Interview: Roz Owen and Jim Miller

NOTE: This interview originally appeared in a February 2012 Point of View e-newsletter.

Nick Gergesha (NG): You both seem very close with Carole Condé and Carl Beveridge. How did you meet, and what inspired you to create a documentary on their life and works?

Roz Owen (RO): We have known them for quite a long time. Over the years we’ve been in a number of their works. All their friends are, really. Many of their works have so many people in them.

Jim Miller (JM): We were all involved in A Space (art gallery) years ago in the mid 1980s. I’d encountered them in Halifax at NSCAD when I was a student. They were visiting artists there, but it was at A Space that we got to know them.

RO: Actually, Marc Glassman was on the A Space (film) committee.

JM: [My background and Roz’s background] are both in the visual arts, but I guess I persisted longer than Roz, who moved into film much earlier. My work has been in the same territory [as Carole and Karl’s] in terms of art for change, working to have a critical as well as social and political dimension. I was involved in different [political and artistic) things and have collaborated with them for a good number of years.

RO: For me, I’d always seen their work as looking like film stills. I was always inspired by that and wondered what people would say if they were to step out of the work. I think that was really the inspiration for the film. Their work is so beautiful and filmic, that it just seemed to be crying out for a film to be made. There was one night when we went to dinner and saw the making of “The Fall of Water” [one of Condé and Beveridge’s photo pieces], this extraordinary Brueghel based work.

NG: I remember that piece. You spend a lot of time on it in the movie.

RO: Yes. In fact, we had no budget at that point so we were shooting it with just my little MiniDV camera. We thought we would go back and restage it, but it seemed like it was just what it was. It wouldn’t feel like a true documentary to do that. But certainly, as soon as we saw that piece, it was an immediate inspiration. We came in the next week with some cameras and started shooting them.

JM: The funny thing was that Roz had been thinking independently about their works and the way they look like film stills, and I was just thinking that they were really worthy [to be captured on film]. There are things that we just hint at in terms of their role of artists. They have been so central to the evolution of a particular kind of art making sphere in Canada and beyond, and I had always felt that we needed to document them. So it was that moment, that evening at dinner, where we both looked at each other and said ‘wow, this work is incredible.’ It was the spark that made us start.

NG: So that was the moment when everything clicked. How did the film come to fruition? Did you create the trailer first to pique the interest of funding bodies?

Filmmakers Roz Owen and Jim Miller.

RO: Yes, we did. What actually happened was we made a short film about [Condé and Beveridge] that went with their retrospective show that was traveling across Canada at that time.

NG: Was that in 2008?

JM: Yes it was. It was a film called Community Matters; it was on MiniDV. It won a OAAG Best Visual Art Film award but it still wasn’t quite what we needed.

RO: It was interesting. We thought that, with Community Matters, we would be able to raise money but it actually took us a couple of years. Carole and Karl were so prolific that we just kept shooting and borrowing HD Cameras when we could, and we ended up making a trailer. The trailer was made from the new footage, and that was what actually raised the money. Trailers are so important. I think it’s really hard for people to understand what you’re trying to convey unless they can see it.

JM: A lot of that shooting concerned “The Salt of the Earth,” the piece on the migrant farm workers featured in the film.

NG: What was the funding process like for the picture?

RO: This was initially funded by the Ontario Arts Council, then the Canada Council and Toronto Arts Council, and I think the only way to do it is to just shoot and cut a trailer, then send that out along with your proposal. The lucky thing now is that because of the technology changing so fast, and because High Definition is so much more beautiful than video ever was, it is possible to make trailers yourself.

JM: It was predominantly funded by the arts councils, but we actually got a little help from friends. We actually got a lot of help from friends. There were a couple friends who gave us a little bit of money, and then there were other friends who gave us equipment. This was before we had the arts council funding in place, and this was critical. I think every project has its own sort of funding evolution, and I think the biggest thing was that we were really passionate about doing it. That meant other people were willing to kick in, and finally we were able to gather together more funding through the Council to be able to really make a go of it. Even after that we did some crowd financing, and at the very end, we got the trade union UFCW [United Food and Commercial Workers Canada] to give us some support to help get it finished.

NG: What is it like working with the arts councils? What is the process you have to go through?

RO: It’s a really ideal situation. It’s terrific getting money from the Arts Council because they trust you to make the film you want to make. They are not checking up on you all the time, whereas with broadcasters it is very different. It’s a very hands-off and luxurious way to make a film, I think. This film would never have been made without the arts councils.

JM: It was fantastic having that latitude and support. But as Roz was saying, Carole and Karl are very prolific. We put a proposal in to the Ontario Arts Council based on one thing, and by the time our financing was finally together the artists were already moving on to new work. I think this can happen in any sort of financing effort, though. When you are making a documentary, the kind of situation that you are trying to tap into is shifting as you are waiting for your financing to help. Having the artistic license that arts council funding affords you on a project is great.

NG: Carole and Karl use actors instead of the actual workers in their photography. Why do they do this?

RO: They will [use actors] whenever they feel that they would put the workers in jeopardy. For example, the migrant farm workers have so few rights that they could be sent home. Carole and Karl did not want to be responsible for something happening to them. It really depends on whether or not there are vulnerable workers.

NG: This leads me into the ethical issue in documentary filmmaking. How do you and Jim approach ethics in terms of talking to your subjects? What steps do you take to ensure everyone is treated fairly or has an equal say in the film?

RO: I think that because Carole and Karl are so careful, we are really following them.

