For many of us, university is a vast wasteland of regrets—what happens in the junior quad stays in the junior quad—but for Ray Klonsky, co-director of the acclaimed documentary David and Me (2014) it was ground zero for his filmmaking career. “The Concordia connection was integral,” says the 30-year-old Toronto native, who entered the school’s Department of Communication Studies in 2006 and quickly found a couple of kindred spirits who would go on to be his co-director and one of his producers. “Marc [Lamy] and I met in the communications programme and Aaron Hancox was our TA. If you’re lucky, university is where you meet your future collaborators. We got lucky.”
Klonsky, Lamy and Hancox have had great success with David and Me, which premiered to strong reviews last year at Hot Docs. Shot over a period of eight years, the film takes off from Klonsky’s correspondence with David McCallum, a New York man who was wrongfully convicted of murder in 1985 and imprisoned for nearly twenty years. Working in a quick, crisp style that filters personal investment through journalistic urgency, David and Me makes a dual case for its subject’s innocence and for the restorative powers of recognition and respect.
“Ray was very, very close to David,” explains Lamy, who agreed to work with Klonsky on the project while they were still undergrads and accompanied him to New York in a rented car with a rented camera. “Of course there’s always a risk of not remaining critical, especially when the subject is so emotionally attached to yourself and your family. But we’re not journalists. Maybe we never set out to be objective. We were all outraged at David’s injustice and we wanted the world to be angry at it, too.”
“I think documentary, like journalism, is moving away from the pursuit of objectivity in general,” adds Hancox, who is also the VP, Unscripted at the Toronto-based production company Markham Street Films, which produced David and Me through him and the company’s founders Judy Holm and Michael McNamara. “Look at what VICE is doing with news and docs or what an alt-news outlet like Canadaland has built around the idea of subjective reporting. If you consider how much of ourselves we share through social media, it’s no surprise that a more personal, authorial documentary voice seems to be engaging audiences in ways that Walter Cronkite never could have.”
That David and Me has managed to attract an audience in a crowded documentary marketplace might be a testament to its creators’ approach to a format that is often associated with a kind of cut-and-dried orthodoxy. “There is so much noise in today’s world and so much content being produced that I think the ‘reality’ is that as a filmmaker your first responsibility is to the story and the entertainment value,” says Klonsky. “What’s the point of activism if nobody’s watching?”
This is the same question underwriting York graduate Victoria Lean’s fine new debut After the Last River, which was recently selected as the opening night film of the 2015 Planet in Focus Film Festival. “On the question of the role of documentary vs. journalism, I think that in an era where newsroom budgets have been cut back, it’s hard for journalists to dig deep into a story,” she says. “They have no choice but to rely on the most readily available information, which is often provided by those with the most resources and power.”
Challenging power is the subject of Lean’s film, which examines the fallout and the furor of the decision by the diamond titan De Beers to open a mine in Northern Ontario. It was a move meant to shift operations and media focus away from the ruinous effects of diamond mining in Africa—De Beers originated with the notorious British imperialist and South African politician Cecil Rhodes—but as the mine began to infringe on the ecology of the Attawapiskat First Nation, the narrative changed and deepened through the lens of Lean’s camera.
“The film originally intended to focus on questions involving the relationship between De Beers and Attawapiskat,” says the director. “However, upon arrival, I realised the deeper story was beyond my environmental lens. It was rooted in the vast disconnection between the reality of Attawapiskat and the myth of Canada.” Over the course of the film, we see how De Beers’ indifference to the First Nation community is mirrored by the behaviour of the provincial and federal governments, a connection that Lean develops subtly but forcefully. A work of great focus and observation, After the Last River manages not to sacrifice complexity for directness.
Lean says that she was influenced in the production of After the Last River by a text she was assigned in one of her first courses at York: Susan Sontag’s valedictory book Regarding the Pain of Others. “Sontag argued that when photographing dire circumstances of human suffering, the goal of the photographer should not be to elicit the sympathy of the viewer,” she says. “[It is] to encourage the viewer to contemplate how their own privilege is complicit in that suffering.” The question of how After the Last River will affect audiences as it makes its way across the festival circuit remains open, and Lean is aware that in some ways, films like hers face an uphill battle. “Programmers and buyers speak with hesitation about playing what get deemed social justice or environmental films and often for good reasons. These films have a reputation of being ‘preachy’ or so overloaded in facts that audiences are turned off.” She says that while she’s undaunted by this attitude on the audience side, there are more than enough obstacles on the other side of the screen to worry about. “I may have entered the industry in a fraught moment, especially since the CRTC’s Let’s Talk TV hearings, but I’ve never known filmmaking to be easy and I also can’t imagine ever making a more challenging feature film with less money and resources than I just did.”
Another York graduate who has adopted a defiant stance is Chelsea McMullan, whose utterly compelling new documentary Michael Shannon Michael Shannon John just debuted at the Vancouver International Film Festival. (Full disclosure: Chelsea is my basketballleague teammate and a sure inclusion on any list of the top Canadian filmmaker-athletes.) Making independent non-fiction films in Canada is a kind of full-contact sport, and she credits her instructors at York for helping to thicken her skin. “Tereza Barta was a huge influence on me,” she says. “[She] has a reputation for being a real hardass, but she is an incredible and generous teacher. She made me cry a lot in undergrad…I am a much more robust filmmaker because of her. I think it’s a disservice to students to handle them with kid gloves. It’s a cold world outside of the security blanket of film school.”
