On Sunday the 13th of February 2005 at the National Gallery of Canada, Pegi Nicol—Something Dancing About Her received its world première. The screening was timed to coincide with the opening of an exhibition of paintings by Pegi Nicol MacLeod at the Carleton University Art Gallery, curated by Laura Brandon, who was also launching the publication of her biography of the painter. Michael Ostroff, an Ottawa filmmaker, directed the film, which is a National Film Board production. In spite of limited publicity, it played to a packed house and received a standing ovation. A second screening at Carleton University a few weeks later also packed the house. Who is Pegi Nicol MacLeod, some of us might ask? But more to the moment, who is Michael Ostroff?
Born in 1950 in Montreal, Michael studied history and political science at Sir George Williams University, now part of Concordia. By also taking a film course, he was able to make his first short, the quality of which got him into York University for a special two-year program. In those days York’s distinguished faculty included Jay Leyda and James Beveridge. “But the person that had the most influence on me,” Michael recalls, “was clearly Beveridge who had an infectious love of Canadian film. And in 1971, you could count the number of filmmakers on your two hands. Goin’ Down the Road had just opened and everybody was thrilled. Could we actually make films in Canada? Is this now a possibility?”
From the outset, Michael knew that he wanted to make political films. In 1973, he began a three year stint at Crawley Films in Ottawa, after which he moved to Ireland where he found a dynamic artistic community which included Neil Jordan and Jim Sheridan who were about to make their first films. This sense of community provided Michael with a model for what he wanted to achieve when he returned to Ottawa. He found it, in part, through making advocacy videos for councils and unions, most consistently for the Canadian Union of Postal Workers. Not only did these works keep the wolf from the door but they allowed him to hone his skills as a filmmaker, gradually developing a distinctly Ostroffian style. While the elements of this style all operate simultaneously in most of the films, four recurring strategies of Ostroff can be singled out for special investigation.
First off, Ostroff’s films are all about communities. Wakefield Mill (1984), made for the National Capital Commission, is about the rise and fall of two 19th century entrepreneurs who achieved enormous success in a farming and logging community just north of Ottawa before they were brought down by changing economic times. Like City of Gold (1957), Wakefield Mill consists largely of still photographs, all of them hand-tinted, plus archival footage of early pioneer days that Michael knew about through working at Crawley’s. Helped by the music of Ian Tamblyn, the film beautifully evokes the 19th century’s faith in the value of local enterprise before big city take-overs rendered infeasible such individual initiatives.
Similarly in By the Skin of our Teeth (1980), at that time working for the Ottawa Tenants Council with Brenda Longfellow as narrating presence, Ostroff explores the community of single moms trying to raise their children on the pittance provided by mothers’ allowance. One especially sad young mother of four confesses that she was reduced to fraud, simply to have money to buy her kids Christmas presents. Although a simple piece and highly dependent on talking heads, the film was enormously successful.
“ By the Skin of our Teeth was very effective, Michael remembers, “because the interviews managed to capture some of the emotion of the women. It was a static piece because it was a very early video production and in those days the cameras were so primitive and the editing facilities even worse. Cutaways were virtually impossible. But despite all those technical problems, it did very well. It was picked up by DEC [Development Education Centre] and there were screenings all across the country.”
Secondly, the films all possess a dialogic structure. Different elements in the films speak to one another in dramatic, sometimes conflicting ways. For instance, in Basic Rights (2000), Ostroff explores the community of rural postal workers, most of them female, and their mistreatment by Canada Post who designated them free-lance entrepreneurs so they were not allowed to unionize, receive benefits, or charge expenses. For this film, Ostroff devised an ingenious system of radios and wireless mikes, which allowed the crew to shoot from a separate automobile while interviewing the subjects as they went about their work. This film is not at all static! We both hear their grievances and see the beautiful landscapes of the Maritimes, Quebec and Manitoba. These images dialogue with written statistics of their economic plight and the rush of expenses at the gas pumps as they fill up their tanks.
Thirdly, more often than not, there is a metaphoric resonance to cutaways. As Ostroff notes, “The context is absolutely crucial in all the stuff I do. I really try to bring in some images or ideas that will get people to think beyond the narrowness of the story.”
