Ingrid Veninger is ready to take on the world at Hot Docs. The reputed “indie queen of Toronto filmmaking,” Veninger again proves herself one of the most consistently interesting and innovative voices in Canadian film with her seventh feature The World or Nothing (El mundo o nada). The film is Veninger’s first non-fiction movie as a director, although she’s no stranger to documentary having produced some of the most canonical docs in contemporary Canadian cinema, notably Picture of Light (1994) and Gambling, Gods, and LSD (2002), both directed by Peter Mettler.
Veninger’s DIY spirit caters itself well to non-fiction. Having created a singular style and aesthetic making films on a shoestring budget, Veninger’s “maplecore” approach to indie filmmaking shares an affinity with non-fiction film’s sense of curiosity, not to mention its spirit of collaboration and desire to share new experiences. Veninger’s films are often family affairs with her daughter Hallie performing in Modra (2010) and i am a good person/i am a bad person (2011) and son Jacob appearing in Only (2008) and The Animal Project (2013), while her husband John does sound work and essential additional tasks on various films. The World or Nothing, being a non-fiction film, doesn’t feature Veninger’s clan, but it’s a family affair through and through as the director intimately observes the lives of identical twins Rubert and Rubildo Donatien Dinza.
The brothers are Cuban ex-pats making a go of their dream in Barcelona. The twins are aspiring dancers and Veninger’s film follows the pursuit of their passion. They rehearse and perform on the streets of Barcelona by day and lead dance classes by night. Veninger observes as they record the videos and upload them to YouTube where they, like many others of the selfie generation, hope to make it big with a viral video. At once an intimate glimpse into the perilous opportunities of influencer culture and a spot-on portrait of the ineffable bond between twins (I’m a twin and I think the film nails it), The World or Nothing breathes with the brothers’ sense of infinite possibility. It’s a film about youth, and hope, and optimism, and that desire to take on the world when anything feels possible. Veninger often characterizes her work with the mantra that “nothing is impossible,” which makes her a triplet in spirit with the brothers.
POV sat down with Veninger at to discuss The World or Nothing at an eclectic java joint in Toronto (where this writer was thrilled to learn was the writing place for The Animal Project). Speaking on her first foray into non-fiction as a director, Veninger shares her love for the artisanal and embracing the creative challenges and opportunities the world has to offer.
POV: Pat Mullen
IV: Ingrid Veninger
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
POV: It’s been 16 years since the release of Gambling, Gods, and LSD, which you produced and Peter Mettler directed. Why a doc now?
IV: I worked with Peter Mettler on Picture of Light , Gambling Gods and LSD  and The End of Time . Mettler has always been a big influence for me, even in my fiction work. My background is performance and acting, so I’ve always gravitated to working with actors and I love writing. I think the reason I made this documentary right now was primarily because I’m doing my Master’s at York University and I had to engage with a different mode of filmmaking. I’ve never made something unscripted, even though my fiction work seems like it’s not scripted to some people.
POV: They really have a spontaneous style that lends itself to non-fiction process. Could you draw from the films you’ve done before or was this completely different?
IV: Similar and different. My work’s been rooted in a documentary aesthetic, which is also due to limitations in time and money. I like small, homegrown, homemade, handmade, artisanal, organic process-oriented films made by people like Cassavetes. I’ve always loved the direct cinema/cinema verité movement, and the work of the Maysles brothers and Wiseman’s films—I love the observational aesthetic. I just never really had an opportunity to practice it in such a focused way, but school does that. Laboratory work in school is process-oriented and even though my six previous fiction narratives have been scripted, they borrowed a lot from documentary in that my crews have been between two and five people, never more.
POV: An observational doc shot with a skeleton crew is true to the DIY spirit of your previous work.
IV: Even though this film was non-fiction with no script or plan or outline, it was edited in 33 days. I think my fiction background sets the limit of time I have, due to money and other factors, to do post [production]. I have two or four days to mix it and I have four days to grade it. That was no different for this documentary.
