For Magnus Isacsson, documentary work is a way of life, and has been since his photos were first published when he was 12 in his native Sweden. He started working in radio after graduating from Université de Montréal in the early ’70s and went on to become a television producer. Transitioning from CBC-TV and Radio-Canada in 1986, Isacsson became a prolific independent filmmaker, specializing in works related to social justice, the environment and human rights. Among his best-known films are Power (1986), about the Cree Indians’ successful fight against the Great Whale hydro project (1986); The Choir Boys (1999), about a Montreal choir made up of homeless men; and Art in Action (2009), which just received a Gémeaux award. Isacsson received the Quebec association of directors’ (ARRQ) Prix Lumière in 2004.
Isacsson and his partner, Jocelyne Clarke, are intensely involved in Montreal’s documentary community as filmmakers, writers, activists and teachers. They live with their daughter Béthièle in the city’s Plateau district, well known as a hotbed of creative ferment. Their apartment—delightfully cluttered with books, art, DVDs and music (there’s a well-used piano in the living room)—is generally buzzing with community and artistic activity. The duo has a spare room constantly occupied by filmmakers and others, including Isacsson’s grown-up daughter Anna, from his first marriage, who now lives in Toronto.
Marc Glassman from POV interviewed Isacsson at his apartment, occasionally aided by filmmaker Martin Duckworth and Clarke.
MG: Mark Glassman, editor, POV
MI: Magnus Isacsson
MG: You have made films on a variety of issues and people, varying from the Cree to arts-inspired activists in Montreal. The general theme that runs through all the films is people standing up for their rights or the rights of the community. Is that a fair assessment?
MI: I have always looked for dramatic stories, which bring up important social and political issues. Of course, finding strong characters is crucial. I’m really attracted to the unpredictable nature of conflict stories and I’m in there for the duration, looking to understand all the complexities. Not that all the nuances can be brought to the screen, but in order for the film to be credible and revealing it has to enter into the real challenges and contradictions. Some of my early films were very editorial, but in the more recent ones it’s never just black and white.
MG: Why this interest in people who take action in social movements?
MI: There is so much inequality in society. Faced with big corporations and governments, it’s often necessary for working people, communities and minorities to fight for their rights. Our democracy is imperfect and fragile and only takes its full meaning if people are actively involved in making sure that there is accountability and transparency on the part of governments.
MG: You use a verité in most of your films. Do you try to stay invisible, or do you feel an urge to intervene?
MI: Most of the work I do now is with Martin Duckworth. We build relationships with people and after a while they tend not to pay too much attention to us. But I don’t believe for one second in that theory about the fly on the wall and the invisible camera. The camera definitely plays a role in bringing things out. Sometimes I provoke or organize events instead of just waiting for things to happen.
MG: So you don’t mind being a provocateur?
MI: I don’t feel many restrictions on intervening, as long as it’s not detrimental to the people involved. If two people have something to say to each other and it hasn’t come out in front of the camera, I don’t mind saying to them, ‘Why don’t you have a coffee together and discuss it?’ or, ‘It would be interesting if you went to that meeting and let them know what you think.’ The question to me is not whether the camera has an impact or not. It’s whether the impact is useful and instrumental to the characters and to the filmmakers.
MG: You lived in Sweden until you were just over 20 and you came from a family of artists. Has that inspired you?
MI: Definitely. My father founded an art school just around the time I was born and ran it for almost 50 years. Many of Sweden’s leading artists were active there, including my uncle Torsten, who became famous as a graphic artist and sculptor. So right from the beginning I was exposed to the arts. My mother was a teacher of kids with learning disabilities. Her intellectual curiosity was limitless in terms of theatre, literature and the arts. That also was an important influence.
MG: You were into photography, and you started early.
MI: My maternal grandfather was an author of local history books, and I became his photographer. At the same time I joined the amateur photography movement, which was very active with competitions and exhibitions. I was 18 when I had photos shown at the Museum of Modern Art in Stockholm.
MG: There’s always been this thing in you to expose what you see as social injustice. Where did that come from?
MI: It had to do with two things: my family and the political context. Both sides of my family came from remote, underdeveloped parts of the country. But they had very strong values and beliefs about being a citizen and having a social consciousness. And my generation was radicalized by the war in Vietnam and the student revolts.
