Interviews

The POV Interview: Daniel Cross and Mila Aung-Thwin

“You say radical as if it’s a bad thing.”

Up the Yangtze, dir. Yung Chang (2007)

In Montreal, a city historically bisected by language and now further fragmented into widening cultural segments by younger generations linked to Asia, Africa, the Caribbean and Hispanic America, there’s a very cool, aware documentary organization, which goes under the moniker of EyeSteelFilm.

Located near the corners of St. Laurent and Mont-Royal, EyeSteel has the quintessential Montreal arts office: funky, lively and unpretentious. Walking up a huge flight of stairs, the first thing you see when entering the offices is a large Steenbeck machine, used for editing film before the days of on-line digital equipment. It’s a nice touch, a talisman reminding a visitor of the personalized style of filmmaking that is the legacy of generations of point-of-view doc makers and the hallmark of EyeSteel’s productions.

Unlike most media-makers, EyeSteel founders Daniel Cross and Mila Aung- Thwin believe in empowering subjects, not just documenting them. Roach, the subject of the first EyeSteel doc S.P.I.T.: Squeegee Punks in Traffic, has evolved from being a junkie and street-wise hustler to a filmmaker and activist for homeless people. Cross, who has taught cinema at Concordia University, developed students Brett Gaylor and Yung Chang into filmmakers and the results, Gaylor’s RiP: a Remix Manifesto and Yung’s Genie-award winning Up the Yangtze are two of the company’s biggest hits.

Aung-Thwin, more of Gaylor’s and Yung generation than Cross’, might have become the first employee in a company organized in a hierarchical structure. But Cross recognizes quality when he sees it and the two became co-founders of EyeSteelFilm while making S.P.I.T.

EyeSteel is that rarity: an organization that feels like a family. People drop into EyeSteel as volunteers and the best of them stay to become employees—often filmmakers. Crazy, creative and anarchical sometimes—dysfunctional occasionally— the company is a genuinely radical entity that makes brilliant, incisive films that feel exciting, necessary and “au courant.”

POV spoke to EyeSteel founders Daniel Cross and Mila Aung-Thwin at length about their unique organization as RiP went into theatrical distribution and Laura Bari’s new film Antoine was set to premiere in English Canada at Hot Docs.

EyeSteel founders: Mila Aung-Thwin (left) and Daniel Cross (right)

POV — Marc Glassman
DC — Daniel Cross
MA -T — Mila Aung-Thwin

POV: How did S.P.I.T.: Squeegee Punks in Traffic — happen?

DC: The hobo wino scene, which had been the subject of my first documentaries Danny Boy and The Street, was dying out in Montreal and a new phenomenon was happening. There were 16-year-old kids with Mohawks, chains and leather jackets, squeegee-ing cars for money, and announcing themselves as homeless. There had been no such thing as street kids, street families, even street women, up to that point.

So I came down to investigate it, but I was in my 30s and the kids didn’t trust me. I spent a year volunteering, serving food once a week, and shooting some footage. But I didn’t have much to show for all of my work until I started offering to teach the kids how to work with the camera. That’s how I met Roach, who was a smart kid—maybe 16, or 17 years old—and he was already addicted to drugs and the street life. I mean, something had to happen in this guy’s life or he was kaput.

He’d seen The Street, so we could have a dialogue. I told him what I wanted to do—show life as it really was for him and his friends. Roach shook my hand and looked me in the eyes and started asking me questions—‘Are you gonna do this? Are you gonna be like that?’—and I went, ‘This guy’s sharp, this guy’s kind of in control,’ so I was really interested.

I put the gauntlet down. I said to Roach, ‘I’m going to film a big civil disobedience demo, are you coming? Or are you gonna just fuck off and get stoned?’ And he came and he spent the night, working with me.

I was working in the audio-visual department at Concordia, so the truth is I took a High 8 camera from the inventory, signed it out long-term loan, gave it to Roach and it became the “Roach Cam.” And he had carte blanche to film whatever he wanted. Now that I was connected to Roach, I just had completely different access to the street kids. Pretty quickly, we were a team.

POV: Didn’t you meet Mila during the shooting of S.P.I.T?

DC: Yes, I met him through Peter Wintonick, who had edited and produced The Street with me. Mila was interning with Peter, mostly doing filing, and he was bored. So I said, ‘Come with me and have a free lunch at Pop’s,’ the trailer where we were feeding the homeless punks. Mila started bringing his still camera and I liked the stills, so I said, ‘Why don’t you do some video camera work?’ He wasn’t very good but he learned pretty fast.

