Lindalee Tracey has the kind of presence that lights up a room. Feisty, charismatic and funny, she delights in making her opinions known. Proud of her Irish background, Lindalee has the attractive features inherent in her Gaelic roots.
Over the course of fifty years, she has pursued many careers: as a radio and TV host, a stripper, writer of award-winning literary non-fiction and a documentary filmmaker. Along with her life partner Peter Raymont, she is a founder of White Pine Pictures, a leading producer of documentary TV series (A Scattering of Seeds), one-offs (Bhopal: The Search for Justice) and features (Shake Hands with the Devil).
Lindalee Tracey first came to prominence as the stripper and narrator of the controversial NFB doc, Not A Love Story: A Film About Pornography. Her experiences working on the film angered her but may have helped to facilitate her transition from dancer to journalist. After years of radio and print work, she moved on to documentary filmmaking in the ’90s. Lindalee’s career has been filled with highlights. She is the author of three books, On the Edge, Growing up Naked and A Scattering of Seeds, and director of such notable films as Abby, I Hardly Knew Ya and Anatomy of Burlesque.
Though gravely ill with cancer, Lindalee granted POV an interview during which she was characteristically spontaneous, thoughtful and gracious.
POV = Marc Glassman
LT = Lindalee Tracey
POV: Your life has been full of different identities. Which one is most like you?
LT: There’s the brave me, the quiet me, the pensive sensitive me, and there’s me now, on the verge of dying. This is the current me, so this is my filter. I’m experiencing everything through this corridor, and I can’t even remember the other lives.
POV: Tell me about your illness.
LT: I’ve had three occurrences of breast cancer and it’s the worst kind to have. But it’s also the kind that they’re doing the most research on, so it’s actually been saving my life. I’ve had breast cancer, liver cancer, lung cancer, bone cancer and brain cancer, and now the brain cancer’s come back. I’m learning to live between life and death, hope and fear. I’ve been trying really hard to walk the middle path. It’s been horrible. Part of me can’t help but take notes. I’m like Hansel and Gretel; I want to leave crumbs so I know how to come back.
POV: There are certain themes in your work which I’d like to explore. The disenfranchised are a real concern for you in books and films. Why is that?
LT: I’ve been seeing the world all my life as those who are struggling upwards and those who are already up and oblivious to the ones that hold them up. That comes from a long line of experiences of marginalization. To me it’s a measure of my humanity that I can stay in touch with people or that I feel comfortable with people who are not economically blessed. That’s where I come from. We had to have second-hand clothes from other people when I was young. We had a little tin with $5 in it to save for our groceries. We had a lot of hardship. Being sick as a child, before health coverage, cost my mother a lot of money. I come from that place. I’m happy to say that. That’s a place of enormous merit and authenticity.
POV: You directed a number of A Scattering of Seeds episodes. One of the most powerful of those was on the Canadian journalist, Kit Coleman. What interested you about her?
LT: What turned me on about Kit was her Irishness, and her lying about it. If you’re poor or Irish, at different times in history, people lie. My grandmother lied about being Irish. She had flaming red hair down to her butt, but she wasn’t Irish, she was English. That’s the same thing I noticed in Kit and I loved it. I loved that she invented and re-invented herself. So many of the disadvantaged have to reinvent themselves.
POV: Is Irishness intrinsic to your character?
LT: I didn’t have a father growing up; he’d left the family. My father happened to be extremely Irish, in every way. Those of his family that remain, that I’ve come to know and love, the Traceys, are incredibly Irish in everything they do. When I found out how Irish they were, it couldn’t have been better news. Too bad he was dead, but wow! It fit me and I fit it.
POV: You made a strong and quite personal directing debut with a film about your father, Abby, I Hardly Knew Ya. I was struck by the wonderful ease and warmth you had with his old alcoholic friends who were damaged souls. You must have felt something for them; but how much of what we see of you with them is a performance by a journalist?
LT: It was my first film so I wasn’t that smart about those sorts of manipulations. I didn’t know how to be manipulative. Frankly, I don’t care for manipulation, in books or in films. I need to experience things in order to speak and to write passionately from a real place. For however long I live, that’s all I’ll ever know of my father. Those people who live on park benches or under trees were like him. So when I talked to them, I was really talking to my father. I wanted to learn about their lives because I wanted to learn about his life.
POV: At the end of the film, there’s a scene that moved me to tears. You’re at Abby’s grave and you just erupt with anger. Can you tell me about that scene, which has since become controversial?
LT: I got a lot of shit for that scene. People felt that you shouldn’t be mad at an alcoholic, you shouldn’t be mad for being abandoned. You’re a better person than that. I spent two reels of footage in front of that gravestone going, ‘Gee Abby, I wish you had been nicer’ (mealy mouth voice). Talk about phony baloney! I wasn’t allowing my heart to have anything to do with the scene. And then I thought, ‘Fuck this.’ I just let it go. I didn’t care at that moment what anyone thought of it, what the interpretation was, I was living it.
