Hot Docs 2015: Character Studies

Artists and eccentrics populate the 2015 festival

16 mins read

WHAT SEPARATES “SUBJECTS” from “characters”? Subjects often play a role in documentaries while characters generally fuel fiction. Subjects sometimes assume a detached, objective viewpoint; characters, on the other hand, are more personable and engaging. Characters have a dramatic flair, even if they’re subjects of a documentary. Several of the Canadian films screening at Hot Docs this year produce a distinct pleasure through portraying their subjects as characters, and the resulting cast of non-fiction characters offers a better ensemble than one finds in most works of fiction.

Finding Macpherson finds a grand protagonist in animator Martine Chartrand as director Serge Giguère documents her quest to create a short film about Frank Randolph Macpherson, who was characterized in the jazz song by Félix Leclerc that inspired the film. Seth’s Dominion offers an idiosyncratic character in the titular artist, the creator of comics like Palookaville, as filmmaker Luc Chamberland immerses the audience in the world of Seth’s unique imagination. A Different Drummer: Celebrating Eccentrics brings a gaggle of certified eccentrics as Oscar-winner John Zaritsky encourages moviegoers to live outside the box by illuminating the different shades that make his characters so colourful. All three films relish the dimensions of their characters, so audiences are bound to see some aspects of themselves in the films because the central figures are so richly relatable.

Finding Macpherson captures Chartrand’s effusive joie de vivre as Giguère taps into the passion with which the animator creates the story of Macpherson’s friendship with Leclerc. The documentary chronicles her eight-year creation of MacPherson as a painstakingly meticulous process in which each frame is composed as paint on glass and shot on 35mm. (Giguère notes that roughly 12,000 individual frames make up Chartrand’s film, which is available online.) The slow process of Chartrand’s craft works favourably for Giguère, since it complements his own methodology of exploring his characters by building relationships. “I want to show the process,” the director noted in an interview with POV, “and time is very important because with time, you can see more events that reveal the person. You don’t sit down with the person and say, ‘So tell me your story.’” The more a filmmaker marinates in the character of a film, the more the film delivers a richer flavour.

“What I am looking for is a background of the person,” Giguère adds as he explains how Martine Chartrand’s personal history resembles that of Macpherson. Giguère sees Chartrand’s quest to explore her own roots through the story, relating Macpherson’s personal tale as a lone black immigrant in 1930s Quebec logging country to that of the animator, a woman who grew up as a child adopted by a white family in Montreal and never knew her Haitian father or the roots of his ancestry. “Sometimes it’s not really the subject that I am looking for in my film,” Giguère elaborates on his observational style. “It’s about the emotion that the character develops.” In Finding Macpherson, he creates a poignant arc by positing a shared history between the animator and her subject during their journeys.

One scene in Finding Macpherson shows Giguère following Chartrand to Jamaica, where she teaches animation to students while exploring her subject’s origins. Giguère notes that this stage of their odyssey with Macpherson intimately connects Chartrand with her own animated avatar. “As she said in Jamaica,” Giguère says, “in Canada, we don’t talk very much about black people in history, and that’s a point that I want to reveal, by [showing] one little person on a page in history.” Creating a character for Chartrand corrects a footnote in history by bringing the past into the present as Macpherson comes to life once again within the painterly images of her film. (Giguère had begun work on this documentary when POV profiled him in 2007!)

Personal Canadian history finds its own colourful rural-Ontario backdrop in Seth’s Dominion. Chamberland says that he first discovered Seth’s world and work while perusing bookshops in London, England, where it’s hard to find many of the burgeoning new form of graphic novels. Chamberland recalls coming across Seth’s It’s a Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken and finding its distinct flavours of Southern Ontario pleasantly surprising. “He has an affinity, not just graphically,” Chamberland says, “and he’s talking about things like the landscape that are very Canadian.”

The element of small-town Canadiana characterizes Seth’s colourful personality, and Chamberland’s wonderful and contemplative animation reflects the character’s inner and outer world. The film is a unique animated documentary—a hybrid of interviews and animated introspections—that appropriately presents both the Seth of the flesh and the Seth of the cartoon world. Chamberland describes having the unique opportunity to go beyond the familiar approach to graphic novelists in which films pair interviews with still images of the comic book frames, for Seth granted him complete creative freedom with his world.

“Animate them the way you see them,” the director recalls Seth’s advice. What results is a remarkable exploration of character through animated biographical sequences, which are pages of Seth’s diary brought to life by Chamberland’s animation, and a personal odyssey of the graphic novel from the experience of the artist and the reader alike. Seth’s Dominion puts the audience in the mind of its creator as he interprets the work of another character, and the humble feat of storytelling is a down-to-earth ode to the artistic process.