POV: How long in terms of production was the film overall? I understand you first met Rubert and Rubildo in 2015?
IV: My partner [John] and I hadn’t had a holiday or gone anywhere to rest and rejuvenate for 10 years, so we went to Cuba and spent New Year’s Eve there in 2015. We stayed in an all-inclusive resort and every night there were these extravaganzas. There was the aquatics night, dancers on stage, and these twins on New Year’s Eve were standouts. They were the best dancers. They were incredibly charismatic. That’s how it started. I was curious about them. I felt like they were ambitious and I wondered how they were navigating their careers in Cuba.
I also was getting ready to make Porcupine Lake in 2016 and I was going to come back to Toronto and start writing the final draft of that script and raise the money to shoot in the summer. For two years, I kept thinking about their story and I kept imagining different stories for them.
POV: Like what?
IV: I’ve always had an affinity for dancers. I was a dancer growing up, so that’s our first link. I was really curious about when they started dancing, where they learned to dance. Do they have lots of brothers and sisters that are dancers? Were their parents, artists, dancers? What are their dreams? I was curious about everything.
I made Porcupine Lake and then I applied to the Master’s. I had to write a thesis proposal and I thought of these twins and that I would like to go back to Cuba and make a film. I thought that was impossible and expensive and I had no idea if they would be remotely interested. But, for New Year’s Eve 2017, John and I went back to the same resort. They were not at the resort. I asked around to see if anyone had heard of them. Finally, we found that they were in Havana for two nights. We got a car on New Year’s Eve to take us from Holguin, which is on the west side of Cuba, to Havana, which was a 12-hour drive. I met them in a hotel lobby for two hours.
We actually made a little mini documentary of that trip. We made plans to return to Cuba in May 2018 and shoot the film, but in April, they moved, so we shot in Barcelona. We shot for 11 days. Before we started rolling, I had only met them for two hours.
POV: It’s so intimate, so I assumed you spent a lot of time with them. Barcelona plays such a good role in the film, too, especially with the locations where the brothers perform and record their dances. I’m thinking particularly of that scene on the boardwalk where they’re on both sides of a piece of glass and mirroring one another. How did you work with the brothers while they were shooting their videos? You said you started without a plan, so what was the shooting process?
IV: I learned where they lived and we got accommodations right around the corner. On the first day of shooting, our cinematographer, who was from Barcelona, met us with one camera, no lights, and a little rig for the long single shots. I knew I wanted to do observational-style long shots, stay out of the way, and let the brothers’ day unfold. Wherever they went in the city, we went. We’d shoot from nine or ten in the morning for about ten hours, and whatever they did in that day created the content. Halfway through the shoot, I felt like we should do some interviews because I never knew what they were saying when they were walking around. I asked them questions in English and they were translated by my cinematographer. I didn’t understand their answers and there was no translation of their answers. I just asked them questions based on their expressiveness and things I was curious about, but I couldn’t lift off their answers and ask the next question.
POV: What was the reason for that?
IV: I didn’t want to lead them or for it to feel contrived or manipulated. It was only halfway through the shoot that I began to understand what their answers were and at that point, I realized we had a feature. Prior to that I thought it could be a 10-minute short as part of a longer film. In a way, not understanding them kept me out of it. It would’ve been very hard not to start mapping out a narrative because I love writing. This prevented me from constructing. And because they didn’t know Barcelona, there was no expectation or desire to do or capture anything. They could completely lead the flow. They are performers and were comfortable with being on camera.
POV: How was it going back to school after working in film for 20 years? Have you had to rewire your brain to make a movie?
IV: It was fantastic to go to school and shake myself up, reset, and re-imagine. I don’t think I would have made this film had I not been in school. The temptation after Porcupine Lake was to move into managing a feature film with some episodic television and perhaps go slightly larger in scale in narrative fiction filmmaking. To go back to school and work in non-fiction is completely different at this point in my career.
POV: What about the directorial style between fiction and non-fiction?
