this film changed their life—it caused them to leave a relationship or it changed their career.”

Klein had more issues to raise, turning to pacifist politics in Say Our Peace (co-directed with Terry Nash) and Mile Zero. It was during postproduction on Mile Zero in 1987 that Bonnie had a debilitating stroke. She spent months in hospitals and was quadriplegic for a time. Family and friends rallied to her and she worked her way back, eventually moving to the west coast and becoming active in the disabilities movement.

Activism was a big part of her recovery, starting with the KickstART! festival of disability arts. She wrote a memoir, Slow Dance (“a way of recovering memory and a way of thinking positive”), but missed the old film collaborations. “I stopped seeing myself as a filmmaker. I couldn’t imagine that I could make a film.” Still, people would often say that some day she’d make a film about all this.

“I said no to a lot of people. Another filmmaker wanted to make a film about me. I didn’t want [one] but [my feelings] gradually morphed.” she says. Klein’s Shameless: The Art of Disability (2005) celebrates the life histories of several disability artist activists. “I was excited by the idea and felt I was in a unique position to make this film—I was the only filmmaker with the disability. Nobody else would do it or could do it so it was something I should do. And the Film Board was incredibly supportive. It’s gently subversive. That’s what I love.”

Shameless’s producer at the NFB, Tracey Friesen, was drawn to the authenticity of a film by and about disability activists. “Bonnie’s an icon,” she says. “So to be able to work with her when she was making her return to filmmaking was an honour. She was a mentor, though I was working as a producer. Bonnie is a very collaborative director and really pulls the team around her into the creative process, and also is very clear on what she wants to do as an artist.”

The film played festivals from London to Havana, and is considered a benchmark piece by the disability community. Humourist David Roche was in the Shameless cast of disability activists: “Bonnie has the ability to make people very comfortable. She also has the ability to bring brilliant and creative people together. On that film, I fell in love with everybody. It felt like a family.”

Shameless: The Art of Disability (2005) / Photo by Tracey Friesen, courtesy National Film Board of Canada

KLEIN’S ACTUAL EXTENDED FAMILY lived the history of much of the North American left over the past century, from the Hollywood blacklist (Michael Klein’s father, Phil, was fired for his activism in the great Disney strike of 1941), to the CCF/NDP (in-law Stephen Lewis was Ontario party leader, his father David the federal leader), to protesting the Vietnam War (Michael and Bonnie), to the anti-globalization movement (daughter Naomi Klein’s No Logo and other writings are seminal works). Son Seth Klein, director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, says the activist tradition is a big part of Klein family lore. “For my sister Naomi and I, neither of us can remember a time when we didn’t know we really liked Walt Disney movies but also knew he was a bastard. It’s [activism] embedded in those family stories and intertwined with music and documentary and radio. Those stories create a certain expectation, a certain sense that one finds meaning and purpose in this work.”

Klein isn’t about to start up another film (“I don’t have one in mind”) but she is in pre-production on a project. “I want to talk about the idea of Virtual D,” she says, her voice rising excitedly about plans to create a multi-generational, interactive, contemporary re-imagining of Studio D. Besides making Studio D’s great catalogue available, the online Virtual D will feature writings and films about the studio, and new content from its feminist filmmaking descendants. “So many young, hip filmmakers have no idea that the government once gave funds to have women make films. We have a treasure trove of the history of the second wave. So I’m working with other people to help create Virtual D, a collaborative site that puts together some of the veteran women filmmakers with young generations of filmmakers.” (For further information on Virtual D write bonklein[at]gmail[dot]com.)

Studio D (and how it was funded) was in Klein’s thoughts after she was named to the Order of Canada. Virtual D ensures that this brilliant and passionate ensemble of Canadian filmmakers and their descendants will continue to touch audiences.

“I don’t think film is just about thought,” says Klein. “It’s about feeling and the way to get to feelings is visual and artistic. I think that what film can do is move your heart.”