POV: You left home in Ottawa early to become a dancer. What was it like being a performer?
LT: I just loved stripping; those were grown-up girls with real boobs, and I wanted to do that too! It was the express lane into adulthood. I grew up in the clubs. I saw it change from this wonderful carnival to a source of awfulness and exploitation. We paraded our imperfections. We enjoyed them and so did the men who came to see us—before they became corporate and demanding of those of us who were not perfect to be perfect. The people who came to the clubs were often sorrowful folk; and we talked to them.
Then the feminists came. Not a Love Story destroyed that whole energy. The people who made the film didn’t get it. They were never poor. Most of the strippers were poor. That made them different and it makes me want to honour them even more.
When you put on top of strippers this bullshit American feminist rhetoric, about ‘you’re being exploited, you’re not getting what you want’—do you think they were going to get anything at the factory? They got way more at the clubs than they could get at any factory. And they exercised their creativity. None of those women would pick up a book. They danced and many sewed their own costumes. They did lots of weird and wonderful things: they trained animals, they dressed up pigs to look like cops. To me it was really beautiful that they could do that.
POV: Did you do things to satisfy Not A Love Story’s filmmakers, Bonnie Sherr Klein and Dorothy Hénaut?
LT: They were definitely intimidating. They seemed so intellectual. They seemed so titless, so guy-like. (Puts on awe-struck, childlike tone:) ‘They must know something I don’t because look at the way they look! They’re from another planet, man!’
I did a couple of things for them: a voiceover, which I didn’t want to do, and I didn’t want to go to New York for the film premiere but they insisted. I had to fight for money. Talk about exploitation. I had to fight with the Film Board, whereas I didn’t have to fight for money with the club owners. I just said, ‘this is my price, take it or leave it.’
I found the whole experience incredibly painful and untrue and inauthentic. I found at the end I was their fridge magnet. I was the person they would hand off to people and say, ‘Here’s a survivor.’ A survivor! No, I’m a survivor of your civil service and your factories.
POV: Years ago at Hot Docs you confronted Hénaut. It was one of the most vivid and courageous things I’ve seen in my life. How did you feel when you did that? And now that you’ve been on camera and behind the camera: where is the responsibility for a documentary filmmaker?
LT: Every experience offers pearls. The pearl from Not A Love Story is that I will never treat people like they did, ever in my life. I remember the incident at Hot Docs. Barbara Sears, who is a wonderful researcher and filmmaker, was sitting beside me saying ‘let it go, just let it go’ and I said, ‘I can’t fucking let it go.’ So I stood up, and said, ‘you exploited me, and you’ve never ever said that you were sorry for that.’ Hénaut needed to be told in front of her peers that her way of filmmaking was completely wrong.
She allowed for a photograph to be taken of me with somebody looking at my labia. This is something that I never did as a stripper, and that I certainly wouldn’t allow. We talked about this before the end of the shoot, that we can’t let these things escape. She sent it to New York. She was part of the people who said, ‘It’s ok, we’ll send it to New York for the premiere of the film.’ That was such a betrayal. It’s not who I was. I wasn’t about genitals. I was about head, and tongue, and cutting off people’s ties. I was very comic about my sexuality. They didn’t capture that. They captured a seriously hurt, wounded, damaged person. That’s not who I was.
After that film, I went back to dancing. Those were the people who were paying me; they weren’t the people who were abandoning me. Did I hear from those two clucks? Not for months. No one was taking care of my rent. I’m sure they feel a great deal of shame about some of the things that they did. They will also say you can’t argue with success, and that film went all over the world. It was hugely successful and is in a lot of film classes—unfortunately for me.
They made a big mess of things, but it did teach me, whether you’re in front or behind the camera, there are certain responsibilities. There are no Ten Commandments to being a good filmmaker. It’s about being moral, being decent, being honourable. Would you want this person to be hurt after you’ve trucked through their life? I’ve warned people: don’t use your real name because the media will haunt you. I know this. Because I do know it, they listen to me.
POV: Your film Anatomy of Burlesque is clearly a personal project. What are your feelings about it?
LT: I think it’s very smart. It hasn’t got a lot of raves; it should have done much better. I can’t really explain why that is. It’s full of the burlesque it speaks on. I did it because I had just gone through chemotherapy during my first bout of breast cancer. It was a horrific and shocking experience and I wanted to get to a place of immense humour. I needed it. The premise that I’d come up with was unique: it really was a working person’s voice.
POV: You transitioned from stripping to journalism. That’s quite a shift. What happened?