MG: When you came to Quebec, you were exposed to more radical politics, starting with the October Crisis.
MI: Yes, the independence movement was on the rise, the army in the streets, and then there were huge labour mobilizations, which culminated with the general strike and the imprisonment of the labour leaders in 1972. I made a film about that 25 years later, The Big Upheaval (1996).
MG: But before making films, you made radio programmes and television stories for more than 10 years. What stands out for you about that period?
MI: I travelled all over the Americas and covered many issues and situations I cared about, not least the nuclear industry, as well as the environment and aboriginal people. The one story that touched me the most was the incredibly generous response of the Inuit to the famine in Ethiopia in 1982; they had experienced famine themselves and really identified with the terrible situation in Africa. But the television work was very limiting creatively. Everything had to be framed as “objective” journalism.
MG: In the early ’80s you decided to become a documentary filmmaker. Was there a key moment when you made this decision?
MI: For me, there really was. I went to the Grierson Seminar and met amazing documentary filmmakers and saw what they had done. All the things that I had previously been interested in and working on seemed to come together in documentary film. It was like being struck by lightning. I realized that’s what I had to do!
MG: The Grierson Seminar was named after John Grierson, the father of documentary, but most people now are not aware of it because it’s been closed since the early ’90s. What was remarkable about it for you?
MI: The principle of the Grierson was that no film would be shown unless the filmmaker was there, and that all participants went to all the same screenings. After a couple of sessions the debates got pretty heated. One year there was even a fistfight. What really impressed me was the creative freedom. These films were not journalism; they were dramatic or poetic or whatever. They definitely had a point of view. Of course they all brought up important issues, and I find that combination of the social and the creative irresistible. From the time I discovered the Grierson Seminar, I went there every year. I met people like Santiago Alvarez, Alanis Obomsawin and Nettie Wild. And Donald Brittain: we had lunch and I remember him saying, ‘The air gets pretty heavy with self-righteousness here sometimes.”
MG: Were there filmmakers who influenced you other than the ones you met at Grierson?
MI: Barbara Kopple very definitely—particularly her films Harlan County USA and American Dream. Both combined social issues with drama, and with complexity. And then the Swedish filmmaker Stefan Jarl. He’s got a tremendous body of work. Jarl has got that combination of social commitment and drama but also a vision of nature. I have a lot of admiration for him.
Then there were the people who were active here in Canada, independents like Martin Duckworth, Sophie Bissonnette, Barry Greenwald, Nettie Wild, and also Danièle Lacourse and Yvan Patry at Alter-Ciné. I could see those people in action. I said to myself, “Okay, they’re able to do it. Why couldn’t I?” I was also very inspired by some filmmakers at the NFB, in particular Alanis Obomsawin and Maurice Bulbulian. Later there were my close friends Mark Achbar, Ali Kazimi and Patricio Henríquez. (Ali, Barry Greenwald and I share a website.)
MG: You had done shows about aboriginal people for television. Why did you continue that with Uranium, an NFB film narrated by Buffy Sainte-Marie?
MI: Canada was, and still is, the world’s leading producer of uranium. Some of the uranium for the Hiroshima bomb had come from one of the earliest mines at Great Bear Lake in the Northwest Territories. Elliott Lake in Ontario, which used to be the main source, had been replaced by Saskatchewan. And most of the radioactive wastes from uranium mining were dumped on aboriginal land, and will continue to be dangerous for hundreds of thousands of years.
In the process of making the film, the NFB came under very serious pressure from the industry. A scientific consultant was hired, and the film was gone over with a fine-tooth comb by the lawyers. We had to snip out half-sentences here and there. But in the end the Board put a lot of resources behind the film. We went on a national tour and showed it in many communities which had actual or potential uranium mining and it created huge debates—exactly what I had hoped for. We got the Best Documentary award in Yorkton, which was nice for what I thought of as my first real film.
MG: You continued looking at aboriginal people in Power. The film still stands up because you’d documented an incredible story, which was very sophisticated politically. It was the tale of a small Cree community up at Hudson’s Bay taking on a huge government-owned corporation, Hydro-Québec, to save the Great Whale River. It was the quintessential David-against-Goliath story.
