“Distances and differences keep us apart, and we often forget to remind each other of our own stories,” says Ann Marie Fleming in her 2003 film The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam, in which she dives into the past to learn about her great grandfather, a magician who performed under the name Long Tack Sam and created the family that populates the film.
The doc chronicles a history of performing arts in the West as Fleming examines the ways in which Long Tack Sam adapted to popular culture in order to survive. Resisting the entreaties of vaudeville and Hollywood might have erased him from the history books if not for this cinematic restoration. With photos and documents discovered under family beds, Fleming’s doc features a collage of stories shaped by the currents of war, fascism and official acts of exclusion that Long Tack Sam miraculously survived.
“Memory is a lot like magic,” Fleming continues as she returns to a photograph of Sam, with which she bookends the film. This time, however, she animates Long Tack Sam and revives his spirit: a nod to the legacy he leaves behind. The doc is a magic act in itself—Fleming draws on the potpourri of cultures that shape Long Tack Sam’s story, enlivening old photographs and creating bits of inspired animation when archives are absent. Whether these influences are Canadian or from Asia or Europe, they provide opportunities for building community, as Fleming’s film eloquently conveys. North of Hollywood, art is part of a global exchange.
Take Larry Weinstein’s The War Symphonies: Shostakovich Against Stalin (1997), for example, as a precursor to Fleming’s film. Weinstein, a prolific director whose filmography largely features innovative docs about arts and culture, like Mozartballs (2006), September Songs: The Music of Kurt Weill (1994), Leslie Caron: The Reluctant Star, Ravel’s Brain (2001), and most recently Dreaming of a Jewish Christmas, regularly looks outside of Canada for inspiration. War Symphonies chronicles the compositions of Dmitri Shostakovich under the regime of Joseph Stalin. War Symphonies recounts how Stalin’s tyrannical influence may have improved the scope, intensity and complexity of Shostakovich’s music. Weinstein positions the power of music as a weapon against Stalin’s might, casting him as a man fearful of art’s ability to illuminate the masses. Music proves more powerful than communism as Weinstein mines Shostakovich’s writing—read by actor Graham Haley in voiceover—and draws on talking heads to convey how political uncertainty inspires an artist to create. As with many of Weinstein’s aforementioned films, War Symphonies highlights the creative process in its best form as the film playfully subverts stuffy elements of history within an unconventional structure that does something completely new with the art of documentary.
John Greyson demonstrates a similar philosophy in his experimental Fig Trees (2009), which fuses operatic compositions with traditional documentary elements like interviews and archival footage, splitting the screen to emphasise different ways of seeing. With the director’s signature style of camp and self-reflexivity, Fig Trees confronts the circulation of false images and ‘alternative facts’ about AIDS that prevent people afflicted with the disease from receiving proper treatment.
Greyson adds some Canadiana to the pop culture references that inhabit Fig Trees. One sequence, for example, re-imagines the work of four artists: Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Jean Genet, Andy Warhol and Noman McLaren. Greyson’s inclusion of McLaren within the queer canon is notable. One actor in Fig Trees re-interprets the Canadian animator’s A Chairy Tale (1957), positioning culture as a conversation. Canadian pop culture is one element in the film alongside others, such as The Matrix and Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” but Fig Trees conveys a larger struggle in which one person or one culture must be seen as part of the whole. By documenting the arts with this hybrid performance piece, Fig Trees exemplifies the value of offering a stage for self-representation to voices that are underrepresented elsewhere in the system.
Canadian films participate in another cinematic revolution in Peter Wintonick’s entertaining and enlightening Cinéma Vérité: Defining the Moment (1999), which situates Canadian documentary within a global movement. “The verité revolution was a shot seen around the world,” says Wintonick in voiceover, as he surveys films such as Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin’s Chronicle of a Summer and Robert Drew’s Primary to show how the fresh energy of cinema verité revitalised documentary. Within this canon, Wintonick includes Wolf Koenig and Roman Kroitor’s NFB doc Lonely Boy (1962), and filmmaker/interview subject Michel Brault argues it offers the first shot of direct cinema in the image of Marcel Carrière holding a microphone above a crowd.
The influence of verité is significant for Quebecois film artists, who relish the pioneering efforts of Gilles Groulx, Claude Jutra, Marcel Carrière and Michel Brault on the global documentary scene. Their legacy receives warm appreciation in Paule Baillargeon’s affectionate doc Claude Jutra: An Unfinished Story (2002), which focuses on the life of Jutra, but also draws upon the work of Brault, Groulx and Carrière. Baillargeon’s doc offers a rare discussion of Canadian national cinema in documentary as she looks at the significance of these Quebecois filmmakers. The doc shows how Jutra’s first feature À tout prendre awakened audiences in Quebec, yet was never seen in Anglophone Canada. Baillargeon’s film shows how this cultural gap invited Canadians to question the existence of a national cinema. As Baillargeon delves into Jutra’s dark side—though sidestepping the controversies that now shadow his legacy—she articulates the value in creating pictures that reflect one’s experience, as well in engaging with these images to weigh their effects.
Derek May’s Off the Wall (1981) tackles the relationship between art, culture and commerce directly by probing the Toronto arts scene, the wealthy patrons who frequent it and the institutional efforts that support it. The film explores the problems underlying the arts scene in a country like Canada, which boasts invaluable public support for artists. May wrestles with funding painters with the public purse—an “in-bred kind of thing,” as he says. “You are almost a good investment,” the filmmaker taunts at the beginning of the film, suggesting that artists need enough support to succeed in their work, but not enough to be self-indulgent.