In Bridging the River of Silence (1991), a finely evocative film about Renfrew County’s response to wife abuse, dexterously captured by the unobtrusive camera of Joan Hutton, there are recurring shots that might suggest domestic bliss—a windmill, a cat, an abandoned stove. These images, however, contrast forcefully with the stories told by the women of the violence they suffer from their (generally drunken) men. There are also repeated shots of a communications tower, suggesting a world in which, within these marriages, communication has broken down.
Undoubtedly, the finest of all the union films is Many Rivers to Cross (1999). Taking two years to make and lasting 95 minutes, it registers the protracted and most dramatic negotiations between the Canadian Union of Postal Workers and the up-tight bureaucrats representing Canada Post. The film is blessed by the presence of Philippe Arbour, the pony-tailed chief negotiator for the union who possesses the magnetic characteristics of a star.
All the union people dress casually and seem to be having fun, as if to relieve the tension of the on-going negotiations, unlike the bureaucrats who never smile in their suits and ties. There is a wonderful scene of the workers demonstrating outside in Hull where the negotiations are taking place. Across the river we see the parliament buildings, which, of course, represent the site of ultimate authority.
River imagery recurs throughout the film, providing a context for the negotiations taking place. Not only do the postal workers talk, metaphorically, of having to cross a river; but also throughout this film there are cutaways of the mighty Ottawa River with water surging through a variety of dams. These recurring shots suggest both power and protection—keeping the two sides separate from the one another.
Unfortunately, because of complicated legal negotiations, the film never received the exposure it deserves; but it is— amazingly, considering the subject matter—a film of Shakespearean proportions. It changes the way we think about such supposedly utilitarian films.
Finally, the fourth strategy concerns the collage of dissolves which often appear at the opening of Ostroff’s films. Traditionally, dissolves accelerate time but Ostroff uses them knowingly to suggest a poetic fusion of elements to come: “I like to have something at the beginning that says to the audience that this video is really different. There’s a certain level of thought that’s gone into this production and I’m hoping that you bring a certain level to it as well. … Most of the bigger pieces have something at the front, some kind of preface that tries to shape the entire documentary.” These sequences serve as little fan-fares that warn the viewers that they have to stay awake.
Of course there are other films and other stylistic strategies, including Michael’s ability to combine the immediacy of cinéma vérité with the authority of more formal strategies. But let’s consider Ostroff’s more public films, which reach less inwards to the local politics of advocacy groups than outwards to the more public politics of the production of art.
The Public Films
Designed for television, Speaking of Movies (1994) is a tribute to the pioneering work of Gordon Sparling. Brought back from New York to work for Associated Screen News (ASN) in Montreal in the 1930s, Sparling had one overwhelming desire: he wanted to establish a Canadian feature film industry. This was not to be; but working through ASN, he managed to produce a number of Screen Cameos — ten-to 20-minute shorts which represented the only creative filmmaking in Canada at that time.
Already in his 90s at the time of Ostroff’s documentary, Sparling is first seen operating the clapper board for the beginning of the film, after which the opening credits ape the style of Sparling’s cameos, including the sound-track for Rhapsody in Two Languages (1934). Throughout this tribute, there is everywhere a dialogue between the past and the present, with Sparling watching his cameos on a television monitor.
Featuring the orchestra of Horace Lapp, Music from the Stars (1938), is offered as Canada’s first Musical; and Shadow River (1933), based in part on a poem by the Métis writer, Pauline Johnson, intercuts night-club scenes of British-speaking sophisticates with strikingly beautiful representations of the Canadian landscape as one of the women recites the poem. Corny though these films may seem today, they do register an achievement for their time and, then as now, encounter an ultimate blockage.
“You can see in Music from the Stars,” Michael explains, “when they finally got a sound stage in Montreal, the shooting is black-&-white glorious. You could see that with the crew he had around him, Sparling could have produced a feature film. They may have had difficulty with the talent, with the acting; but technically they had the ability to do it. But certainly his career aspirations were limited by the cultural domination of the Americans.”
Had Sparling got his way during this time of the Great Depression, he would have created an escapist cinema of entertainment in the manner of Busby Berkeley. Nevertheless, as Laurier LaPierre assures us in the commentary, the work of Gordon Sparling represented “a step forward to Canadian Nationhood.”