MI: The river represented the Cree’s lifeline, their way of life. The Cree’s strategic and tactical creativity was enormous. They built an Odeyak, a combination Cree canoe and Inuit kayak, and travelled with it from Great Whale River to Ottawa and all the way down the Hudson River to New York City. The idea was to put their story into the minds of people across Quebec and the eastern U.S., especially New York state. It was amazing—very cinematic—and it pushed environmentalists and politicians in the U.S. to support them.
MG: And they won, which was inspirational. Your film had a good international career and won several awards. You made Power in solidarity with the Cree. It was an indictment of Hydro-Québec. Why did you also document internal dissensions within the Cree nation?
MI: It seemed important to look at the contradictions and the complexities of that story. If you tell stories of popular struggles in a way that’s not realistic, that doesn’t take into account the real political tensions—you’re not doing anybody a favour. How can you learn something from a story that’s told in a distorted kind of way?
MG: Shooting that kind of film must be fun. You’re somehow in three or four different worlds at the same time.
MI: Certainly one fantastic side benefit of shooting Power was the time I get to spend with the Cree out on their trap lines. I didn’t expect when we started Power that the shoot would last for five years. But now that kind of duration has become a habit, a pattern. So I always think when I’m choosing a subject or a story that I’m choosing what my life is going to be like for the next five years. It’s like diving into a reality and becoming part of it.
MG: You have made several films about union struggles, although you don’t always paint a glowing picture of their leaderships. For example, you followed the attempts to unionize McDonald’s for years, making two films about two different conflicts. What motivated that choice?
MI: It was all so symbolic. The biggest fast food chain in the world is opening a new outlet somewhere on the planet every week, and it’s one of the world’s most anti-union corporations. In Canada and the U.S., there isn’t a single unionized McDonald’s. The union movement is stronger in Quebec than anywhere else in North America, and some of the strongest attempts were made here. Young employees were subjected to all kinds of pressure and intimidation, so it was a very dramatic story, and also a coming-of-age story: they had to grow up really fast. In both cases the company eventually shut down the franchise to stop the union from coming in.
MG: In between the McDonald’s films, you made Pressure Point. It’s not a labour film but it’s about a civil disobedience action against the global corporate agenda. Didn’t you shoot it without any funding?
MI: Yes, together with my colleagues Anna Paskal and Malcolm Guy. This action was part of a big international campaign against the Multinational Agreement on Investment, which was on the agenda of an important annual event called the Montreal Conference in the late ’90s. It was an important plan to open all fields up to private investment, including fields that were traditionally in the public sphere, like health care. And to expand the rights of multinational corporations.
MG: It’s a bravura film, full of big dramatic crisis points. There is drumming and shouting and chants. But it deals with character too. What was your strategy going into the shooting of the film?
MI: Early on we decided on something that turned out to be quite productive, which was to say, “We’re not going to make this film with professional activists. Let’s look for four complete neophytes.” This was a civil disobedience action involving the risk of being pepper sprayed or arrested. So we put out a call for people who had never done this before, and followed them through the difficult choices that they had to make and through their confrontations with police and their arrests. They’re very emotional. They’re very open. It’s kind of fresh. We got the Quebec Association of Film Critics’ award for best documentary.
MG: You made Pressure Point quickly. How do you usually make films? If you have your druthers, how long do you like to take in order to create a feature doc that you’ll feel comfortable with?
MI: Now I almost have a pattern. Two years to do research and build contacts, often with no funding or very little. I shoot enough not to miss key developments and to gather material for a demo. Then I go and see a producer, who takes it to the broadcasters and funding agencies. If all goes well, by the end of the third year we have production funding. Usually we negotiate for enough time to follow events for at least another year, and then we keep shooting a bit during the post-production phase, so all in all, it’s five years. Then, I feel really comfortable.
MG: It seems as if everyone’s into the environment now, but you were doing hard-hitting and nuanced documentaries about it a number of years ago.
MI: That too has a lot to do with my Swedish roots, growing up with a lot of outdoor experiences in a country where people are crazy about nature.
MG: Uranium and Power were about native people but also about big environmental issues. Recently you made The Battle of Rabaska, about middle-class people fighting an energy mega-project. It was another long haul, four years, and you were co-directing with Martin Duckworth. What made you stick with it?