May visits the homes of artists like singer/painter Mendelson Joe, who humorously rejects the label of a bohemian before showing off by drinking milk from the carton. He also talks with video artist Vera Frenkel, who draws out the finer points of her work with May. Teaching assumes a central role in Off the Wall, with May punctuating the doc with tours of galleries, lectures and classrooms. Nude model George Rathwell poses before a class of aspiring artists, who each interpret his rotund physique at the then-called Ontario College of Art (now OCADU). What endures is the sense of community, a culture that lasts far more than the ephemera that sit tucked away in the archive. Art is money well spent if it brings people together.
Ladies and Gentlemen… Mr. Leonard Cohen (1965) by Donald Brittain and Don Owen, like Lonely Boy, documents and participates in the creation of a true Canadian celebrity. While Lonely Boy puts Paul Anka within the category of stars like Elvis who were adored by screaming fans, Ladies and Gentlemen… shows a wandering poet roaming the streets of Montreal in verité-style sequences. The film uses this aura to portray Montreal as a city with a thriving culture that produces artists and poets much like 1920s Paris. Ben’s Deli is the new Hemingway haunt for this poet putting Canada on the map. Ironically, Cohen went on to become a far more significant singer and composer than Anka on the world stage.
Literature receives a doc portrait in Donald Brittain and John Kramer’s Volcano: An Inquiry into the Life and Death of Malcolm Lowry (1976). British author Malcom Lowry’s years in British Columbia, during which the author completed his long-gestating novel Under the Volcano about the tragic alcoholic Geoffrey Firnin, are enshrined in Canadian culture by one of the NFB’s canonical features.
Volcano probes Lowry’s notorious “death by misadventure”—was it an accidental overdose or suicide?—and navigates the all-consuming chaos of the creative process.
The power of a volcano resides not in what one sees on the surface, but in what bubbles underneath. Volcano mines the darker side of Lowry’s psyche, while Brittain looks within the volcano’s mouth and spies a layered and colourful character in the hard-drinking author. Volcano puts Lowry’s literary voice in dialogue with Brittain’s cinematic voice as two threads explore Lowry’s character. One thread draws from Under the Volcano as actor Richard Burton reads the novel atop images of contemporary Mexico. These passages sharpen the parallels between the tormented Firnin and the author furiously annihilating himself in search of a masterwork. It was the book that killed him.
“Under the Volcano cost him everything,” Brittain narrates. “If so, it was no waste.” At the heart of Volcano is a question that all artists, writers, and creative people must ask while aspiring to greatness: how readily is one willing to throw oneself into the volcano in the service of one’s art?
Ron Mann’s Poetry in Motion (1982), which gathers poets in a concert setting, gives each artist the opportunity to perform a work in their own distinct style. William S. Burroughs reads his work in his deep Midwestern drawl while Jayne Cortez draws upon African call-and-response patterns to put over her poems to the audience. Tom Waits offers a ballad, while the Canadian quartet The Four Horsemen performs a bizarre array of sounds akin to throat singing—something one could never experience by reading words on a page. Canadian poets Michael Ondaatje and Christopher Dewdney, then quite young, assert their presences on the world scene with beautiful low-key readings.
Mann uses American poet Charles Bukowski as connective tissue for these performances. The curmudgeonly guide offers his attitude towards poetry, which is quite similar to what Leonard Cohen articulates: you can’t explain it because it’s a lived experience. Poetry in Motion imparts the value in seeing art as a communal act, and the poems ring with life, love and energy. Mann conveys the value in shared experiences through a climactic vignette in which Jim Carroll takes the stage. In this scene, Mann adopts the anything-goes style he employed in the free-form jazz doc Imagine the Sound (1981), in which the director and crew recorded musicians riffing for the camera. This scene foregrounds the filmmaking process. The crew records Carroll reciting his verses about a hostage situation while everyone stands transfixed, and the camera slowly zooms past the crew and moves towards the poet, creating an intimacy between him and the crowd. Poetry in Motion connects the crew and the audience in an absorbing collective experience.
Shared experiences are also foregrounded in Cynthia Scott’s Oscar-winning short Flamenco at 5:15 (1983). The sounds of flamenco burn up the soundtrack of this NFB short, a product of the board’s Studio D feminist years. Scott observes students in a flamenco class at the National Ballet School of Canada as the rhythms of the dance take hold of their bodies. The doc pulses with the fiery flamenco beats as the students interpret the music and refine the moves of this classic art. At the centre of the film is the wisdom and experience of teacher Susana Robledo, who shares her views on why flamenco endures for generations. Scott’s direct approach lets the art of flamenco speak for itself amid the passionate stomps of the dancers’ feet.
Finally, Albert Kish highlights the participatory spirit of the NFB’s Challenge for Change programme in the folksy Paper Wheat (1979), which is surely a template for the films of Christopher Guest, particularly the community theatre play featured in Waiting for Guffman. The doc chronicles the efforts of Toronto’s 25th House Theatre to create an affectionate agitprop play about the experiences of settlers and wheat farmers in rural Saskatchewan. The play draws upon interviews with farmers and the doc does the same in between performances of Paper Wheat. Kish captures an exchange between actors who, despite being outsiders, grasp the significance of Paper Wheat in documenting both the details of settlers’ experiences and the community spirit that helps them survive. As the delighted audiences enjoy the play and relate it to their experiences, Paper Wheat conveys the necessity of looking beyond the metropolitan centres to a fuller—and funnier—history of Canada.
Whether through flamenco, film, poetry, painting or magic, the arts address social causes and bring Canadians together. As entertainment moves towards mobile screens and solitary viewing experiences, and as Canada celebrates its 150th birthday at a new time of uncertainty given the political situation to the south, culture has a more crucial role to play in Canada than ever. Making movies brings people together; building walls just sets them apart.