Profiles

Streets, Oceans, and Outer Space: A Producer’s Journey

A look at producer Richard Elson’s eclectic oeuvre

Chez Schwartz (2006)


More often than not a body of film work is discussed strictly in terms of the vision and influence of the director. The producer’s role is usually seen as many things, among them financier, organizer, talent scout, or scoundrel. Seldom is visionary included. For more than 25 years Richard Elson, with his production company Imageries, has produced a substantial body of documentary films to which the notion of visionary must be considered.

Elson began Imageries in Sherbrooke, Quebec, in 1980, working on co-productions with Radio-Québec (now Télé-Québec) and finally on an independent documentary, Inventors, with the same network. In 1986 he moved Imageries to a dusty storefront with windows coated in harbour soot on a street in Old Montreal directly across from Pier 18 and the waterfront. It would prove to be a fortuitous location to set up operations for his fledgling production company. From the pier across the street, thousands of immigrants would have passed that very spot making their way to a new life and to St. Laurent Boulevard, just a stone’s throw away. That street and the descendents of the people who walked it would become characters in Elson’s films. The harbour would take on another role as the launching point for several journeys to the oceans that would become the subject for other Elson productions.

Richard Elson has a knack for creating an environment that allows his creative teams to consistently produce high quality, visually intriguing films that tell informative and entertaining stories to which many different audiences can relate either personally or politically. “A creative producer is always there from the beginning to the end,” Elson says. “It can be my idea or someone else’s idea but I’m there throughout the process. I myself have a technical background in film, particularly in sound, so there is a lot of complex, comprehensive sound work in our films. Also, I work with people whom I know, whom I respect: our directors, D.O.P, sound, music, editor. I like working with the same people and if you find good people and you like working with them, it makes it a lot easier to get things done.”

His most recent film, Chez Schwartz (2006) is the perfect starting point in understanding the vision of this producer. Directed by Garry Beitel, Chez Schwartz is a year-in-the-life portrait of this most renowned of delicatessens, a landmark of Montreal on St. Laurent Boulevard, as the patrons in the film testify. This landmark is, however, a very small one and befitting its popularity, often very crowded. It made for a challenging shoot. “It was extremely tight quarters with the crowds, the fast pace of the workers, elbows all over the place,” says Elson. “We had no choice: one camera, hand-held; one sound person with radio mics. Sometimes we couldn’t work in there if it was extremely busy…there was just no room. We did short 8-hour days because it was so tiring.”

The camera is an integral part of the throng, getting pushed or shoving its way into close-ups—every pan, every shift in focus bringing in another face shouting, talking, eating, sweating, some of whom we get to know intimately, sometimes uncomfortably well. Schwartz’s Deli is a microcosm of Montreal where myriad languages and ethnicities gather together over the common denominator of smoked meat and cherry-cokes, while homeless men stake out their territory at the front door, panhandling for whatever may be left. While vegetarians in the audience may run from the theatre begging for an angioplasty after watching the continuous fat attacks inflicted upon the human stomach, the film presents compelling portraits of the waiters and busboys who keep the deli humming and who work non-stop in a crowded space surrounded by sharp knives, steam and fire. They are the institution that is Schwartz’s and as one sees the jazz they must dance to deliver a simple sandwich over an obstacle course of twenty feet, one is reminded that there are a million other places like this, a million other landmarks that depend upon this back-breaking, thankless task: delivering food as quickly as possible to a ravenous public who probably ate the same thing last night.

Bonjour! Shalom! (1992)

Richard Elson: “I missed the closing of the St. Laurent Bakery. By the time they announced it was closing, it closed! I didn’t get to go one last time. I saw St. Laurent Boulevard changing and while Schwartz isn’t, I wanted to try to document this place at this time while all these changes are happening around it.” And indeed, while some things change, others stay the same. A few blocks north of Schwartz’s Deli on St. Laurent Boulevard in the summer of 2006—in circumstances too complex to render here—relations between Hassidic Jews and francophones were strained. It was not the first time. Bonjour! Shalom! (1992), another collaboration by Richard Elson with director Garry Beitel, tells several stories of people young and old in the Plateau and Outremont districts who share the same colossal canyons of misunderstanding and prejudice. There is some fine editing work here, taking us back-and-forth between both sides of the canyon. Richard Elson: “…I’m not the first person to say this but for me you write a documentary three times: you write it when you write it, when you shoot it and when you edit it. If you don’t have the material, you’re not going to be able to write anything but if you do have the material, that’s where you’re finally writing it—in the editing.”