Budge: The One True Happiness of F.R. “Budge” Crawley (2002) was also designed for television. To stunning effect, Ostroff begins this film with the crucial sequence taken from The Man Who Skied Down Everest (1975) in which a Japanese athlete attempts to ski down the highest mountain in the world. He failed, of course, and slid most of the way, which is why the Japanese didn’t care to finish the film. But Budge purchased the footage, let his wife, Judith Crawley, write it and managed to win an Academy Award at which, during his acceptance speech, he thanked nobody! “A sort of grand fiasco,” Don Franks explains in the commentary, “that was Budge—a crafty opportunist to some, a mischievous hero to others, striving to create a Canadian cinema with almost no acclaim. But the Everest film gained him the first Academy Award for a Canadian feature-length film.”
With many testimonials from the people who worked with him, Ostroff superimposes shots of Budge and his crew over scenes of the projects being filmed, once again relating the present to the past. Yet for all his aspirations and certainly his courage, Budge’s most ambitious projects were, in fact, fiascos. He less skied through the industry he helped to create than slid through it.
Prior to Budge, Sound Venture Productions in Ottawa had commissioned Canvas of War: The Art of World War Two (2000). The challenge for Michael with this film was to organize the presentation of a lot of different artists. He invited Seaton Findlay to help him: “Seaton and I worked on it to try to find a story because there was no story. There was hardly any thread to connect one artist to the other except for the fact that they were young Canadian artists going over to portray the war.”
They adopted basically a chronological sequence, linked to the different stages of the European war, but with a cunning procedure: the different stages of the conflict were punctuated by intertitles, as Ostroff had done before; but the printed words anticipate statements that the various interviewees will use, thus linking the characters to the titles in, arguably, a musical manner.
Many artists are interviewed and others evoked, including Pegi Nicol. Molly and Bruno Bobak are the most eloquent, both speaking with elegance and wit. Paradoxically, as one might say of the paintings themselves, the film is beautiful both in its visual style and through its sensitivity to its subject matter. After his film on Budge, Michael was to return to the subject of paintings—this time dealing with a little known Ottawa painter, Pegi Nicol MacLeod.
Five years in the making, Pegi Nicol— Something Dancing About Her represents the culmination of everything that Michael has achieved so far. Pegi Nicol tells the story of an artist, as both the Sparling and the Crawley films had done, but with all the stylistic strategies that had so animated the advocacy films. The Bobaks actually put him onto the project, especially Molly, who even found money for the initial research.
Having access to Laura Brandon’s papers, Michael devised a series of chapters which enabled him to search for the most appropriate images. “Because I had access to the transcripts and the letters,” he comments, “I had a list of scenes in my mind of what could be used in terms of the transcripts and the letters. But in terms of matching the images with the text, that’s the whole basis of this style of filmmaking.”
Indeed, the precise matching of image and comment is one of the film’s great accomplishments. When we hear her writing to her friend Marian about her abortion, we have a shot of a woman walking through a blustering day, a black hat pulled over her eyes; and when Pegi is sent out to British Columbia to paint the natives, as we hear her explaining that they didn’t like the white invaders, there is an accusational shot of a native woman walking past the camera. And as part of the opening montage, we see a vat of red paint being pulled into the screen, the toxicity from which will eventually kill her.
Initially planned to contain dramatic re-enactments, when the budget couldn’t afford them, Michael personally re-wrote the script to deal with the absence. This proved to be an inspired decision, bestowing on the film a ghostly dimension. As we see photographs and hear voices, always in dialogue with the paintings and aided at times by the haunting music of Ian Tamblyn, we get a strong sense of the presence of Pegi’s life and work even though, in terms of moving images or of her actual voice, she is absent from the film.
Finally, the film gains additional authority by its serial construction. An image is established within a particular context and then after a time, it appears again, within a different context. Then again and then again, as the contexts shift and change. These recurring images— whether photographs or paintings—act like leitmotifs in music, doubly important for this painter’s work which in itself is musical in design. These recapitulations guide the spectator’s journey through this presentation, in black-&-white and colour, of the life of Pegi Nicol and of her search for a community that would receive her art.
Although modest in range, at the level of craft, the films of Michael Ostroff represent an extraordinary achievement. His early work brings to his utilitarian subjects not only the authenticity of lived lives, but also the authority of poetry. His later films, more poetic in their subject matter, often display a musical organization which contests the historical simplicities of linear narrative. And they are all about communities and the search for communities: the communities of unions in the advocacy films, searching for the wider community of social justice; the community of artists in the public films, searching for the wider community of social acceptance—indeed, like Ostroff himself.
Because these quests parallel what many people experience in their day-to-day lives, the films of Michael Ostroff achieve a universal appeal. They ought to be better known.