IV: It’s so fascinating to look at this as a female filmmaker. There’s greater gender parity in documentary than in fiction and the approach to directing in non-fiction is to relinquish control. There’s a kind of humility or surrender. It’s not about the filmmaker; it’s about the subjects. That sensibility carries through every aspect while making the film, but also the marketing, the exhibition, the presentation. There’s a responsibility and there are greater ethical issues around representation. Everyone isn’t there to serve the artistic vision of the director. There’s the Godard quote, “If you want to make a documentary you should automatically go to the fiction, and if you want to nourish your fiction, you have to come back to reality.” I think that’s really true.
POV: I was sitting in on a conversation last night where some critics were discussing what makes a Canadian film. There was some complaint about Canadian films that don’t take place in Canada, but that conversation doesn’t really come up elsewhere. The Sisters Brothers is accepted immediately as a Canadian book because Patrick DeWitt wrote it. How do you feel about working abroad? Do you see the distinction between a Canadian film made here or elsewhere?
IV: I always thought the definition of “Canadian” is based on where the money comes from, the financing and the citizenship of the filmmaker. Deepa Mehta has been making films outside of Canada for years, and so have many fiction filmmakers. The sharing of different perspectives and the cross pollinating of views is so important. I’ve been asked why I make films that don’t feature strong female protagonist, like this one, which features men and He Hated Pigeons also featured men. Porcupine Lake featured two girls and Modra featured only a guy and a girl and The Animal Project is an ensemble of girls and guys. As a director, I wouldn’t want to be relegated to certain stories or, as a Canadian filmmaker, to have to direct in certain places. That feels restrictive and wrong and limiting, especially in this time where we want more freedom of expression.
POV: With this film especially, you had the spark for it while abroad. It’s still personal.
IV: I made The Animal Project in Toronto and that was the fourth feature I made here exclusively. It’s odd now because so many places that were personal to me in my daily life are now associated with the film. There is something beautiful about working elsewhere and expanding your world at the same time, making it more intimate.
POV: How did you find it filming characters who have such an innate intimate relationship? I’m a twin and I think the film totally nailed the dynamic, but I also found it so weird and alien because my brother and I are the exact opposite of the twins. We would never coordinate clothes or styles.
IV: There’s something about that intimacy and that strength of their “two-ness” and their dualism. They seem like they can conquer the world because they’ll always have each other’s backs and they’ll always be there for each other. They are like a single organism. I’ve always been interested in friendships or relationships when two separate individuals complement each other to the extent where they almost become a single organism. The way they move around each other, the way they wake up. There’s this unison that is so beautiful. It’s balletic. It’s poetic. I could watch how they interact with one another for hours. That’s why the shots ended up so long.
POV: How has social media shaped your work?
IV: I’ve recruited so many cast members and crewmembers through social media. For example, He Hated Pigeons, the film that was live scored in every festival, all the musicians were recruited through social media. I would say, “We’re screening in Nashville or New York, does anybody know a musician that might be interested in live scoring this film?” I would meet them on Facebook or Instagram or Twitter. We would private message each other, secure a time and place of the screening, agree on the honorarium and go.
For this film, I secured my cinematographer through social media by putting up a post on Facebook. I needed a parka when I was in Whitehorse, so someone loaned me one.
POV: Back up: Whitehorse?
IV: Before this film, I didn’t know what I was making for my thesis. I did all these workshops—in the last credit of the film, there are all these names saying, “Thank you to all the cast and crew that participated in workshops from September to March.” That was in Whitehorse, in Wilmington, North Carolina and in Toronto. It was to do more improvisation, performance art, or just exercising the unplanned and the uncertain. I worked with about 150 different actors doing over 25 workshops in preparation for this non-fiction film. That all came from social media.
POV: You’re teaching as well, correct? What advice are you giving your students? What’s the number one?