The creation of a personal yet shared past in Seth’s Dominion mirrors Finding Macpherson’s exploration of its central character through the artistic process. “I wasn’t talking about comic books, really,” Chamberland elaborates, “I was talking about the past, and that past is getting bigger and bigger as we all grow up…. You have a life and this life has lot of experiences that happen in the present and quickly become the past.” Chamberland, like Giguère, sees a stirring parallel between the world created by the character and the real world in which the central characters find themselves. Chamberland adds that the experience of making the documentary made Seth deal with his own insecurities, such as his reluctance to narrate his diary in voice-over. “I like to think that this exercise of examining himself made him a better artist. It’s difficult to imagine him being better than he is, but he’s always getting better.”

If Seth’s Dominion moves audiences with its nostalgic hues, then A Different Drummer shows that every life is its own bright colour of the rainbow. The film features several eccentrics: vibrant oddballs who bring their own peculiarities to each chapter of the film. The film looks to a 1995 study from Dr. David Weeks, whose findings serve as intertitles dispersed throughout the film, as Zaritsky immerses himself in the diverse mindsets of a series of unique individuals. Three of the film’s subjects are among the original eccentrics of Dr. Weeks’s study, so, as Zaritsky humorously observes, “they were already certified by the expert’s diagnosis. The others came out of my own research on the Internet on eccentrics and certainly the expert didn’t disagree about my choices!” The director admits that he underwent a test of Dr. Weeks’s eccentricity scale and scored 13½ on the fifteen-point scale. “So I was told this was a serious case and that I was probably incurable,” he jokes with a hearty humour akin to that of the film.

A Different Drummer features larger-than-life individuals like Daniel, who defies convention by living without money, or Laura Kay (aka Vancouver’s Duck Lady), who runs charity drives with her trusty ducks. The flamboyant Darla, who plays the kazoo and stages Viking funerals, and Lord Toby Jub, the leader of Britain’s Raving Loony Party, also enjoy their lives as a series of grand performances. They embrace cartoonishness much like Seth creates a contemplative escape in his stories, or as Chartrand pops off the screen as vividly as her paintings do. “I had more fun on this shoot than ever,” Zaritsky remarks of his good company.

The characters of A Different Drummer sometimes seem positively loony as they dress up and embrace the nonsensical, but they ultimately voice their own kind of sanity. “They’re actually healthier and saner than the normal population,” Zaritsky notes while describing how the film balances its infectious humour with the elements of mental illness implied in eccentricity. “That’s the great irony of it. We, the rest of society, generally regard them as ‘weirdos’ and possibly mentally ill when in fact they aren’t. They’re actually less prone to mental illness than the rest of us.” The finding echoes Dr. Weeks’s own conclusion, and Zaritsky’s effort is a fine companion piece to his work.

The journey of A Different Drummer has an eccentric character arc itself, since Zaritsky first conceived of the project over a decade ago after reading Dr. Weeks’s book and deciding it would make a great film. Broadcasters didn’t agree, so, as Zaritsky jokes, he buried the idea in his “graveyard of broken dreams” until an interested party came along and he exhumed it. The film even has an added facet—subtly humorous animated interludes by Mark Ratzlaff, which provide Zaritsky with a new challenge and change from “serious and bloody documentaries.” Like its animated counterpart Seth’s Dominion, the film is a rare eccentric among documentaries.

“The experts say it is a golden age of eccentricity,” Zaritsky adds, noting, “More people are allowed to be eccentric, and people in society are generally more accepting than they were years ago.” Whether A Different Drummer anticipates a greater awareness of eccentricity and mental health or is a product of a growing empathy is up to viewers, but Zaritsky hopes that the film encourages a greater shift in consciousness as audiences see the value in taking a different path. “But even more important,” Zaritsky adds, “are the young kids who are being bullied because they’re ‘weirdos’ or different from the crowd. I hope the film will help the parents and families of kids like that. Or the kids themselves will see that it’s alright, it’s okay to be different.”

A Different Drummer underscores a philosophy that resides in the characters of Finding Macpherson and Seth’s Dominion. All three films champion the outsiders—people for whom history and conventional society don’t always have a place. By immersing the audience in a world of eccentrics, A Different Drummer challenges the very idea of normalcy by presenting eccentricity as a new norm. Similarly, Seth’s Dominion draws out the beauty of living in one’s own world with the pensive rhythm of its introspective animation. “Every life is amazing, and Seth is fascinated by all the small details of life,” Chamberland concludes, and this passion could equally characterize Chartrand as she burrows into the hidden details of Macpherson’s life and in turn explores her own history.

All these characters, both the ones on the screen and the characters behind the cameras, smartly defy convention. “Everybody is different,” Zaritsky concludes, “and I think that’s the point of the study and the film. How many of us actually dare to be different? Not enough people, in my view.” Fortunately, for audiences, these three filmmakers dare to be different with their unique character studies. Their memorable characters make these documentaries stand out from the crowd.

Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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