Hot Docs 2014: Diverse Women, Diverse Docs

17 mins read

It is tempting to draw connections between Helene Klodawsky, Julie Perron and Carole Laganière based on the mere biological fact that, yes, all three are women. Such a move would not only be reductive, but also frustratingly simplistic. For outside of being women, Klodawsky, Perron and Laganière do not share much in common as artists and are exploring vastly different themes with their latest features showing at Hot Docs.

In Come Worry With Us!, Klodawsky questions the intersection of art and motherhood, following Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra violinist Jessica Moss (who, I should note, is a family friend) as she tours with her one-year-old son. In The Sower (Le Semeur), Perron casts a slow and speculative gaze on seed cultivator Patrice Fortier, creating a particularly Canadian landscape portrait. In Absences, Laganière interweaves three stories that address different ways of coping with loss. As Canadian filmmakers, each has experienced similar joys and frustrations of working with and within our national funding bodies and each share strong opinions on the shifting landscape in documentary filmmaking. But in terms of a profile, it is hard to draw connective threads, which speaks not only to the range of films showing at Hot Docs, but more broadly to what Perron elegantly calls “a nice biodiversity in cinema.”

“The idea of invisibility has always been a motivating factor for me,” says Klodawsky over the phone from her adopted town of Montreal. Indeed, invisibility is central to her most recent work, Come Worry With Us!, which explores what the director calls “the ultimate ordinary”: motherhood. It is this focus that makes Come Worry With Us! all but revolutionary in the music-doc genre. For while the concert performances and tour bus antics remain, this is no Cocksucker Blues exposé—the centre of the film is a toddler, Ezra. After the birth of this toddler-to-be, band mates and partners Moss and Efrim Menuck are faced with a logistical and financial conundrum: as musicians who make their living touring, how were they going to make ends meet with a newborn? Menuck, who in addition to being in Thee Silver Mt. Zion is a member of the popular indie band Godspeed You! Black Emperor, ends up back on the road, while Moss is forced to close her art studio. Much to her own surprise, she becomes a stay-at-home mother. Moss, however, does not quietly lament this fact, but begins to question her newfound role by reaching out to fellow female musicians, her band, Menuck and her sister, Nadia. Through these conversations, Moss and Thee Silver Mt. Zion eventually decide to go on tour with the child, the results of which point to a potential new model of motherhood.

For Klodawsky, this examination of what it means to be a mother has always been of interest. In 1994, she made Motherland, which examined how young mothers from various socio-economic backgrounds were dealing with their new identity. Further, she says in some ways her work has “never left the questions of motherhood,” but 20 years later, she was interested in seeing how these questions had changed—or if they had at all. “I wasn’t hearing many conversations about gender in the independent art world,” Klodawsky says, “and I thought: ‘Maybe everything’s been worked out; maybe I just didn’t know about it!’”

After meeting Moss through a mutual friend, she thought the young musician’s “dilemma,” as the director calls it, was a perfect entry point into this issue: “I wanted to find someone who was living through these questions in the present moment.” Yet Come Worry With Us! is not only about an abstract notion, but sustainability. Klodawsky was also interested in finding out “why so many female artists seem to fade away.”

Klodawsky is not sure she found the answer, but starting the conversation is enough. She says “audiences are dying to talk about these issues after the lights come up,” which is why she wants to take the doc “into universities and art schools to talk to women about how they envision their future artistic lives.” She also hopes Come Worry With Us! will show such conversations need not be dull and sentimental. “In the film, Nadia points out that culturally, women’s narratives aren’t considered that interesting,” notes Klodawsky. “This film is an answer to that and says: ‘No, your lives are important.’”

For Perron, her rendezvous with her subject came not from a place of continuity, but from an attempt to shake up her artistic practice. Since her debut in 2000, the short Mai en décembre (Godard en Abitibi), Perron has created what she calls “portrait films.” With Mai en décembre, she looked at Jean-Luc Godard’s 1968 visit to Northern Quebec; in Lucie de tous les temps (2003) she turned her camera on the revolutionary Lucie Aubrac (“This was more than a film for me,” she says. “It was an inspiration”); in Pierre Gauvin, un moine moderne (2007), she documented the life of the titular visual artist. After her collaborative project Back to the New World (2008), she was keen to make another film and found herself thinking about the topic of biodiversity.

Unlike Perron’s other documentaries, with this work she wanted to expand her scope and planned on travelling to examine the issue on a global scale. Then, by chance, she met Fortier, a seed cultivator in the Kamouraska Valley region of Quebec. Perron suddenly found herself immersed in Fortier’s world and spent a week with him during the carrot harvest. “The next time I came, I brought my camera,” she recalls. “The next time, my sound guy, and it grew from there—like a garden!” Though she recognized something compelling in Fortier’s character, she was at first reluctant to charge ahead with the film. Laughing, she says, “I kept fighting myself and saying, ‘No, Julie, don’t make another portrait!’” Eventually she decided to embrace her strength: “a natural talent to find characters.”

