TIFF Review: ‘Al Purdy Was Here’

7 mins read

Al Purdy Was Here
Canada, 90 min.
Dir. Brian D. Johnson, Writ. Marni Jackson, Brian D. Johnson
Programme: TIFF Docs (World Premiere)


Good filmmakers and good film critics often go hand in hand. Take the gang at Cahiers du Cinéma and the French New Wave, for example, who articulated a new stream of national cinema in print and on film. Add Brian D. Johnson to the list as he makes his feature debut with the well-versed doc Al Purdy Was Here. Johnson makes a film just as well as he critiques one. There’s a great pleasure in watching the film as one feels the same voice, tinged with a grasp for both film and Canadiana thanks to decades of experience covering the film beat at Maclean’s, speak using a caméra-stylo with seasoned skill.

Johnson invites audiences to stay awhile at Purdy’s iconic A-frame home and book a stay at the Quinte Hotel as Purdy’s poetry motivates a stirring discussion of Canadiana. Purdy remains Canada’s unofficial poet laureate with his everyman’s words and his down to earth articulation of everyday life. He reads like the Alice Munro of Canadian poetry as his deceptively simple voice burrows into the grey skies and country dives of Canadian communities. They are slice of life poems that meditate on life with an economy of words. It’s no wonder that the work endures or that Purdy garnered two Governor General’s Awards and the Order of Canada during his lifetime. The film bestows another award on Purdy as it pays tribute to his lasting impact on Canadian culture.

Al Purdy Was Here follows the restoration of the A-frame and its refurbishment into a writers’ residence for emerging Canadian poets. The story of bringing life and poetry back to the A-frame is a fine vehicle for visiting Purdy’s contribution to Canadian culture and for exploring the legacy he left behind. Johnson gathers a who’s who of Canadian cultural icons to share their experiences with Al Purdy, regardless of whether they knew him in life or simply in books. Margaret Atwood, for example, tells of days at the pub with Purdy and she illuminates Purdy’s persona as a man’s man (his work features a tangible masculine voice) and his impact as a layman’s poet. She recalls the time he called her ‘an academic’ as a virulent insult from his side of the conversation. Purdy, ever the “sensitive man” of his verse, then peed on Atwood’s car—which she recalls with some amusement. Purdy had a rugged unorthodoxy for a man of the higher arts and this doc objectively creates a complex portrait of a brilliant mind.

In between chats and games of pool with Atwood, Johnson interviews the likes of Michael Ondaatje, Stephen Heighton, Dennis Lee, and other contemporaries who speak of Purdy’s influence and enduring traits. Purdy’s wife, Eurithe, offers invaluable insight to the full character of her late husband, while the poet’s own voice features prominently in the film as Johnson offers an impressive range of archival footage. These excerpts show the audience Purdy’s large frame, expressive gestures, and his low, gravelly voice that makes his poetry readings so effective. The footage features an equally notable list of names as Purdy appears in interviews with prominent journalists ranging from Adrienne Clarkson, who prods him about his awful early work, to all-American square William F. Buckley, Jr., who grills him on the perceived anti-American sentiments of his poetry. Purdy adds that at least six of his poems contain pro-American sentiments, thus showing that he was never a man to back away from a good joke or fight.

This affectionate and elegiac documentary captures the spirit of Purdy’s poetry through its unassuming ability to speak openly and plainly about vastly intelligent ideas and sentiments. Al Purdy Was Here evokes the same tangible sense of Canadian nationalism that arises in poems such as “The Country North of Belleville” as Johnson moves his camera around the A-frame, hunkers down in pubs, and simply, but quaintly, relates to anyone eager to talk. The film also brings a pure slice-of-life element with recurring visits to the bronze Al Purdy statue in Queen’s Park, which enjoys frequent visits from squirrels and gets some funny narration from the parody Twitter account @statueofalpurdy that observes life in the park in droll Purdy-ish musings of 140 characters or less. The film offers the tone and spirit of a Purdy poem with great skill.

Perhaps the only thing better than paying tribute to an artist is to make something new that furthers his work, and Al Purdy Was Here extends Purdy’s poetry with a series of songs inspired by his writing. Canadian artists Sarah Harmer, Tanya Tagaq, and Bruce Cockburn perform songs that draw upon Purdy’s verses and offer similar evocations of everyday life. Harmer’s song is especially plaintive and folksy, but the performance with Tagaq’s hypnotic throat singing and Joseph Boyden’s recitations is essential for capturing Purdy’s ability to speak to a variety of experiences across Canada as the First Nations artists bring Purdy’s poetry to life. Johnson’s documentary features the Al Purdy whom readers and viewers have studied before as well as a revived poet that speaks anew. This fine film lovingly renders one man’s contribution to the arts in Canada, but more importantly, Al Purdy Was Here imparts the pleasure in sharing one’s appreciation for the arts with fellow Canadians. It’s a wonderful slice of Canadiana.

Al Purdy Was Here will be distributed in Canada from Films We Like.


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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