Executive Director of the Liaison of Independent Filmmakers of Toronto (LIFT), a respected filmmaker, teacher and mentor to hundreds of emerging and established filmmakers across Canada died on August 13, 2006. As someone well- loved for big-hearted joie de vivre, his death was sudden, tragic and as his close friend filmmaker Deirdre Logue put it, “improbable.” He was 45. In the days following Roberto’s untimely drowning in a lake in Nova Scotia, as word trickled out and an unfathomable grief gripped his friends, family and the extended community of colleagues, artists, filmmakers, administrators and activists who knew him, a remarkable thing happened. The nature of the grieving, on a large scale, took on some key characteristics of the man himself.
For many in the Toronto community, Roberto was associated most with LIFT. He was the film co- op’s Equipment and Workshop Coordinator for years before becoming Executive Director in 2003. Roberto also served on the boards of many media arts and advocacy groups including the Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre, Pleasure Dome, Cultural Careers Council of Ontario and the Independent Media Arts Alliance. He was known as the go-to person for emerging filmmakers. Roberto could and would tell you how to load your new super 8 camera and properly fold a grip stand; then he could get you the right light at the right price, often (to the long suffering distress of his equipment coordinator) free of charge if you had no cash. He was, to again quote his friend Deirdre, “pathologically generous.” Respected by established filmmakers and curators from across the country, Roberto was admired for his passionate defense of film as an artist’s medium, his advocacy for artist’s rights (particularly on the issue of censorship) and for his own politically and socially engaged documentary and short filmmaking.
On the day of his funeral, a sprawling congregation of extended family and cultural workers from many disciplines were tearfully respectful during a moving but traditional Roman Catholic mass.
Later, close friends organized an informal evening wake in the home of Kathleen Mullen, where Roberto lived, and that of one of his dearest pals, Trinity Square Video Executive Director Roy Mitchell a couple of doors down, and in the beautiful park across the road from both. Shots of tequila mixed with tears and as dusk fell on this sultry summer evening. Roberto’s family (he was one of six siblings and the much loved “Uncle Robbie” to a gaggle of nephews and nieces) sat down with his friends to watch several of his films projected on LIFT’s portable screen.
There was Shelter, a sly and somewhat angry commentary on the plight of the poor and homeless in Toronto. Then there was Yesterday’s Wine, a bricolage of B sci-fi movie imagery and plundered instructional messages. Finally, splendidly, there was Contrafacta, Roberto’s collaboration with Chris Gehman. It was touch and go with this film. The leader kept sticking, the first images stuttering as the projector seized up. Technical types surrounded the picnic table projection booth, maglights flashing in the dark, trying with all their hearts to keep the show going. Normally, Roberto himself would have been there, egging them on with energetic advice. Periodic cheers erupted from the hundred or so seated on the grass and standing amidst the parked bicycles. At long last, human persistence triumphed and the beautiful collage of medieval animations unfurled.
Subtle, complicated and intriguing, Contrafacta and the other films in Roberto’s sadly arrested oeuvre may have come as a surprise to the many who knew the man but not the work. The force of Roberto’s physical presence, his playful charisma, his ability to light up any encounter with a glimpse of the possibilities inherent in work and life, could make you forget the fact that he was also an artist of refinement, intelligence and commitment.
The films, this time including the Mexico-shot Loteria (made with Federico Hidalgo) and the animated short Non-Zymase Pentathalon, were shown again at a community memorial held at YYZ and Cinecycle, alongside projected still photographs of a smiling Roberto, his arm around a seemingly never-ending series of friends and co- workers. That night, once again, there were many moving tributes and remembered anecdotes from gathered colleagues. Hearts and eyes were opened and a sense of compassion and care settled over a grieving community. It won’t be the last time Roberto showed everyone a way to go forward.