IV: Number one? Have an urgency and an involuntary hunch, impulse, urge, or instinct that you cannot eliminate. I really didn’t know how to make this film or even what I was making, but something else was driving it and that’s something to listen to. At the same time, practice, practice, practice. If you can gather with some people, some friends that you can align with visually or in terms of what you want to say, then do it. I don’t believe there can be too many films in the world. There’s so much access to making things and getting them out there that there are literally no excuses and it doesn’t have to take a lot of money to make a film.
POV: Would you ever want to follow the patterns of filmmakers like Jean-Marc Vallée or Denis Villeneuve, going from C.R.A.Z.Y. to Big Little Lies or from Incendies to Blade Runner?
IV: All kinds of things interest me. Different challenges and new experiences, new people, new places—I’m a junkie for that kind of thing. Bigger scale cranes, drones, a crew of 200…that filmmaking experience is incredibly exciting and I’ve worked on those scales of projects as an actor, so they’re not unfamiliar. I would love to lead that kind of an expedition or adventure, but they take long and I’m in Toronto. I’m not interested in relocating to the States and doing what that necessarily takes in terms of team management, agents, and all of that. If that came to me, I would love it and I think I could kick some serious ass on a larger scale or in television or making a web series. That might be part of someone else’s vision that I might step into.
I also really appreciate the artisanal and appreciate the analogy of a local farmer who harvests and brings their produce to markets and sells to a few hundred people. It’s completely independent and they work in their own way on their own time. I appreciate that so much. The ideal would be Agnès Varda. If I could go to 90 and have the kind of career that she had…She spoke about her films being on the margins and never really having a large audience, and never really making a lot of money, but she got to make films in her way and people saw them and appreciated them. She had a very specific brand and identity. An Agnès Varda film is an Agnès Varda film the same as a Herzog film is a Herzog film or a Cassavetes film is a Cassavetes film. Not that Cassavetes could not be a director for hire, but his films have his signature.
POV: It’s interesting to make that point after talking about the Blade Runner scale projects. If you look at the wide reaction to Varda’s death, she touched so many people in the film community over time. She didn’t have the one-shot reach of a blockbuster, but a more lasting, cumulative reach.
IV: It’s that longevity. When I think of women and film, we have Deepa Mehta, Léa Pool, and Patricia Rozema, filmmakers who started in the ’80s and are now coming up to their eighth or twelfth films. It’s going to be exciting to see filmmakers go to 20 or 30 films in 20 years. I want women to have that kind of canon, that body of work, where we can see a filmmaker grow through the films and see how identity is shaped by and through the work. We don’t have those models yet in our English Canadian film history.
POV: That came up when you started the film lab. I remember reading that you said you saw a lot of women make a great first feature and then disappear. Have things improved?
IV: If you think about how much emphasis there is on the discovery, you have filmmakers from web series or shorts deciding to make a feature. If that first feature does well, then there’s excitement. Sometimes even from the States or from Europe, especially if your films go to Berlin or Rotterdam or Locarno. For that second feature, the follow up, there’s excitement. And then for the third feature, everybody kind of falls away unless your second feature makes money, or if it makes a critical splash or gets into Cannes, Sundance, Berlin, TIFF, or Venice. For the third feature, you’re on your own again, so to get that juju to go on means you’ve got to have the fire.
My money has gone into every single film I’ve made. It’s not financially sustainable, so how do we keep going as women? That’s what the Punk Films Femme Lab came out of: doing it in isolation. You’re a start-up with every film; there’s so little momentum. It’s not like you can build on the last one because you’re back on the beach looking at the horizon. It’s a slightly different beach each time.
POV: And how does the view from the beach look today?
IV: My interest is in hybrid. More and more after making this film, I really want to combine all my skills in fiction and my love for non-fiction and work in more hybrid cinema.
POV: A bit like Denis Côté?
IV: What he’s been doing is totally inspiring for me. I think Variety said his last film defied categorization. If I can make films that defy categorization, I will be so happy. That’s what I want on my tombstone. “Ingrid Veninger: defied categorization.”
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Hot Docs runs April 25 to May 5. Please visit hotdocs.ca for more info.