“I don’t know if you have any understanding of what an insane basketball fan I am,” says filmmaker Chelsea McMullan. Standing at 5’ 11”, McMullan is a formidable basketball talent who grew up in Langley, British Columbia and received a basketball scholarship to play for Brookswood Secondary School. She was scouted to play at the university level in Canada but, thankfully for documentary aficionados, McMullan dropped basketball to pursue her burgeoning interest in film.
This past December, McMullan received the DOC Vanguard award, which recognises emerging or mid-career documentarians with the potential to lead the next generation. Her second feature, Michael Shannon Michael Shannon John (MSMSJ), debuted at the 2015 Vancouver International Film Festival and plays at this year’s Hot Docs Festival in Toronto. The film is a strange tale about a Canadian man named Michael Hanmer, and his daughter Shannon’s quest to dig deeper in to his mysterious life after she receives a Facebook friend request from another Shannon Hanmer living in Thailand.
“Sometimes I feel like a fiction filmmaker working in documentary, and sometimes I feel like a documentary filmmaker working in fiction,” McMullan replies when asked what the award means to her. “It’s nice that hybrid type of work is being acknowledged by the Doc Institute; they are making space for it as a respected way of working in this country. I feel like that will grow the genre more and help other young filmmakers.
“Once you have a bit more of an established voice, it’s a little easier. But for a filmmaker that maybe wants to approach things a little differently, getting that first bit of funding is just a nightmare. Getting anyone to trust you is really, really hard. So there’s a kind of incentive to try to make your work more standardised. I don’t think that that’s the way [to make work]…Let’s push boundaries, let’s try new things.”
Michael Shannon Michael Shannon John comes across as a kind of long form, atmospheric music video with the storyline serving as the skeleton to build off the constructed visual landscape and the moody soundscape. “I try to capture the visceral, more surreal aspects of characters,” McMullan says. “I’m more about psychology than plot.” The eerie soundtrack is one of the standout aspects of McMullan’s latest film, and it aids the audience in getting a feel for the psychology of the characters and the surreal storyline.
McMullan’s first feature documentary, My Prairie Home, profiled transgender Canadian singer/songwriter Rae Spoon, and the music in that film dictated the story arc as well. Chelsea is excited to keep working with musicians who complement her filmmaking style and philosophy. She has a project in development with the NFB (who she worked with on My Prairie Home) about Nunavut throat singer Tanya Tagaq. “I want to push the music documentary genre farther then I have before,” says McMullan. “And her music really lends itself to that treatment.”
“There is such a wealth of talent in the Toronto and Canadian music scenes,” McMullan continues. “Especially in terms of musicians who aren’t abiding to the rules of the mainstream music industry. I’m really attracted to working with these musicians. Collaborating with (Polaris and Juno-nominated artist Alaska B) on MSMSJ was amazing and very fun. She was integrated into the beginning of the creative process and she watched cuts all the way through. The way Avril Jacobson, my editor, and I like to work is to integrate the music while we’re editing. So, Alaska was making pieces as we went.”
McMullan discusses a certain shot of a palm tree at the opening of the film. “I told Alaska, ‘this is John’s soul,’ and then she wrote the music for that scene. I feel like the feedback process is half the battle. You bring in the right people at the right time: a very small, curated group of people. Knowing their personalities is key; I have this one person, who will remain nameless that I bring in, and she’s usually pretty harsh and abrasive. I usually cry when she gives me feedback. So you have to bring her in at the right point when you’re ready to receive the really harsh kind of ‘here’s the deal’ feedback.”
McMullan, one of Canada’s most talked-about directors, is no stranger to conversations about gender inequality in the professional filmmaking landscape. And from here the conversation shifts back to basketball, where apt comparisons can be made in regards to gender inequality. “So many people I know went through major depressions after playing high level college ball, especially women’s basketball, because there’s no end game; the best you can do is make $50,000 a year in the WNBA.” McMullan’s comments highlight the huge disparity between men and women’s professional basketball players. According to a Vice article from August 2015, the WNBA league maximum is $107,500 a year, for the top players in the league. The NBA league minimum is $490,180, and many players receiving that minimum hardly play at all.
“The worst thing is when you play co-ed basketball and a guy won’t check you, even if you’re a really dominant player. There are other guys on your team that aren’t as dominant. Strategically, to win the game, if you just switch and have a girl guard a guy and then a guy guard me, that would just make sense to win the game, but it never happens.”
“And with filmmaking, I’m seeing this thing where you’re getting hired in sort of a token way, but you’re still hired by the same white dudes. Those are the people that are in the places of power. They’re like, ‘Oh we’ll hire artists that are diverse.’ And I’m like, ‘No, that’s not enough. We want you out and diverse people in those roles.’
“The NFB,” who McMullan has worked with on multiple projects, “is an exception… That place is the most diverse working environment I’ve ever been in, but they’ve never been the problem.
“Sometimes you feel like you’re in this feedback loop where you’re talking and talking and talking, but you don’t see anything actually changing,” McMullan says. “The thing is, it really just has to change, people who are funding the movies need to not just be old white men. That’s just the bottom line of it. Everything has to be at parity. We can talk and talk and talk and talk in circles, but until that changes, until things become more diverse…. It’s like a trickle down effect. It’s frustrating to me that it’s not changing quicker.”
Please visit the POV Hot Docs hub for more coverage on this year’s festival.
Hot Docs runs April 28 – May 8. Visit www.hotdocs.ca for more information.