Goodbye, Ms. Fernie

Canadian Spectrum film programmer Lynne Fernie departs Hot Docs

11 mins read

It’s the closing weekend of Hot Docs and a roomful of documentarians are awaiting the announcement of festival prizes. There’s a buzz about Steve James being in the crowd to receive his lifetime achievement award. But it’s Lynne Fernie who receives the only standing ovation of the night. The much-loved Canadian Spectrum film programmer announced this spring she’s stepping back from Hot Docs after 14 years.

“It breaks our hearts that you’re leaving us, Lynne,” said festival executive director Brett Hendrie from the stage of the Isabel Bader theatre. “When I started working at Hot Docs the festival had just graduated from cafes and church basements to a dozen cinemas across Toronto. This festival wouldn’t be what it is now without you here.”

During her time at Hot Docs, Fernie watched nearly 6,000 documentaries (programming about 600), introduced and wrote about her film choices and welcomed hundreds of filmmakers to the festival each year. “Her passion is as deep as her knowledge, and her championing of Canadian documentaries and the people who make them has never wavered,” says lead programmer Shane Smith. “She fights for filmmakers, advocates for their films and tirelessly works to ensure they have the best possible experience at Hot Docs. And she can drink me, an Australian, under the table.”

She is also exceptionally humble and graceful.

“I wanted to leave the festival but you Canadians kept sending films so I couldn’t bear to leave,” says Fernie holding a bouquet of flowers from the stage. “Whether we were able to choose it, whether we agonized or recommended it to other programmers, it was a pleasure to be in the theatre celebrating with you.”

The agonizing was one of the most difficult parts of the gig. “When you phone filmmakers up and invite their films, those 40 or 50 films, you’re really beloved by people. And then when the letters of regret go out you’re hated by 350 people,” says Fernie, who once turned down her best friend’s film.

Fernie dreams about the films she watches for months afterwards, creating a sort of “post-traumatic stress by proxy,” she says. “My banker says I’m afraid to invest because I’ve seen too many dystopic economic films where everything comes crashing down.”

As a programmer, Fernie was tasked with representing a wide variety of films. “You want a range from brilliant, formal approaches to unusual hybrid approaches, classic docs and observational pieces. You want to run the gamut of what people are doing in a given year.” Standout films from this year’s festival include BC doc veteran Nettie Wild’s KONELĪNE: our land beautiful, which she calls a “masterpiece;” A Centre-Sud Tale, which focuses on Quebecois Danic Champoux’s neighbourhood in Montreal; and The Apology, a labour of love from emerging Toronto documentarian Tiffany Hsiung. Fernie has made a point of approaching her work with a strong sense of ethics, a by-product of having been involved in Toronto’s art and activism scene for decades. She began her career as a visual artist and was one of the founding members of A Space, one of the oldest artist-run galleries in the country. She co-edited Parallelogramme magazine and in 1978 started the literary quarterly Fireweed with a collective of women. They were so broke the first few years that each member had to buy 10 copies off the press just to keep the magazine afloat.

Back then, Fernie was living near Spadina and Queen Street—when artists could actually afford to live in that neighbourhood. “It was a different time,” says Fernie, recalling one particularly memorable day when her 20-pound Persian cat crawled beneath her claw-foot bathtub and fell through the floor straight onto a photocopier one suite below. “You got to know everyone in the scene,” she says.

Fernie had her fingers in several art communities at once. “There was a politic coming out of the artist-run-centre world in Toronto that wasn’t coming out of other parts of Canada,” says Fernie. She cocreated the Women’s Culture Building Association and through that nurtured a relationship with NFB’s Studio D for female filmmakers.

Her film career up to that point had been relatively brief. “I had made the worst video in the history of OCA [now the Ontario College of Art and Design University] when I was a student there in my early 30s. I really did. I learned something very important: don’t smoke pot and try to shoot your first video, especially not with a huge, heavy portapak!” she says with a laugh.

And yet, Fernie seems to have the golden touch. While working at Fireweed and doing research for the NFB she snagged a Juno for writing the lyrics to the Parachute Club’s anthemic song, ‘Rise Up.’ It was 1983 and the song beat out Bryan Adams, Corey Hart and Men Without Hats for single of the year.

A couple years later she was approached to work with Aerlyn Weissman on a film about 1950s lesbian pulp fiction. Forbidden Love: The Unashamed Stories of Lesbian Lives took four years to make and premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, playing in theatres across North America and winning a Genie award and a GLAAD Media award for most outstanding film. “It was absolutely incredible for us to be up there looking at 1,500 people in the beautiful Castro theatre in a city [San Francisco] that is the mecca of gays and lesbians,” says Fernie. Over the next few years, Weissman and Fernie followed the success of their first documentary with three more films, Fiction and Other Truths: A Film about Jane Rule, School’s Out! and Apples and Oranges, the latter two of which were targeted at youth.

Forbidden Love: The Unashamed Stories of Lesbian Lives, Lynne Fernie & Aerlyn Weissman, National Film Board of Canada

David Macintosh, a programmer in the early days at Hot Docs, noticed Fernie’s films and approached her to work at the festival. “I wouldn’t have applied to do it, because I wouldn’t have thought that was my skill set. But David was an amazing mentor,” she says.

During those 14 years Fernie watched Hot Docs expand and grow; the festival added many more screenings and a director of programming. “I was a bit nervous at first, because we never had a director of programming and I thought it would maybe curtail our independence as programmers. But it was fabulous, and [Sean Farnel, the first director of programming] is a great guy who built the team and acted as a sounding board for us.”

It’s easy for Fernie to be nostalgic about the gig, but she’s ready to move on. “I’m happy to know that next December I’m not going to start watching 300 films. Instead I’ll get my pals to tell me which ones I’ll go to,” she says with a smile. She’ll spend her free time painting and producing work for Toronto’s Oeno Gallery. Her east-end apartment sports some of her pieces, large ink and latex paintings that have a striking Japanese sensibility.

Watching an overwhelming number of documentaries in the last two decades hasn’t convinced Fernie to get back into directing. Not unless the perfect scenario presents itself, she says. The filmmaker has dreamed about doing a documentary hybrid that explores feminist utopias like those thought up by science fiction writers like Suzy McKee Charnas and Ursula Le Guin. “It’s a big film though, a four-year film, and not a cheap one. It would be fun but all-absorbing,” she says.

In the meantime she’s focused on doing all the things she feels like she hasn’t been able to do in years. “I’ll go out more and see more live events,” she says. “I hope I have the life I had when I lived on Queen Street and didn’t have to work so much to pay the rent.”

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