MI: This was a really insane project, to build a supertanker port in one of the most environmentally sensitive and historically important areas of Quebec, on the south shore of the St. Lawrence opposite the famous Île d’Orléans, and to import liquefied natural gas from Russia. Quebec didn’t need this scheme, and the citizen opposition in the area was ferocious.
MG: It’s another story with many twists and turns. How did you decide when to be there?
MI: To me, one of the biggest thrills of doing this kind of film is the strategic assessment or evaluation of where things are going, and then determining what scenes you need for the film. It means toying with ideas for structure while you’re shooting it. And of course being on standby for the duration of the conflict.
I try to work out contractual arrangements and relationships of mutual support which mean we don’t really count the shooting days. In the case of Rabaska, it was a question of balancing the public events with much more intimate scenes with our main characters, a very charismatic couple. Some of the best scenes are just of them talking in their kitchen.
MG: You mentioned that your favourite, of your own films, is The Choir Boys. And it’s maybe my second favourite. What is it in the film that resonates for you?
MI: The choices I made for that film were very much related to my personal experience. The choir is run by a missionary with a great sense of purpose, a great sense of discipline and organization, but he’s leading a group of people who are hardened individualists. Most of them have addiction problems and have been living on the streets. They’re not used to working together collectively and it’s a huge challenge. Well, my father was the director of an arts school. He was responsible for keeping a school together with artists who resented discipline and organization. The dynamic I saw in the choir I recognized from my childhood, and the film is about that conflict. We kept losing our main characters because I focused on the guys in the choir who were in conflict with the director and ended up being either expelled or quitting.
MG: Which is fascinating because on some level it’s a triumphal film about a bunch of homeless guys who end up finding something to do to give purpose to their lives, but on the other hand, as you say, on many levels it’s very dark and conflicted. It’s very dramatic.
MI: One well-known Montreal columnist, Nathalie Petrowski, wrote that it was ‘a magnificent lesson in journalism’ which ‘shows what no other media have taken the trouble to show.’ That was the story about the trials and tribulations, the struggles and the very difficult lives of these people.
MG: In Art in Action, one of your recent films and my favourite, the action takes place right here in your neighbourhood. It’s about two artists who create participatory installations or happenings on a big scale. They are provocateurs—even their name, the Socially Acceptable Terrorists, is a provocation.
MI: It’s their trademark. Punch you in the guts, and then leave you some time to think about what you’ve just experienced. Right from the beginning, it was clear to me that the film was about their art, their creative relationship, and also about their personal relationship as a couple and as parents. What unified those three levels was the question of intense commitment.
MG: They organize an annual event, which is a sort of urban refugee camp for the homeless. Why did you keep coming back to shoot it?
MI: It was an amazing event, and it raised a lot of issues. Some people would say, ‘This is not art, it’s social work.’ Others would say it’s not effective social work because they won’t provide any long-term solutions. But it got homelessness on the media agenda and the city agenda. Everyone was talking about it. And they managed to rope the mayor and one time even the army into participating in it.
MG: You seem to be the quintessential multilingual Montrealer. Is it helpful that you can work in both French and English?
MI: Being able to work in both languages has been very crucial to my survival as a filmmaker. Often when I can’t find funding for a project in one language, it will work in the other.
MG: You’ve ended up doing sound on almost all of your films. Why?
MI: I did sound in radio and when I started doing documentary film, I found that task gave me a chance to look around and see what’s happening while we shoot, and to negotiate access or whatever while the DOP picks up additional shots.
MG: What have been your challenges as a sound man?
MI: With a film like Rabaska, the situations ranged from that intimate discussion in the kitchen to assemblies with 500 people. I did those myself, but I must say it was difficult. But being one of only two people on a shoot is pretty crucial to the whole strategy of maximizing working days and reducing cost. You know, I’d rather spend more days and have a smaller crew.
MG: Let’s talk about the people you work with. You and your DOP Martin Duckworth have quite an exceptional working relationship.