The Sower, however, is not just a portrait of a man, but also of a landscape. With its sweeping fields and richly coloured foliage, the Kamouraska Valley is intensely beautiful, and Perron shoots it as such. When asked if the landscape tradition in Canadian visual art inspired her, Perron replies no, but says she always felt this scenery merited a big screen: “I didn’t want to film this beautiful landscape on a shaky handheld. For me it was clear it was a film meant for the cinema—even if it only had two days in a cinema!” Yet this stylistic decision is not merely aesthetic, as it also casts Fortier’s world in a different, sometimes uncanny, light. Perron distorts reality by toying with close-ups, giving micro seeds a macro presence or emphasizing the otherworldly quality of a ripe kumquat. In these moments, Perron finds the surreal in reality and turns fact into science fiction.

With The Sower, Perron was also keen on challenging her audience. Seed cultivation in rural Quebec is by no means a sexy subject and one that is rooted, pardon the pun, in a quiet, now thought to be antiquated, way of life. For like Fortier, The Sower is slow and patient; there are long stretches without dialogue or any musical score. Perron knows she was taking a risk (“maybe no one wants these long, quiet takes!”), but has found audiences to be receptive. “I think people are tired of seeing the same thing and want something new in the language of documentary,” she observes. “For me this represents a lot of hope—for cinema and life. Just because you have your eyes on an iPhone, it doesn’t mean you can’t be curious about something else.”

Unlike Klodawsky and Perron, Laganière studied film abroad in Belgium and was originally drawn to feature films. After making her first, Aline, in 1992, she realised working on a larger scale did not interest her, which led her to non-fiction: “Documentary film is the occasion to make more creative things, as you’re not being pushed by a big machine.” Working outside of this machine, as Laganière calls it, is no easy financial feat and because of this, the director found her most fruitful period to be her residency at the National Film Board of Canada. It was that time, which she succinctly describes as one where she was able “to do what [she] wanted to do and not stress about funding,” which gave rise to Absences. Inspired by Laganière’s relationship with her ailing mother, the director explores the different modes of experiencing and coping with loss by interweaving three stories: Ines, who returns to her native Croatia to find her mother; Deni, an American writer exploring his newfound Québécois roots; and Nathalie, who is searching for her missing sister in Canada’s urban metropolises.

The process of finding her subjects took some eight months of research and she interviewed more than 50 people. The time that Laganière invested into the development speaks to the freedom that the NFB residency gave her, though it also has to do with her overall vision. As she “never wanted to base the film in narrative,” Laganière was not looking for the most sensational story. Instead, she chose her subjects because of their “resilience,” being uninterested in filming “someone who was completely brisée.” Because of this, though Ines, Deni and Nathalie have gone through great trials, Absences is far from any kind of misery porn. It is not about suffering, but how we attempt to fill voids in our lives and memories.

With less of a story-driven focus, evoking the feeling of loss became central to Laganière’s project. Shooting each subject in hotel rooms, these spaces become the tangible expression of fleeting feelings, be it hope, happiness or sadness. The rooms are also key to Laganière’s attempts at capturing the mental state of her mother, who is living with Alzheimer’s disease. By using a recurring shot of a maid cleaning a room, Laganière hopes to capture what it would be like to have one’s lived memories methodically wiped away. The director calls the move “impressionistic,” which again reflects her desire to free herself from a subject-based approach.

“I’m against the dictatorship of the subject. It’s a problem right now in documentary filmmaking, because people who give money are looking for the subject, not the director,” Laganière frankly states when asked about the current state of doc production. But it’s not all dire, as she does see hope in festival audiences, who go to see docs “for the director, the cinematography, the art.”

The role of audiences is where the three directors do have common ground, as they all talk positively about their experiences of sharing their films and encountering their viewers. Not a surprising coincidence, perhaps, as this has always been the power of documentary filmmaking: the genre’s ability to inspire discussion by creatively presenting real issues and stories. For more so than other forms of film, docs are thought of as having the ability to affect the world we live in. Such potential for conversation, however, requires an audience, which is becoming increasingly difficult with the Internet and television. On one hand, digital means of distribution (like streaming) allow for greater access; but on the other hand, the method limits the potential for a face-to-face encounter between an audience member and the director. The same can be said for television, which is offering new funding opportunities for emerging filmmakers, but means audiences are now found in living rooms, not in cinemas.

For all three directors, a yearning for that theatrical experience is clear. Laganière, at least, has an answer to this challenge: film festivals. In this changing film landscape, festivals continue to champion collective, in-person viewing and foster dialogues between spectators and artists. It thus seems fitting to leave Laganière with the final word, as she says it best: “It’s getting more and more important to have festivals like Hot Docs. In the future, it will be almost the only way to have a public.”

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