Stacey Tenenbaum’s Pipe Dreams focuses on a half-dozen competitors at the prestigious Canadian International Organ Competition (CIOC), an assemblage of young talent that gathers triennially for a chance at $100,000 in prize money. Hulking instruments dwarf the competitors, with myriad knobs and manuals swarming the console the performers manipulate, making the musicians feel at times as if they’re wrestling a mechanical beast as much as they are coaxing out musicality for the judges and the audience.
Participants gather from around the world from many different backgrounds, some providing historically accurate presentations of the original motifs while others playfully add jazzy elements. Viewers are invited into this unique microcosm where the intensity of competition merges with the impressive physicality of their performances.
POV spoke to Ms. Tenenbaum from Montreal prior to the film’s showcase at HotDocs 2019.
POV: Jason Gorber
ST: Stacey Tenenbaum
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
POV: Can you talk about your prior connection to organ music?
ST: I knew nothing! I’m Jewish so I don’t really go to church. I have a family friend who is the artistic director of the CIOC and he invited me to see the finals in the Notre Dame Cathedral here in Montreal. They had a screen that shows the organist playing and that was what got me super hooked. It’s such an astounding instrument, it’s just so mesmerizing to see played.
POV: Are you sitting there in Notre Dame and immediately thinking, oh, I can make a movie out of this?
ST: It actually wasn’t my idea to make the film, which is a little bit weird. While I was shooting my last film, Shiners, I was having beers with my cameraman in Hong Kong and he said he’d like to do a film about that organ competition.
POV: How did you choose the participants to follow?
ST: It was the hardest, scariest thing. When you’re casting for a film you can go far and wide to find the very best characters, but in this case we only had 20 people. We interviewed all of the competitors and chose the top five. The competition has three elimination rounds so I was a bit paranoid that come round one every single one of the people I was following would get eliminated, so I was hedging my bets.
POV: So some were eliminated not only from the competition but they were eliminated from your film as well. Was there ever a moment of worrying I_’m hurting that person twice_?
ST: Not really. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to film with everyone. Until the assembly I had one extra character that was in there, but due to time constraints, I just couldn’t have that many characters, so she ended up getting dropped. I did let them know nicely and they were pretty cool about it.
POV: It’s fair to say that your film fits the Spellbound competition mold but also the larger sports film paradigm. How did you set your film apart from previous docs and how you did you draw on other films that have actually taken the same tack?
ST: I really wanted to make sure that the characters’ stories were developed. I’d watched a lot of other competition films before making this one and it was important to me that I would really understand the characters and make everyone care for them. As for the sports film thing I do have a _Rocky style training montage in the middle of the film! I wanted to include that because I don’t think people realize how physical playing the organ is. Also I just thought it was funny.
POV: When you’re looking at other films that have done similar things are you focusing on differentiating yourself?
ST: When I’m in the edit suite I’m just kind of doing my thing. The biggest challenge for us was not having it be boring. I did lean on other competition films to see how they cut but ended up finding our own way. There are three rounds so there was a possibility that it was going to be quite repetitive. I needed to break out of that and figure out creative ways so that it was still exciting round after round.
POV: What films did you look at?
ST: I watched Spellbound. The Short Game I really loved. There was a ballet one that was called First Position, which was quite good. It’s hard to say how much you take from them, because I think it is very much a subconscious thing; you absorb some things and then you go into your film hopefully fresh.
POV: For something like a Spellbound we know if the word is spelled correctly. For a general audience it’s almost impossible for us to adjudicate what makes a good or bad organ performance at this level. Was there a more didactic cut where you talked to the judges?
ST: It actually did come in to play. I have no musical background, so I came in thinking I want to make this film for other people that don’t necessarily know music, to appreciate the visual feast of it all. I didn’t really want to get into what they did wrong because usually what it is they did wrong is esoteric. So I made a conscious decision to not really interview the judges. There was a discussion between my editor and me as to whether or not we should include that. He had the same worry, but I always knew that it wasn’t going to be important. It was about the emotion rather than ‘did they make a mistake?’
POV: Given that emotion, is there something in the journey of these musicians that has affected your own art?
ST: They kept on asking, “what do I want to say with this piece?” Of course music is about self-expression, but I never really thought about it that way. I really felt that there was kinship as obviously you make films to say something. I make documentary films to give people enjoyment obviously, and they do with their music, but also we have something to say.
POV: What do you hope your film says?
ST: Pipe Dreams shows the dedication that these musicians put into their work and their passion towards the craft. At the end of the day being marked for your art isn’t important, it’s the whole process of making their art that’s important. I struggled with that a little bit because it’s a competition film, so obviously the competition is at its heart, but at the end of the day when you’re making music or any kind of art, it’s not a competition. It can’t be.
Pipe Dreams screens:
-Sun, Apr. 28 at 3:15 p.m. at Cineplex Scotiabank
-Tues, Apr. 30 at 9:00 p.m. at TIFF Lightbox
-Fri, May 3 at 10:00 a.m. at Isabel Bader