MI: A lot of what I do I couldn’t do without Martin. We share key values and a sense of what’s important. Martin’s real strength is that he quickly grasps the drama and psychology of a situation. He observes everything, listens to everything, and has an incredible knack for being in the right place and picking up just the right angle. He is also, at age 78, faster with the camera than any of the young DOPs I know. Martin and I have been working so closely together on so many films now that we have sort of merged our creative energies. We don’t need to talk much about the specifics, it’s almost telepathic.
MG: You also have a favourite composer, Robert Marcel LePage, and Louise Côté has edited many of your films. Lately, you’ve worked a lot with your wife, Jocelyne. Why?
MI: Jocelyne is very supportive and tolerant of my unpredictable shooting schedules. She has made films of her own, has a lot of production experience, and has been a festival programmer and a film teacher. She has wide-ranging knowledge about all aspects of documentary film. Right now we’re doing a web project together. She did all the research and she’ll edit it.
MG: I have seen a change in your more recent films. The issues are still very present, but the films seem more emotional. In Art in Action, for example, I see you intervening to make Annie talk about herself, which is not necessarily what you would have done 10 or 15 years earlier. And what’s great is that she isn’t used to this either. She starts crying at one point and keeps on apologizing, saying, “Now you’re making me act like a girl.” Which is so great. Because she never cries otherwise. Have you consciously worked on adding emotional content in your films?
MI: I’ve learned over the years that the best scenes are often the most intimate, even in big stories. In Art in Action there is a scene where Pierre and Annie are driving through the Rockies and having an argument. The DOP was alone with them in the cab of their truck, and I had given them five subjects to discuss on a piece of paper. It’s almost as if the camera wasn’t there. In the stuff that I’m working on now, sometimes the dramatic thing is just what’s happening in somebody’s life, not a big political situation.
MG: Now, after 40 years in Montreal, do you still think of yourself as a Swede? Or are you a Canadian? Or a Quebecois?
MI: Well, a bit of each. In my attachment to nature and physical activities, I think of myself as Swedish. My cultural reality is primarily Quebecois, in terms of media and entertainment, and I feel that my work is much more appreciated here. But I have a lot of friends in English Canada, and of course I’m a Canadian citizen. Someone asked Robert Kramer, who made Route One, after he’d been living in Paris for 15 years, whether he was more American or European. And he said, “I think I have a North Atlantic personality or identity.” I think that suits me too.
MG: You have been very active in DOC, which used to be called the CIFC, and in the Quebec directors’ association (ARRQ). And for five years, you ran a series of screenings and discussions called Les lundis du doc—Documondays. More recently, you have published a blog on the same issues, Documentary Field Notes and Flash Points. What motivates you to do that kind of community activity?
MI: I love the fact that documentaries provoke discussion both about the issues and the creative dimension, and I want to favour such exchanges. I also find that blogging is a very good instrument for building relationships with people.
MG: It seems as if all the time I’ve known you and even earlier, you’ve always had two or three projects on the go. I’m wondering how that fits into your working methodology.
MI: I’ve always done that, so it’s probably a personality thing. But it’s also a matter of survival. I think my greatest secret weapon is that I’m not in a rush. The effect in people when you’re not in a rush is amazing. I can build relationships over time. I’m always trying to make sure that the films are not all in the same phase. I don’t want to have several films in production. But it has happened, because the stories are so unpredictable—not to mention the funding!
MG: Your films have primarily been about social justice, an ideal which we share. Are there times when you’re troubled by the fact that if anything, the environment’s worse, poverty is on the rise and aboriginal rights are progressing very slowly?
MI: I think it’s terribly sad. I think that it’s a sadness that we share—all of us who are actively engaged with global politics. The issues are so huge and there’s so many of them that people feel at a loss for what to do. Certainly one of the purposes of making a documentary film for me is to pinpoint those issues and to highlight some people who are actually doing something positive, something creative about it. I can’t say that I’m optimistic about where the world is going. But a film like Art in Action is about an intense involvement with society, with community, with creativity. And what better can we do?
MG: Every time I see you, you seem to be coming back from kayaking or skiing or cycling. You seem like a very healthy and busy person. But you’ve had to deal with a lot of bad news in the last couple of years, the passing of both your parents and now a very serious personal illness for which apparently there is no real cure. How are you dealing with this?
