Features

The Freshmen

First-time feature filmmakers break out with exciting debuts

Attiya and Steve at the coffee shop in A Better Man
Courtesy of the NFB


“Ready?” asks Attiya Khan in the opening scene of A Better Man.

“I don’t know where to begin,” replies her subject Steve.

Steve, whose surname does not appear in the film or credits, is Khan’s former lover and abuser. A Better Man stages not a confrontation, but a conversation as Khan and Steve revisit the violence that destroyed their relationship. The film, astonishingly Khan’s first (co-directed with veteran editor Lawrence Jackman, who also makes his feature debut as director) fuses documentary and therapy—it’s bound to spark debate.

Cynthia Gay, Stayce McConnell, Nicole Chickonski, and Chelsea Stewart performing at Weeki Wachee in Mermaids.
Courtesy of Hot Docs


A Better Man’s freshness of perspective is something held in common among the Canadian feature debuts at Hot Docs 2017. Kalina Bertin explores family history in the intimate Manic to understand the mental illness that afflicts her siblings. Ali Weinstein’s lyrical Mermaids (also playing at DOXA) depicts a quirky subculture that combines costume-play and catharsis, and Joseph Clement’s Integral Man handsomely joins subject and style while touring a residence of a unique individual in Toronto’s Rosedale neighbourhood. The stories behind each film are as intriguing as their respective subjects, and show how new voices establish themselves in a changing field.

A Better Man offers a new dialogue on gender-based violence by giving aggressor and survivor equal weight. “I felt that others could learn from this initial conversation—from what was said and what was unsaid—and that filming it would have the greatest impact,” explains Khan via email when asked why she filmed her reunion with Steve.

“I had no idea if I could make a documentary at the time,” explains Khan. “I had no team and no funding, just an instinct that capturing this conversation could be valuable to others. I had my friend Jennifer Rowsom, a talented photographer, film the encounter.”

The film develops Khan’s experience as a survivor of abuse and her work with people who are dealing with gender-based violence. “My background made me hyper-aware of the need to tell the story with deep care and respect,” notes Khan. “I wanted people to see in an unfiltered way what a conversation like this looks like. So much can be said in people’s expressions and body language. That first conversation captures a lot.” Steve’s eyes often avoid Khan’s gaze as he shifts uncomfortably, seeing the consequences of his actions.

“My background also shaped how I approached being a subject,” adds the director. In the film, Khan is measured and in control. In just a few exchanges, one feels the weight and gravity on both sides of the conversation. The film’s inclusive approach encourages men to take responsibility for their actions through recognition and rehabilitation.

Manic director Kalina Bertin
Courtesy of Hot Docs

Bertin similarly breaks a silence in Manic by revisiting family history and scratching wounds. Manic examines Bertin’s father George, whose past as a manic-depressive cult leader framed her childhood. The film revisits family movies and a life Bertin was too young to understand.

“When I grew up in the Caribbean with my father,” says Bertin to POV, “it was a very isolated island, so we didn’t see a lot of people. My dad was around then and he was always filming. From a very early age, that launched me. I was impressed by the camera.”

The power of filming shaped Bertin’s path and informs Manic. Bertin, who studied film and specialised in cinematography at UQAM (Université du Québec à Montréal), says her education began by seeing life-changing documentaries like Tarnation (2003), Crumb (1994) and The Devil and Daniel Johnston (2005) during high school. “I discovered the possibility of seeing filmmaking as catharsis,” she explains. “I had deep questions that haunted me. I made films in high school, but I decided to go to film school and get the tools to make this film about my father.”

Part of this healing process involved editing her family movies, which appear as a tempestuous mix of archival images. “It was like seeing another side of our family that was right there in our face but I didn’t have the right information to process it,” explains Bertin. “It was quite powerful to revisit them.”

Like Bertin, Ali Weinstein draws inspiration from seeing her father with a camera, although in a very different light. She is the daughter of prolific documentarian Larry Weinstein (Ravel’s Brain, 2001; Our Man in Tehran, 2013), but while the family name might grant her some attention, Mermaids lets her stand on her own right. “I was spoiled by the idea that you can work by immersing yourself in a different world,” says Weinstein. “I saw how much my dad loved what he was doing. I aspired to be as in love with my work and not settle for any nine-to-five job.”

Mermaids director Ali Weinstein
Courtesy of Hot Docs

The unique position gave Weinstein transcription work and gigs on her father’s films, but studying in the master’s program in documentary media at Ryerson University honed her technique. It was also at Ryerson that Weinstein met Mermaids producer Caitlin Durlak. The pair went to the Florida mermaid convention Merfest in 2015 after Weinstein discovered the mermaid show at Weeki Wachee—a kind of mermaid burlesque—that’s been thriving since the 1940s.