LT: I took a very circuitous route. I went from stripping to working on a local television show on CFCF in Montreal. I wasn’t supposed to do anything but wear tight clothes, but I brought on people like Morgentaler. They got really pissed. I wrote a column every so often. From there, I went to radio, hosting and co-producing Montreal Tonight on CJAD radio.
Back in the early ’80s, I started doing stories on street people before anybody was reporting on them. I got criticized for taking up somebody’s bed. How were we going to get more money for beds if people didn’t know they were needed? I did one particular story about homeless women in Montreal. I was really proud of that. It made a big difference.
I came to Toronto to work on As It Happens. Man, talk about feeling like you were in a factory! (snickers.) The kids on the floor had great ideas and did all the muscle work getting people on the air while the hosts sat back and drank coffee and said a few words that you had written for them. I much preferred doing Sunday Morning. Everyone was crackers, and had some sort of neurosis that they used in their work, which was fabulous. It felt very much like a strip club to me: real nutty people and great stuff.
POV: What makes great radio?
LT: Camaraderie, which doesn’t have to be based on the laws of Moses. Everyone just has to know: I want this now, I need this now and recognize each other’s needs and wants. It is healthy and makes for fabulous radio. The main thing I learnt in radio was not to be afraid of people collecting their thoughts or breathing. And not to be afraid to breathe yourself.
Many times when I’m making a film, people want to cut out the breath when I’m doing my narration read—but I don’t let them. That speaks about my heartbeat, about being human. You react to it differently. Radio gave me the confidence to do what I believe is right.
POV: You tackle the same topic, illegal aliens, in the film Invisible Nation and the award-winning article Uncounted Canadians. What are the differences between being a print journalist and a documentarian, even when you’re dealing with similar subjects?
LT: I always play with content and form. If I can’t play with form it’s not interesting to me. That includes literary journalism. When I was doing Uncounted Canadians I was moving through time, which was a different way of telling a story. I open with a guy watching the border from the American side but I wasn’t actually there when the guy made his illegal crossing. When I met him, hiding on a train, I asked him how he got there. He described the whole scene. I wasn’t sure if he was bullshitting me, so I went there. It was exactly as he had said, so I wrote it as if he was there. I was taking huge liberties, but everything was fact-checked. I stationed myself at different places and illegals would pop out. I was able to move back and forth like the train on a trestle in the narrative. That gets a lot clunkier in film, unless you’re a real master.
When you write an article, the tenderness is allowed to breathe a lot more. Film is the more restrictive form. You have a crew and you’re invading somebody’s space. You’ve got all those people working for you, it’s not like you can figure things out by yourself. Everybody has an opinion, and often a good one.
When you make a film, it’s a public monument of your own thinking and research. You can’t be seen—unless you’re Michael Moore—as too much of a one-sided person. You have to look at the other side. You can turn away from it, but you have to make the effort. In print, there is a greater licence, as long as your facts are right. It’s much more open.
POV: Speaking of print, your book On the Edge is a compassionate look at economically disadvantaged people in Canada. Again, this is a theme that runs through your work. You were already married and the mother of a young boy when you headed on the road. Was it a risky thing to do?
LT: It’s not a risky thing to do if you approach it the right way. It was about understanding who lived in that little shack. I just drove into peoples’ lives. I would park my car and go up and say, ‘Hi, I’m Lindalee and I’m doing this book about how people who don’t have very much money do really remarkable things and are often really nice people.’ And they’d say, ‘That’s me!’ If you tell people you’re doing a book on poor people, they flee. I would, too! I treated them with the dignity they deserved. I’m really proud of that.
POV: You and your partner Peter Raymont worked on Bhopal: the Search for Justice together. Was it hard working on the project?
LT: Peter produces a lot of my work. He was terribly afraid that I was going to fall to pieces, that I was going to be one of those North Americans who got to India and cried for four weeks and came home. In fact it was the opposite. I went to India, and looked at as many people as my eyeballs could contain. I saw well-off people. I saw India’s poor people who are very, very poor but not disenfranchised in the same way that people are here. I saw a wholeness to people. It had something to do with their spirituality, and with a sense of community. Mothers, no matter how poor they were, loved their children and the neighbours’ children and took care of them. It wasn’t a litigious society, or a society based on rights. It had to do with being human. One doesn’t see unadorned humanity in this day and age in Canada: how to be decent, how to be nice. I saw that in India.
Everywhere I went in India there was a crowd: a white girl. They called me ‘English girl.’ Does that speak of colonialism? The crew kept trying to protect me and I would literally fall backward into the crowd because they didn’t scare me at all. I welcomed them. I wanted them to touch me. I liked it! I must have lived there a lifetime ago. It really agreed with me. The other thing that really agreed with me was Bhopal; there were Hindus, Christians and Muslims living together. We think we’re so great in “multicultural” Toronto and to an extent we are, because we make things work civilly between all of us, but they do in Bhopal too. Since partition, the Muslims who didn’t get across to Pakistan stayed in Bhopal and made a life for themselves. They were never talked about during this whole crisis.
