Focus on Festivals

Hot Docs 2013: Spring & Arnaud

Artists and doc subjects Spring Hurlbut (left) and Arnaud Maggs. / Both images courtesy Site Media Inc.

When Spring Hurlbut met Arnaud Maggs, she was 35 and he was 60. She knew throughout their subsequent 26-year relationship that in all likelihood she would survive him, and this knowledge would in many ways fuel her lifelong fascination and artistic exploration into the ephemerality of life. “I’m very compelled by the two extremes,” she says in the haunting opening sequence of Spring & Arnaud. “How life comes into the world and then I’m very compelled by how we exit the world. I think that I’m just swinging in between those extremes.”

The documentary, produced by Toronto’s Site Media and which will premiere at Hot Docs 2013, follows the two esteemed Canadian artists during what turned out to be the final years of Maggs’s life. Over lattes at a local coffee joint in Toronto’s up-and-coming Junction neighbourhood, co-directors and producers Marcia Connolly and Katherine Knight and producer David Craig explained that while the fragility of Maggs’s condition was unbeknownst to them until shortly before he died, something told them it was now or never to make the film. “I remember interviewing them in their studio together for [a previous] film and something weird happened,” recalls Knight. “It was almost like I had this sense that time was really limited. And right from the very beginning we wrote ‘art, love, mortality’ in the very first draft of the proposal.”

The result is a powerfully romantic and deeply human story that transcends the standard notion of “artist documentary,” which, like the art world, is often passed off as elitist and inaccessible. While the film does examine a large portion of their individual bodies of work—his, mainly photo based and hers, more sculptural and incorporating found objects—the work is presented as an extension of their personal stories and not from the point of view of an observer looking in. “I think so many films about artists are from a perspective that makes them look like animals in a zoo,” says Craig. “There’s an intimacy and a perspective here that I think is refreshing. I think what makes Katherine and Marcia’s work attractive to an audience is that this is the world that they know.”

Having already established a reputation for crafting engaging documentaries about artists—the three previously collaborated on films about Canadian painter Wanda Koop and Inuit artist Annie Pootoogook, among others—in this case, Connolly had an even deeper connection to her subjects. They were her neighbours.

“I really wanted to do a film about two artists who are a couple, she explains. “I was a huge fan of Arnaud and Spring and I thought it would be interesting because as a filmmaker, the hardest thing to do is achieve a level of intimacy with your subjects. So I wasn’t starting from zero. I’d never made a film about anyone I knew before so I was excited to explore what that would be like.”

Also the primary cinematographer on the project (Knight did some filming), Connolly recorded most of the scenes with the artists alone, both in Canada and at their remote stone cottage in France. Maggs and Hurlbut are at times playful with the camera, but also remarkably candid and generous, suggesting a deep sense of comfort with the process, opening up about their age difference, their relationship and their personal connection to their work.

“They would say to both Katherine and [me], ‘We both trust you implicitly,’” says Connolly. “So you feel an incredible sense of responsibility to live up to that trust. And that inspires you—it’s like a call to action.”

Their trust in the filmmakers would be put to the ultimate test near the end of filming, after it was known that Maggs would soon die. “When we found out that Arnaud was terminally ill [with cancer], our editor, Jared Raab, said, ‘If you guys all know that he’s going to die, you have to ask him about that. The film can’t end with [the title card] Arnaud Maggs: 1926–2012, because that isn’t honouring the access that you did have, and that’s not honouring him. I think you need to do another interview with him.’”

So Connolly visited him at the hospital and recorded the final interview in audio only. “Arnaud expressed that his death would be harder for Spring than it would be for him,” Connolly remembers. “She would be left behind to deal with everything and he would just be gone. And I think for me that’s something that I really respected about Spring. If you think hypothetically, would you ever go out with someone who was 25 years older than you, most people would say no. And I think that Spring initially thought no, but she was brave enough to realise who he was and who they would be together. And then she got that for 26 years.”

Click here for POV’s full list of Hot Docs previews.

Screenings:
Mon, Apr 29 6:30 PM
TIFF Bell Lightbox 2

Wed, May 1 4:00 PM
TIFF Bell Lightbox 3

Sat, May 4 2:00 PM
TIFF Bell Lightbox 2

Sarah Keenlyside is a Toronto-based filmmaker. She’s currently developing her first one-hour project for Canadian television and will be participating in the Deal Maker program at Hot Docs.

View all articles by Sarah Keenlyside »