This trip inspired a unique investigation into women across North America who find comfort in their own fins. “As a kid, I was obsessed with Splash and The Little Mermaid,” says Weinstein, “and I was a synchronised swimmer for a few years. I feel more at peace with myself when I’m in the water.” Subjects like Cookie, whose mermaid persona reflects her split personality; Rachel, who works as a mermaid performer with her mother; and Susie, who was so keen to participate that she met Weinstein and Durlak at the airport, offer an eager outpouring of stories. Mermaids turns a fish-out-of-water scenario into a picture of an empowering community.

Joseph Clement, like Weinstein, doesn’t turn the camera on himself in Integral Man; instead he absorbs himself in his subject’s world. Integral Man tours the home of the late mathematician, writer, violinist, LGBTQ activist and philanthropist Jim Stewart. His Integral House, a contemporary design of curves and glass, reflects the brilliant mind behind the best-selling textbook that made Stewart the most-published calculus mathematician since Euclid.

Integral Man director Joseph Clement
Courtesy of Hot Docs

Integral Man is a natural first feature for Clement, who began his path in landscape architecture. Working with New York landscape architect Ken Smith, Clement was introduced to Integral House when one of the home’s architects, Brigitte Shim of Shim-Sutcliffe Architects, brought pictures of Stewart’s abode to Smith’s office. “I went back to my desk and decided that landscape architecture wasn’t going to suffice for my entire future,” says Clement on his first impression of Integral House.

The film shows how Stewart gave the arts a home as Integral House drew in the likes of composers Philip Glass and Steve Reich. “The two requirements he had were curves and a concert hall,” explains Clement. “Because the architecture is so inextricably linked to Jim, it became a question of what made the design come to fruition. It was the mathematics and the music.” With nary a word of narration, Integral Man lets the contemporary classical score by Sean Brody and Dan Goldman guide the tour in a meditative reflection on Stewart’s legacy.

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Lawrence Jackman & Attiya Khan Photo by Marina Dempster / NFB
Style and subject connect intimately in A Better Man, given Khan’s dual role of subject-director, narrating the film with letters addressed to Steve. “We would discuss the intentions before filming,” explains Jackman, who heightened the film’s objectivity. “But once the camera starts rolling, it becomes much like a verité film. In the therapy shoots, the crew faded into the background and Attiya and the therapist were in charge of the direction the conversation took.”

Central to this conversation is Christine Kleckner, who makes her feature debut as producer after shorts like Danis Goulet’s Wapaweeka (2010) and working on films like Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell (2012). (Polley is an executive producer of A Better Man.) “_A Better Man_ was about listening to a community that’s pushing for change in the way that their stories are being told,” explains Kleckner. “That involved conversations with the community and looking at the content they were using to educate people and see how we could contribute.”

Kleckner describes how this outreach propelled the film’s impressive crowdfunding drive. The campaign drew support from musicians Leslie Feist and Owen Pallett, plus the attention of NFB producers Justine Pimlott and Anita Lee. “We were inspired by the way This Changes Everything [2015] talked about their film and we really wanted to fit it within a movement,” says Kleckner. The team built upon its outreach efforts to create dialogue and grow momentum, particularly around the International Day to End Violence Against Women, which took place in November, and the anniversary of the École Polytechnique massacre on December 6, when media awareness of gender-based violence would be high.

Old photos of Attiya and Steve
Courtesy of the NFB


As part of the movement, the team strives to respect Steve’s privacy and security. “Because we are not used to seeing people publicly accept accountability for harming someone,” says Khan, “it’s hard to prepare for what to expect.”

“It was important to open this story in terms of how we view masculinity and how we deal with issues of rehabilitation. The real impact of the Jian Ghomeshi case was on how we see the need for the film,” adds Jackman, referring to the notorious trial of the former CBC host accused of sexual assault and other abuses.

Kalina Bertin’s father George
Courtesy of Hot Docs

Dialogue similarly shapes Manic. The film observes Bertin’s sister Félicia and her brother François in episodes that include tears, screams and airborne knives. The documentary process, Bertin explains, included watching this footage together. “It was important to sit down with my siblings and hear if there was anything they wanted me to remove. They’re being so vulnerable.” The frank depiction of mental illness forces a vital conversation.

“It kick-started their recoveries because they saw from the outside what it was like,” continues Bertin. “When my brother throws knives, it makes sense to him because he’s on a mission. But seeing it through my point of view, he recognised that it was different.” As with the films that moved her in high school, Bertin sees Manic as therapeutic. “Making the film acknowledged that something was wrong,” she says. “Keeping everything a secret enabled mental illness to seep into our lives and destroy us.”