JM: It was something we were negotiating and I think that there is an apparent divergence of trying to document Carole and Karl doing the migrant farm worker project where they are using actors and we are trying to show them in the field they are in. We were very careful to not have people implicating themselves in certain circumstances. We wanted to thread that circumstance where we know that Carole and Karl are doing a lot of research and they basically have to process and synthesize that into something where they can talk critically about employers and the industry and so on. We sort of showed the peripheries of their research, where they are meeting these kinds of people. But the actual critique is coming out later as they are shooting and we see their work.

RO: The workers themselves are not saying anything that can get them sent out of the country.

NG: What were the specific steps you had to take in framing your social subjects?

RO: Everyone had to sign releases. This is pretty standard, and it is also very important to do it. Most people are pretty excited to be in a film, but we didn’t really have many problems. I think having people like John Greyson or myself come to life for the scene of one of the artists’ photos at the end of the documentary was perfect—-to have people actually confront Carole and Karl when they weren’t in their own work anymore.

JM: Most of our subjects had already participated in the structuring of Carole and Karl’s photo work, so they were open to the involvement in the first place. They were quite keen to take it in another direction in the process in the film.

RO: Everyone we approached was really quite excited about making the documentary.

NG: To venture into how you made the film, I really enjoyed the editing in the documentary. Social subjects will come to life and animate from one of the artists’ photos to speak directly to the camera. How did you go about doing this?

RO: Technically, it was done with a green screen. If Carole and Karl were there, we would get them to help us to pose people as they were in their own work so we could get as close as we could to that moment.

JM: Carole and Karl keep costuming they use, so even though certain works were shot years earlier, they still had them in the basement.

RO: I had suddenly woken up one morning and we were shooting, and I said to Carole that we had to get Ali [Kazimi, filmmaker] to come out and speak from this piece. I asked her if she still had the costume he’d used and she said she wasn’t sure but she would look. So we sort of arrived and in true documentary style it’s really in the moment. She had it all, so it was pretty spontaneous at times.

JM: To make it work we would have Carole and Karl helping with the re-posing. I would take the new shot and, to make it seamless, we’d take the new pose and transpose it back into the old photograph so that it worked there. Then afterward the person could easily step out. There is actually a bit of a shift from the original photograph in that we photo shopped the new image of that person back into the original image to make it work and look seamless.

RO: It was fun to do, but it was also very time consuming.

JM: You end up spending more time and resources than the funding you get, but you’re really determined to make it.

RO: You also get to make the film you want to make.

NG: There is a focus in your documentary on storytelling. You delve into the personal lives of your subjects and zoom in on the lives of people affected by Condé and Beveridge’s works of social justice. How does the telling of a story – of narrating and listening to an experience – benefit your project? Why not simply resort to showing through photographic means?

JM: Their work is an act of interpretation, creation and construction.

RO: Carole and Karl’s work is incredibly detailed. The more you look at it, the more you find. There are so many stories that you can find to focus on in your work.

JM: There is the kind of documentation that is a realistic documentation, as we’ve done, in parts of the film. But Carole and Karl will take it – documentary – back and start to visually imagine the dimensions at play in political circumstances. Their work focuses on that and looks back toward the history of art and advertising. This keeps them in the realm of the constructed still image. Our film takes inspiration from what they do but we were trying to do something different.

RO: There are so many things in their work that contains such depth and interest, and I wanted to be able to let the audience into some of their own stories.

NG: I liked that personal exploration, and it definitely worked along the lines of a more poetic documentary mode. You frame the carbon emitting power plant, showing all of its devastation on the body of water that surrounds it, but then you look through Carole and Karl’s old cottage, showing the viewer the more intimate moments that were ruined by a kind of social injustice. It is interesting that you use your documentary to tease out the stories of your subjects in the moving image just like Carole and Karl tease out the stories of their subjects in the still image.

RO: They were very reticent about having anything personal in the film, so it was an interesting give and take because I am more interested in the personal stories. I think it helps people understand a work.

JM: Roz is very keen to get the dimensions of what drives a person to do what they do. Carole and Karl are oriented to making works that operate and are about a community, and in turn are very self-effacing. That was sort of the double meaning of the title Portrait of Resistance: They are clearly creating work that is critical of power and globalization, but they also have a resistance in terms of putting themselves in the frame. There’s a history in art that everything is supposed to be anchored in individualism, and they really rejected that. We just needed to adjust the picture a little to get some sort of an understanding about who they are.

RO: I think it’s what makes people really interesting. There’s a point where Karl is very sick with cancer and I know they didn’t really want that in the film. I think it’s very interesting that they choose to create a work about the workers that are looking after them instead of about themselves.

NG: So it’s like they’re so concerned with social justice for others that we don’t get a chance to see the artists themselves.

RO: We felt that was what is so interesting. We thought we could weave that in through the art as you discovered it.

NG: What do you have in store for the Reel Artists Film Festival later this month?

RO: I’m on a panel with two other filmmakers – one who is a Canadian filmmaker, and the other who made the opening film. Marc Glassman is moderating the panel, and this will be just prior to our screening. Then after the screening Carole Condé and Karl Beveridge will join us on stage for a Q&A. We’re excited, especially because the TIFF Bell Lightbox facility will be very lovely. We are very lucky. It is always a fascinating experience to see a film with an audience. Whether they laugh or they are caught up in the moment, it is a very exciting experience to see the reaction to something you have been working on.

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Portrait of Resistance kicks off the 2012 Cinema Politica series Tuesday, September 4th, 6:45pm at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema in Toronto.