MI: When Jack Layton realized he wasn’t going to survive his cancer, he gave some very good advice: “Cherish every moment with those you love at every stage of the journey.” I have a wonderful family and wonderful friends, and I love my work. Happiness for me lies in living life intensely as a private person and a professional and a citizen, making whatever modest contribution I can.
Magnus Isacsson always works on several projects at once, but his priority right now is the film he is shooting in the troubled multi-ethnic neighbourhood of Montreal North. It’s produced by Jeannine Gagné of Amazone Films, with a 90-minute licence from Canal D.
MI: It’s a film about what it’s like to be coming of age in this very difficult context. My three main characters all had difficult childhoods; they have all been in serious trouble and are trying to make something of their lives. We’re following them for almost two years, and each one of them faces a particular challenge. One is black, has a criminal record and spends his weekends in prison, but is trying really hard to find a stable job—not easy! It’s unusual for me to just film people’s day-to-day reality, without any particular conflict. And I’m finding it amazing how much drama there is in the daily lives of these young men.
Another project for which he’s just received research funding from SODEC is about the victims of pedophiliac priests in Quebec. As always, he lets one key idea drive the project:
MI: There is a well-known conundrum in physics referred to as ‘the irresistible force meeting the unmovable object.’ That’s how I see this story. Many victims have gathered up the courage to speak out and demand some form of justice and they are not going to back down. But the hierarchy of the Catholic Church in Quebec hasn’t budged, other than by making pious statements and buying silence through out-of-court settlements. I have been building relationships with people for two years now, both victims and their lawyers. In a year, I think this will be ripe for production.
Les Super-Mémés Island Filmworks (2010), 45 min. About the Raging Grannies, a very original protest movement founded in Canada, and the challenges of staying active as you grow old.
Letter to Béthièle Pleiades productions (2010), 8 min. A video letter to the director’s daughter, adopted from Haiti, on her 10th birthday, about immigration, identity and social justice.
Art in Action Amazone Films (2009), 70 min. A portrait of two provocative Montreal artists: their oeuvre, their creative process and their relationship.
The Battle of Rabaska ONF/NFB (2008), 75 min. A chronicle of a four-year environmental conflict, co-directed with Martin Duckworth.
Waiting for Martin Lo Tekk Productions (2004), 52 min. A student activist attempts to meet Canadian Finance Minister Paul Martin. Animation by co-director Sophia Southam.
Sonny Joe and the Casino Self-produced (2004), 20 min. Mohawk Sonny Joe Cross, a former alcoholic gambler, leads a campaign against a casino in his community of Kahnawake—and wins.
Hell-Bent for Justice Productions Érézi (2004), 75 min. The innocent victims of the biker wars in Quebec and their courageous struggle against organized crime and for justice.
Maxime, McDuff & McDo Les Productions Virage (2002), 52 min. Two young men attempt to unionize a McDonald’s franchise, sowing wind and reaping a storm.
View from the Summit Productions Érézi and NFB (2002), 75 min. Seven film crews follow key players on both sides of the barricades in Quebec City during the Summit of the Americas in 2001.
The Choir Boys Productions Érézi (1999), 75 min. The trials and tribulations of a Montreal choir made up of homeless men.
Pressure Point – Inside the Montreal Blockade Productions Multi-Monde (1999), 52 min. Co-directed by Malcom Guy, Anna Pascal and Isacsson, the film takes us inside a risky civil disobedience action with neophyte protesters.
Union Trouble – A Cautionary Tale Les Productions Virage (1999), 65 min. An historic attempt to unionize the employees of McDonald’s, a company known all over the world for its anti-union policies.
Power – One River Two Nations Cineflix (1996), 76 min. The successful five-year battle carried out by the Cree of Quebec against the Great Whale hydro-electric project.
The Big Upheaval Les Productions Virage (1996), 52 min. The 1972 strike of the Common Front of public sector employees in Quebec.
The Emperor’s New Clothes NFB (1995), 75 min. The consequences of the North American Free Trade Agreement for working people.
Uranium NFB (1991), 52 min. About the radioactive contamination of Native peoples’ lands by Canada’s uranium mines.
Out of the Ashes Alter-Ciné (1991), 52 min. A film about about war, famine and development in Ethiopia.
Toivo – Child of Hope Alter-Ciné (1990), 30 min. The liberation of Namibia seen through the life story of one of its leaders.