A cold world, and a weird one, as her new feature attests. After the release of McMullan’s lovely 2013 film My Prairie Home —a combination profile/showcase for the well-known transgender singer-songwriter Rae Spoon produced by the NFB—the director was contacted by a former classmate, Shannon Hamner, who told McMullan a bizarre story about her late father, John. He had left Canada for Thailand and started a second family—and given the same names to his two children there as Shannon and her brother Michael. When Shannon was contacted through Facebook by another “Shannon Hamner,” a transcontinental doppelganger, the deranged shape of her dad’s other life took fuller shape, and she asked McMullan to make it into a movie.
“I was a bit hesitant at first, but it also felt like Shannon was giving me an incredible gift,” says McMullan, who filmed for over a month in Thailand and the Philippines (and not without interferencefrom the local government of the former). “I was very attracted by the idea of taking a seemingly pulpy, sensational story and peeling back the layers one at a time until I reached the centre.” The quality of the film bears out her angle of approach; in lieu of a formulaic investigative piece, Michael Shannon Michael Shannon John unveils as a series of strange, elusive encounters and sensations. The four protagonists are all finely drawn, while John Hamner resonates as a kind of structuring absence. “The more I think about it, the more I see it as a ghost story,” says McMullan. “Maybe that’s just my love of Apichatpong [the remarkably allusive Thai director —Ed.] talking.”
Michael Shannon Michael Shannon John is executive produced by Mercury Films’ founders Jennifer Baichwal and Nick de Pencier, who gave McMullan an internship when she was twenty years old. “I was like a sponge,” she recalls. “I was a terrible intern but they were really supportive of me and for the most part just let me work on my own stuff. After I graduated, they let me keep the keys to their office and I worked there rent-free for three years.” McMullan met her editor Avril Jacobson at Mercury Films and says that the pair learned a lot from screening cuts of Manufactured Landscapes after hours. “I know the meditative and philosophical elements of my work are deeply influenced by Jennifer.”
McMullan recently got a lot of attention for Notes on the Gaze, a viral video commissioned by the online video channel Nowness, in which she filmed a number of women in downtown Toronto to interrogate issues of voyeurism and self-presentation. “It’s weird to think that more people saw [it] than all my films combined in a theatre,” she says. “Bombing around Toronto filming women with an Aaton was the most liberated I’ve felt as a filmmaker in a long time. I caught the bug to shoot film again. I want to shoot a feature on film, as utterly impractical as that sounds these days.”
Notes on the Gaze is all about the ways that women see each other, which might also be the subtext of Nimisha Mukerji’s upcoming —and much anticipated—Tempest Storm, a profile of the eponymous octogenarian burlesque performer whose breasts were once famously insured by Lloyds of London for $1,000,000. “The trick with this film was to find an original way of approaching the material that went beyond a conventional bio-pic doc,” says Mukerji. “Everyone wants to put the project in a box, so the goal is to find ways that set it apart. The fact that the film centres around the story of a woman in her 80s, and deals with aging and sexuality, has proven to be a hard sell because it isn’t mainstream to see these kinds of films. They either don’t get made or don’t have wide releases.”
Mukerji has had considerable success with her previous projects: her debut feature 65_RedRoses, about a young woman coping with cystic fibrosis, was critically acclaimed by The New York Times and screened on Oprah Winfrey’s OWN Network. By any measure, Mukerji’s measured, compassionate movie was a hit, but she explains that even genuine breakthroughs don’t always lead to open roads: her similarly themed follow up Blood Relative —a study of an activist in India trying to combat blood disease—was harder to get made. “Blood Relative had a significantly smaller budget than 65_RedRoses,” says Mukerji. “Which was really difficult, because when you factor in the costs of filming in India versus filming in my own neighbourhood where I didn’t have to pay additional travel or living costs, the price of making my second film was considerably more expensive.”
One thing that Mukerji has done in between feature projects is shoot episodes of Border Security: Canada’s Front Line, a popular reality series focusing on the work of customs officers stationed at airports and checkpoints across the country. She says that while the material is obviously far removed from the subjects of 65_RedRoses and Blood Relative, the experience has been useful and instructive. “You couldn’t influence what was happening in any way, and you usually had one chance to capture a moment or scene or ask a question before events would move on,” says Mukerji. “The producers behind the project were documentary filmmakers themselves, and had a lot of integrity in approaching the material. As a director for television you often don’t have any control, or very limited control, over the edit, so in that respect it is very different from one-offs or features, which are more director-driven.”
Tempest Storm promises to be a more personal piece of work, and not only because it’s telling an intimate story. Like Lean, McMullan and the David and Me team, Mukerji has continued to work with her fellow students from the University of British Columbia (UBC). “Lindsay George and I were in the same year at UBC, and she just shot Tempest Storm,” she says. “Philip Lyall and I co-directed 65_RedRoses after working together as students, and we were mentored [at UBC] together by John Zaritsky. And Mark Ratzlaff, who is an editor and worked on Blood Relative and Tempest is also my partner in life. We met at UBC and just got married last year.”
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