At one time, what Mila said to me about S.P.I.T. was that the Roach Cam shattered the windshield and the corporate cam, the Dan Cam, filmed the millions of reflections from the broken shards of glass. He kinda summed it up. And what was interesting was I never looked at Roach’s footage. I didn’t want to colonize his approach to filmmaking.

Punk filmmaker par excellence — Roach

MA -T: Roach and I were born in the same hospital in the same town, Hawkesbury Ontario. We went to high school in Lachute, Quebec. The high school is divided by linguistics. He was on the French side, I was on the English side. And I’m older than him. We only met through Dan. It was quite funny.

POV: Mila, when did you realize that Roach was going to be a part of the team?

MA -T: Actually, Roach predates me in terms of meeting Dan. In some ways, I was the one who was added to the team. The question with Roach, at first, was ‘will he stabilize?’

Pretty early on he became loyal to us. He agreed with the way we were making film and he liked the power that was given to him. We could trust him with cameras, or defending us to his friends, or standing up for us on the street. But he was up and down in drugs and personal life and girlfriends. It was always a big drama with him.

POV: Did things change for Roach after S.P.I.T?

MA -T: Yeah, for RoachTrip, he made his first art film about traveling across Canada. In some ways of course, it could have been a recipe for disaster, but Roach came back with something that we were able to turn into a film that played Hot Docs. It might have been drug-fuelled and complete anarchy,but there was definitely talent in what he did.

POV: Did EyeSteel officially start around this time, Dan?

DC: Yeah. I’d come up with the name much earlier when a friend of mine and I sat up one night drinking Wild Turkey and talking about film. It kinda sat there and didn’t get incorporated until S.P.I.T. was in
post-production and before RoachTrip was financed.

By that time, I was working with Mila. We realized we were going to have to distribute the film ourselves. Up to then, I had never had a company, I just did my work. But I realized that if I was going to continue to make films that I’d have to know how to produce and distribute them. Otherwise you kinda lose control of “the product”, and you can’t stay employed at the tail-end of your projects because other people take them over.

POV: Dan, what were you doing at Concordia at that time?

DC: I had done my MFA there and started teaching Filmmaking 1 as a part-time instructor. The first student I ever had was Yung Chang, who was a real art poseur from Oshawa. (laughs).

POV: S.P.I.T. took quite a while to complete. What happened during that time to you and Mila and Roach?

DC: During post-production on S.P.I.T., I left Montreal and started teaching at the University of Regina. The film kind of stalled for a bit and that’s where Mila earned his chops. He held it together while I went to Regina to do my double identity thing as a filmmaker/teacher. I was in Saskatchewan for two years, but in the summers I came back to Montreal. From April through August, we would work full time on S.P.I.T. We also started new films— Too Colourful For the League, which is the story of black hockey players in Canada, and Inuuvunga: I am Inuk, I am Alive, with the NFB, and RoachTrip, which documents Roach’s journey across Canada to the Okanagan orchards where he wanted to—quite romantically—pick fruit and find himself. I think he picked six cherries and found himself in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Eventually, Roach and Smash, who were the two principal kids in S.P.I.T., did the whole Quebec City NAFTA demo thing and Mila filmed it.

POV: Was it fun for you to make a hockey film?

DC: Yeah, Too Colourful for the League was like a dream come true for me. I still play hockey every Tuesday night. By making that film, I got to know a real hero, Herb Carnegie, who should have broken the colour barrier in the NHL in the ’40s, but didn’t because of racism.

POV: How was RoachTrip financed?

DC: Like all our projects to this day, the first money came from our most faithful partner, the Canada Council for the Arts. We make docs that aren’t conceived for TV. That’s really important to know. We got support from the provincial arts council CALQ (Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec) and SODEC (Societe de Developpment des Entreprises culturelles) which has a Jeunes createurs fund. To this day, RoachTrip has never played on English Canadian TV.

POV: How about the NFB?

DC: What happened with the NFB is that Tom Perlmutter showed up [first as head of English language production and now as film commissioner]. And when Tom showed up, he reached out to us.

S.P.I.T. had some theatrical success—it played in Vancouver, four weeks in Toronto and eleven weeks in Montreal. There was a DIY spirit around Roach’s appearances at cinemas and the way we got people interested in the film just seemed to catch on across the country.

Tom bought into the example of S.P.I.T. He brought me to a producers’ meeting and said, ‘I want to do more stuff like this.’ After that I kinda had access to Tom and we started brainstorming ideas. He was very open to us—and still is.

POV: How did you end up making Inuuvunga: I am Inuk, I am Alive?