The film has telling visual moments, stories within stories. In one, a couple of Hassidic men are seen in silhouette standing behind a door of screened glass while engaged in animated conversation. They are bathed in a pool of warm yellow light creating the sensation that their silhouetted hand and head gestures are floating, and while we do not hear what they are saying, over the duration of the shot we come to feel we know these men. What they are saying is secondary to the dynamism and rhythms of their act of communication. What is clear, even in silhouette, is that these men are not shouting at one another; their body language suggests mutual respect, maybe even admiration; they are engaged in an exchange of ideas. Says Elson, “It was a very important film socially at that time because [the Hassidim] are a very difficult and very complicated community that has an important role to play and that was not being understood by the French community.”

One cannot help but be curious of what has happened to the 13- and 14-year-old Hassidic and francophone girls who, with the help of the filmmakers, come together at the end of Bonjour! Shalom! to share their feelings of one another. Where were they and what did they think as 26- and 27-year-olds in the summer of 2006, when many of the tensions and prejudices explored in the earlier film were played out once again on these same Outremont streets? Bonjour! Shalom! raises questions on the foundations of stereotypical racism in a city that boasts loudly of its multicultural fabric.

Richard Elson has worked with several directors over the years while maintaining a steady crew—D.O.P, editor, music and sound—for a majority of his films. Elson’s films have garnered awards and jury prizes in a wide range of categories: Best Documentary in Science, Technology and Environment at Hot Docs for The Empty Net (1996); Best Portrait Award at Festival of Films on Art for What If…A Film About Judith Merril (1999); and an Academy Award nomination for Best Animated Short for the remarkable The Colours of My Father (1991). Much has been written about this latter masterpiece of cinematic biography, but less so about the equally masterful What If…A Film About Judith Merril, a portrait that takes us from the streets of Toronto to the boulevards of outer space.

“[Director] Helene Klodawsky brought this project to me. It’s a documentary that couldn’t wait for funding sources. We had to go right away ‘cause we knew she was aged and not very well. We got our equipment together, went to Toronto and shot the material with Judith over two days…” –Richard Elson

That Judith Merril died only a few weeks after the shoot is sad, but Elson’s sense of urgency was perfect enough to have left What If… as a testament to her endlessly interesting life of thinking and writing science fiction. Like many of Elson’s films, something unique is revealed. Merril, like the film’s producer, was a visionary who introduced mature female characters into the sci-fi genre and explored notions of interplanetary communication rather than conquest.

From comic books and film clips, from the beginning of the Second World War to the atomic bomb, to the evocative readings of Merril’s works by actress Jackie Burroughs, What If… depicts a person fully engaged in life and art. Judith Merril performed regularly on the Canadian TV broadcasts of the acclaimed sci-fi show Doctor Who, was a social activist involved in the vibrantly chaotic Rochdale College in Toronto in the ’60s and was a novelist and legendary anthologist whose The Year’s Best in SF introduced the world to a new wave of science fiction writers including J.G. Ballard and Roger Zelazny.

What If… captures the character of Merril herself, her wavy grey hair, open, guileless features and passionate voice driving ideas forward with her riveting charisma. This was a woman not to be deterred by chauvinism, American imperialism or elitist criticism of her beloved speculative literature. Elson and Klodawsky etched a brilliant profile of a remarkable individual.

The Empty Net (1996)

As befitting the range of Richard Elson’s work, one can take the plunge from the galaxies to the depths of the ocean where in the company of whales, it’s possible to hear a very different form of communication. Cry of the Beluga (’90) and Mystery of the Blue Whale (’98) were among Elson’s collaborative efforts with director Alain Belhumeur. Added to the mix is the exquisite cinematography of Claude Gadoury, an integral member of Elson’s coterie, who offers up startling shots of whales underwater where, for a few moments, their other life unfolds before our eyes. A third film Elson did with Belhumeur, The Empty Net (’96), explores the collapse of the east coast cod fishery. “We didn’t want to make a film only about government policy and bad science regarding the fishery. We wanted it to be about the people. I always try in my films to make them about people and engaging the audience in their lives. I want to make films not only with a political point-of-view but also with a personal point-of-view,” comments Elson.

It is not difficult to perceive the two points-of-view in The Empty Net, insofar as the film reveals that fishing for as large a catch as possible has led to its own demise, much like what the last whalers might have said upon having harpooned the last of the great whales. Taken together, these three films put forth the idea that whether we are speaking of sentient whales or of cod, we can no longer think of the seas and oceans as a bottomless pit.

So it is with the films of Richard Elson. While his knack for producing compelling and award-winning films is beyond reproach, what is more significant is that the audience comes away having been exposed to refreshing ideas and experiences.

Richard Stanford is currently working on a feature documentary on prison writers. He is a journalist, story editor, scriptwriter and producer, specializing in docs and children’s films. Stanford has also worked as an arts administrator, photographer and teacher.

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