We think of the thousands of Hindus who died at Bhopal because of this Dow Chemical explosion, the horror of it, the evilness of it. It continues to be even more evil—with the cover-up. There were a lot of Muslims involved in the tragedy—half the city is Muslim. They suffered too, and not just the poor. The rich and the middle-class, too. I said to the crew, ‘I know I’m paying you to be here, but you’re not going to do doodly-squat for ten days. I have to hang and eat and talk with people.’ It’s a very patriarchal culture, and the two Indians who were on board were constantly trying to sabotage me. They’d say, ‘You can’t possibly be a director; you’re a woman. What are you, the crafts girl?’ (She laughs.) ‘Yeah, honey, eat this!’
I did nothing but hang out with the women in the slums and with the middle-class Muslims. I ate with them. I hung out at the Imam’s house. Just to understand what I couldn’t possibly understand. They saw my character. They knew I was a good person. They were so pleased that I wore the hijab, and I made sure that everything was covered. I have no problem with that—although, take it off when you come here. When I’m there, it’s your culture; I’ll honour it. I went for dinners and didn’t have any utensils. I was amazed at how “unofficial India” was able to take care of its own, even in this holocaust. Whereas “official India” and “official America” had so lost touch with their hearts and turned this horror into a litigious case about money. It wasn’t about money: somebody’s child had died. What does that mean? Everything to that person; not $50. They filled Bhopal with hospitals, but not with goodness. There’s nothing that’s worth saving except for the people. Lots of local Congressmen made lots of money, padded their pockets. The Indian government is up to their eyeballs in this stuff. The local people don’t have the same licence to call it, but I do.
POV: Can you take me through your process as a documentary filmmaker?
LT: The research is primary and it goes on for months. I never go over budget but I spend a lot on research. As I do the research, I learn things, and they coagulate. There’s a major paradigm shift and it all starts to make sense to me. I say to researchers, ‘Unless it can be sourced three ways, don’t even give it to me.’ That’s my journalism: it has to be right. Mind you, I’ll take my literary licences at other places where one finds the emotional intersection.
Then I go and shoot. I do a script before I go out, for every film. The script changes enormously, and that’s ok, but that’s my control. I need that. I give the script to the whole crew. Most of them have never seen this: a documentary filmmaker giving them a script! I talk to the cinematographer and we have long conversations about what the scene is really about. We want it to be naturally lit, and we want her to be by the window and looking at her former life. What we’re really saying is, she’s a liar. What’s the best way to illustrate that?
There are times when nothing can be thought out. When you’re doing the story on illegal immigrants (Invisible Nation) and two of them are being busted, people are running all over the place—the cops and those two sumo wrestler type guys—and all we know is why we’re there. So we shoot it for that, and it makes sense. Then after the shoot, there is more writing involved. It’s the legs and the skeleton, the bones of the thing. What I used to do, I think, was keep the best lines for me, because I thought them. Now I give the best lines to everybody else in the film. That makes it far more interesting.
POV: You and your life partner, Peter Raymont, have a documentary company, White Pine Pictures. Can you tell me about your relationship, professionally and personally?
LT: I love him. He’s extremely different from me. I like that no matter how different we are socially and economically, we are the same politically. He really cares about the same people that I care about. He approaches his politics from a different angle than me: hating the guys in suits. I hit it from another angle, from the people who couldn’t afford a suit. Together we’re hitting the same constituency and we care about the same thing.
Forming a company together was hard. You always have to decide who’s the boss, or who is going to make the final decision. We tussle over that all the time. We can be very bitchy to each other, me more than Peter.
We believe first of all in making films that can do some good. Peter is more the money guy and I’m more the ideas person. So I do the pitches, although in the last year and a half I’ve been so sick that I haven’t done many.
He loves Canada. It’s such a corny thing to say, but I love Canada too. I’m really Canadian: French- Irish- and English-Canadian! I know a lot of immigrants choose Canada over the States: thinking people who want something different for their children.
POV: That dovetails nicely with a very successful White Pines project, A Scattering of Seeds, which dealt with immigrants to Canada. You also wrote the book based on the series. Was this a very personal project for you?
LT: A Scattering of Seeds was perfect for us because we could bring people on who’d only done one film or two and really help them by producing a short doc for the series. Between us, we have a lot of knowledge. It’s hard for new directors because they want to make their own film, but they have to be able to buck up under criticism, which is nice criticism, I find.
I was really proud of A Scattering of Seeds. If I died tomorrow, that would be my legacy. It’s seeing “the other” in crowds, up close as individuals. It’s about not being afraid of the intimacy of individuals who did something remarkably simple, who believed in this country.