DC: It was actually the NFB’s idea. They delivered it to Mila and then I strung my way in ’cause that’s really what I’m about. I’m an educator and always have worked with kids. I was educated in recreation and have worked with single-parent kids in church basements. Mila was young—he’s barely 30 now. So I invited myself on the plane to Nunavut with Mila. After looking around, we found eight high school kids, who were ready to work with us. I called up the NFB producer and said, ‘We’re not doing another Inuit survey piece.’

POV: What did you want to do?

DC: We had four cameras, and I wanted the Inuit kids to tell their stories. What were they gonna do, what was their voice, what did they want to tell the south or what did they want to tell their communities? And they didn’t have any stories. They all went off and shot, like, the ball hockey game, or the grand opening of the Bay. They came back with crap. And I was like ‘No no no, that’s not what this is about.’ And they said to me, ‘You’re gonna be here for 3 weeks and get what you want out of us. We’re not interested—we’re tired of being on display for white anthropologists from the south.’ And I said, ‘No, this is gonna be a full year, you’re gonna make your films, but they have to have some issue in them. You have to go out and challenge yourself about something you care about.’

I had to go back to the Board and say ‘the film’s not happening unless you guarantee me that a film that looks professional comes out of this—otherwise these kids aren’t into it.’ The NFB met and said OK. So we ended up working an extra year. Brett Gaylor went there for a whole summer, with an editing station, and worked with each kid for three weeks, just to get their stories. Then the footage came back south and we took those stories and made one film out of it — Innuvunga — and they all got professional director credits.

POV: Was it a struggle to finance early EyeSteel films unless was the Film Board was attached to the project?

DC: Well, the hardest part for us has always been to find a broadcaster to ante up with development money. Without that, you couldn’t go to the TDF [Hot Docs’ Toronto Documentary Forum]. Banff mattered, because their Documart didn’t require a broadcaster to come with the project. We went there with Punk the Vote, which was Roach’s second film, but it only got financed support from Canal D. No English broadcaster touched it. We got $5,000 from the Independent Film Channel a long time after it was completed. Broadcasters just don’t participate in wild card projects. I’ve got to admit, we were trying to upset the status quo.

POV: When did things change?

DC: Rudy Buttignol, when he was the headman at TVO, commissioned both The Street and S.P.I.T. But the big moment, I guess, was when I did the pitch at Banff for Chairman George.

POV: That’s right. You got $50,000 for your pitch at Documart. How did you meet George?

DC: I was in China providing video support for this multi-media dance troupe, and one day I went for lunch by myself in Guangzho. And this guy walked by with a Canadian flag on his guitar! And so I yelled at him ‘Hey!’ And it was George. He is a bit goofy but George could speak Chinese and I couldn’t, and he ordered me food that didn’t have beaks, eyeballs and claws in it, and so I liked him. I’m like ‘Hang around!’ He told me that he was there for some Communist cultural day. So I said play a song! And he played a Chinese folk song in the local dialect. By the time he was finished, the waitresses were all swooning, the cooks were coming out of the kitchen with their cleavers and people were coming off the street all to hear him. It was like I was sitting with Elvis!

Mila and I ended up doing Chairman George and Bone at the very same time. Bone was all about dance and George was about George. We piggybacked both films so we could afford trips to China.

POV: Bone is more arty and George is, well, crazy. Would you agree?

DC: In some ways. Artistically, it shows the difference between Mila and me. Mila’s got much more of a style. He designs our posters, and I’m much more like, ‘Let’s go back to Guangzho and get some more lively footage.’

MA -T: When Dan came back from China after touring with these modern dancers, he’d met George. Basically, he had no interest in what he’d just done with the dancers. Dan was like, ‘this is what we’re gonna be doing next’ and he just pitched the story of Chairman George to me. At the same time, the couple who were running this dance company, Nadine Thouin and Jerry Snell, were coming up with a new idea, which turned into Bone.

POV: So you ended up with Bone. What was their idea and who were they?

MA-T: Well, Snell was a musician who had worked with a famous avant-garde group called Carbone 14 and Thouin was a choreographer and together they were running a very interesting new media modern dance company. They wanted to make the first contemporary dance coproduction with China and work with a choreographer they’d met named Willy Tsao. Modern dance in China is very suspect— all modern art is because it validates the individual over the collective—so Willy, who had started contemporary dance in China, was doing it very clandestinely.

Still, he was able to get approval to do his first co-production, and he got to do it with Snell-Thouin. And it was fascinating to work with Willy, a brilliant thinker who had assembled this troupe of really interesting dancers. I was part of the creative team—the house videographer, making video and sound backdrops for the work.