François and Félicia Bertin in Manic
Courtesy of Hot Docs


One powerful scene sees Félicia experience a complete breakdown. This intense sequence captures an episode in which Félicia worries about providing for her daughter while the young girl begs her mother to be “normal.” Bertin admits seeing her elder sister this way was painful. “When I saw her lose touch with reality, that was very de-stabilising because she was my rock and what I wanted to be,” reveals Bertin.

However, Bertin recalls Félicia summoning her to document this breakdown. “You need to get the camera running. This scene has to go into the film,” Bertin remembers Félicia saying. This discomfort invited the bigger conversation to which most filmmakers aspire. “When I felt I was lost and alone, dealing with all the madness around me,” explains Bertin, “I wanted to share that we have to talk about this and have challenging discussions.” By involving her siblings in a supportive process akin to that of Attiya and Steve in A Better Man, Manic encourages rehabilitation through dialogue.

Weinstein, similarly, adds that speaking with ‘mermaids’ inspired her to see the implications of their subculture. “One of my main questions was ‘Why the universality of the mermaid?’” explains Weinstein. “Why all over the world throughout time have societies dreamed of this lonely woman of the water?”

Mermaids conveys this questioning through sumptuous underwater interludes in which Weinstein inserts folklore via voiceover as the myth of the mermaids washes over the viewer. “From the start,” says Weinstein, “I wanted the viewer to feel like they were underwater and floating in this peaceful space that the characters talk about.” Fluid cinematography by Catherine Lutes captures this vision perfectly. “Catherine is not an underwater cinematographer or scuba diver,” adds Weinstein, “but we gave her this underwater housing that she had never used before and she was incredible.”

Julz Owen in California.
Courtesy of Hot Docs


Central to the film is transgender mermaid Julz, who suggests parallels between the fluidity of gender, species and reality. “Julz would avoid mirrors because she would see masculine traits in herself,” explains Weinstein, “but when she had her tail on, she wasn’t looking for things she didn’t like. It was moving to see her be free when she embodied that identity.”

Weinstein’s doc drew the attention of filmmaker Ron Mann (Comic Book Confidential, 1988) who served as executive producer and will distribute Mermaids through Films We Like. “Ron’s known for films on quirky niche cultures that people don’t know are out there,” says Weinstein. “When I talked to him initially, it was right up his alley.” Weinstein, like Khan, adds that a mentor helped her trust her instincts. “As a young filmmaker,” admits Weinstein, “you need so much confidence in your idea to push through. Having someone like Ron Mann believe in the project gave me the confidence to push for it.”

James Stewart at Integral House
Courtesy of Hot Docs


What Mermaids does in sea, Integral Man achieves on land. Clement provides a tour in which the camera explores Integral House like an all-seeing eye. The aesthetic draws inspiration from Stanley Kubrick’s horror classic The Shining (1980), Alexander Sokurov’s long-take Russian Ark (2002) and the experimental work of Canadian filmmaker/artist Mark Lewis. “I like the idea of moving through space in which you’re like a non-present presence—the sensibility of this free movement, the continuity and sense of exploration of space,” says Clement.

The film uses the structure of Integral House as a blueprint, since the home features no doors and allows free movement around all five floors. Glass-paned exterior walls bathe the film in palettes of natural light. “We shot the house on 35mm because how you experience that space depends on the quality of light, time of light and duration of light,” explains Clement. “Light informs the experience of being in that space. That’s part of what the architects work with as a medium, like wood, stone or steel.”

Natural light accentuates space and design in Integral House
Courtesy of Hot Docs


The inviting atmosphere evokes Stewart’s spirit as the camera tours Integral House. One appreciates how it became a hub for benefits and galas. “We held a number of fundraisers at the house itself: events, musical performances,” says Clement. “Clint Roenisch curated an evening of art and artists, and Measha Brueggergosman showed up and sang. She was actually just staying at Integral House and came downstairs and sang impromptu.” The novelty of the Canadian soprano’s surprise performance illustrates how Stewart’s passion forged a gathering place.

Brueggergosman appears in Integral Man during the final concert Stewart would host. The fête—Stewart’s living wake—follows a dramatic revelation of Stewart’s diagnosis with terminal blood cancer. “It was just another part of the story. He was very pragmatic. Death to him was a math equation.” Rather than an eulogy, Clement’s film is a celebration of life as Stewart curates a grand finale. While anonymous condos clutter the sky and oversized drug stores squeeze local character from the downtown core, Integral Man is a refreshing reminder that personal space needn’t be private.

A Better Man, Manic, Mermaids and Integral Man continue the tale of innovation in Canadian documentary. The impulse of curiosity and the willingness to push boundaries show 2017’s freshmen as a class of born filmmakers.

Visit the POV Hot Docs Hub for more coverage from this year’s festival.

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