We toured across China, taking trains everywhere. It was like Beijing to Shanghai to Guangzho and a few stops along the way. Then they toured across Quebec and I worked solo, and continued to make the film.

POV: It feels like a real directing gig. What was that like for you?

MA -T: It was very cool. I think it’s the last time I ever was able to immerse myself in the production. Since then, I’ve become just a producer, or one of those complete multi-taskers, doing producing and a bit of directing and office work all at once. But when I was working on Bone I was really there every day for several weeks. I was the troupe’s video artist. I really liked it. I don’t live that kind of life any more.

POV: Do you miss it?

MA -T: I guess sometimes I do. But I really like the aspect of being on a lot of productions at once. Like Yung has new projects and I drop in from time to time and give him my opinion—and then I go into the edit suite of something else. There’s always 10 or 15 interesting things going on at the office. I think I have that kind of personality.

Inuuvunga: I am Inuk, I am Alive, dir. Mila
Aung-Thwin and Daniel Cross (2004)

POV: Dan, what’s George’s story?

DC: He’s a Greek-Canadian troubadour who loves China. George works six months of the year at Stats Canada and spends the other six months in China. Not every year, but most years. The album that we made
for Chairman George was nominated as Best World Music at the Canadian Folk Music Awards. People ask me, ‘I thought you were all about these heavy social justice things, so why did make this film?’ And I say, ‘There’s really something powerful about just being with somebody who’s fulfilling their dream.’ Anyhow, the pitch I gave at Documart must have been about the dream. And we got ours—the prize let us make the film.

POV: It seems as if you were more willing to take on the paperwork and the grant writing, Mila. When did that happen?

MA -T: We collaborated on everything during SP.I.T. With Chairman George, we started to work with international TV broadcasters and we had to split up the roles. The budgets and contracts became more legal, so it had to be more specialized. That’s when I jumped more into planning out the financing. I still don’t quite specialize; we hired some professionals to help us do business affairs and accounting.

POV: So was the international breakthrough caused by the pitch at Banff?

MA -T: Exactly right.

POV: Did you remember that Daniel wrote a piece for POV to get there?

MA -T: Sure (smiles). That’s how he met Nick Fraser from BBC. Daniel set up interviews with the broadcasters he wanted to meet! He interviewed all those people for the piece, and then wrote a crazy rollicking
beer-drinking story. It was excellent.

DC: The truth is Mila made that article worth reading. He really finessed my writing— Mila had been an editor of the McGill Daily.

POV: What happened at Banff?

MA -T: Well, as you know, we won the pitch and the prize was $50,000. We got $50,000 for a three-minute pitch! I still have the cheque here! They gave us one of those big novelty cheques which we brought home with us. There was a lot of interest around the room but we realized then it was going to be hard to get the next sources of money. We got CTV on board, but that probably took a good six months or a year of negotiating. They came on for development. Then Mette Hoffman Meyer from Denmark’s TV2 came on very early to take distribution and put in licensing, but she had to convince Nick Fraser at the BBC, who took longer to push. We had a lot of proving ourselves to do, but eventually it worked out.

POV: What was your next film?

MA -T: Marc, you’re trying to put them in chronological order! Even right now, I think of RiP as our second film because we committed to that one so early. We finishe S.P.I.T. in 2001 and RoachTrip was released in 2003. But Brett was working off and on on RiP and Yung kept on working on Up The Yangtze. So they were all going on at once. We’re very bad at having final dates
for our films.

One of the first things we did as a company was to buy five editing suites. We learned how to edit ourselves because we couldn’t afford editor wages after 16 or 20 weeks. Instead of working fast and releasing films that would be flawed, we would just keep editing and working on them. The difference in what we do is that if it is a fully EyeSteel production, we don’t put the film out until we’re happy with it.

POV: When did Brett join EyeSteel?

DC: Brett was at Concordia like Yung. When we were finishing S.P.I.T., he came on as an intern and started working on the opening credits. There was rotoscoping in the titles of S.P.I.T., kinda funky, and it was half-animation and half-new media. Brett could understand that stuff so we put him to work on that and he just never went away. He edited RoachTrip and Inuuvunga with me. And it was during those times—in 2000, 2001—that he started talking about RiP: a Remix Manifesto. That was always the film he wanted to do, a film about Lawrence Lessig and new media literacy and copyright. It took a while, but he did
it.

POV: And Yung?

MA -T: I remember meeting Yung at Dan’s class and seeing his early films. He already had the idea for Up the Yangtze but wasn’t sure whether it should be a fiction film or a documentary. Yung isn’t a multi-tasker. He likes to sit on an idea and think about it. He pondered, and went off and did a couple of development shoots. Once when I was doing Chairman George, I stole away for a while and went up the Yangtze with Yung on the boat and we did a development shoot. We probably did three or four development shoots before he got his production funding.

POV: How did Yangtze get financed?

MA -T: We pitched it the year after George at Documart. At that point, it was a glib film, humorous, making fun of tourists on a luxury cruise on the Yangtze. We weren’t planning to get off the boat! Basically, the
world’s broadcasters hated it.

The Film Board saw we had potential with the story so they developed it with us. Germaine Wong liked Yung; she’d made a short film with him. Catherine Olsen from the CBC came on pretty early, too. She was pushing us in a journalistic way to develop characters who could tell the story of China.

The brilliance of Yung was that he listened to all the different points of view; he wasn’t headstrong about his bad ideas and he listened to advice every step of the way. And he knew enough to ignore the awful advice!

POV: Were you surprised at the film’s success?

MA -T: It was wonderful, and basically unexpected. We knew people liked the film, but early on distributors said ‘no’ to it. We thought it was one of those good films
that wouldn’t go anywhere.

The Film Board gave us back the rights to the theatrical so we worked with KinoSmith and released it ourselves. It was a matter of the press really liking the film, and there being a big audience that was interested in China and wanted to see a good film about what was happening there.

POV: What was the budget?

MA -T: The full budget was $870,000.

POV: Are you happy with the response to RiP?

MA -T: I love it. The box office numbers are hard to measure against Up the Yangtze. For us it’s kind of a medium response, but it’s great to have a film in theatres at all. RiP is doing all these simultaneous things: it’s in theatres, streaming online and it has an interactive website. In the US , we signed a deal with b-side, which is an extremely innovative company that has been marketing directly to people in their living rooms; they have underground screenings, and they have web screenings.

Chairman George, dir. Mila Aung-Thwin and Daniel Cross (2005)

POV: How would you describe the atmosphere at EyeSteel?

MA -T: Some might describe it as anarchic, some might describe it as disorganized. When people come in to work or intern here, they don’t know who the boss is and what’s going on a lot of the time. We have a hard time working with people who are from the standard sector of film industry if they’re from an activist collective kind of place, been part of an affinity group or done student politics, they fit in very well here.

It’s not for everyone. You sacrifice— nobody gets paid a lot. You have to like the work you do. It’s not overly serious at EyeSteel. It’s social documentary work, but not too preachy. It’s supposed to be more fun and adventurous. People who are self-starters and want to make their own films find that they can learn by working with us.

POV: How would you estimate the value of what EyeSteel has produced up to now, Daniel?

DC: Roach’s films are the most important films that get made here, in my view. I mean S.P.I.T., which I consider to be Roach’s film and Punk the Vote. Roach is the closest connection to why I wanted to be a filmmaker and what my personal mandate has been at EyeSteelFilm.

I’m really pleased with RiP — it’s dealing with current policy, and it’s gonna impact on culture and social politics and justice. Of course Yangtze’s important. It’s a bit different, more of a classic documentary—not quite as challenging to watch as some of the punk films—but it’s had an impact on a wider audience than any of our other films.

POV: Is EyeSteel a family?

DC: Yeah, it is. And again, it’s most direct with Roach. Roach’ll tell you that I’m like his father and Mila’s like his brother. That’s how he describes it. And the other ones, they have fathers and brothers, so they’re not so easy to talk to quite in that way, but I know Yung’s mum and Brett’s mum and Mila’s mum. They all talk to me in private, to make sure that their boys are doing good things.

And Brett and Shelly just had a baby girl, Layla—so you worry about it, because they’re here and they get their wages out of EyeSteel. And we don’t make TV series, ever, we don’t do factual entertainment or infotainment or reality work and that’s how you’re supposed to finance a company like this. So we’re always a little bit worried! But it’s sustainable now. Little by little, we’ve gotten international recognition.

MA -T: A lot of people, like Omar Majeed, who is finishing a film about Muslim punks with us, have come to EyeSteel after having their projects refused by the Film Board. They’re told, ‘We can’t really work with you, but we kind of like it. Why don’t you go work with EyeSteelFilm?’ We’re getting a reputation for working with difficult or hard to fit films and interesting but disorganized filmmakers. Canal D sends us people, too: if they like it, but they don’t know what to make of it or how to develop it, they’ll say, ‘Why don’t you take it to Dan and Mila?’