One day, one thing gone

21 10 2012

What happens when you lose the one thing you thought you couldn’t live without?


I suspect everyone has a “one thing” they consider irreplaceable.
A spouse.
A dog.
A career.
A belief.
In some instances, maybe a car.

Something you believe that, once lost, can never be replaced. And even if something ever happens to potentially take its place, there would still be such a huge gaping hole in your life that you just wouldnt be able to get over it.

For me, my one thing was my childhood home. For thirty years it was unarguably my place of comfort. No matter where I travelled in my 20s, I always has the sweet sense that I could go home anytime, finding the big, barn-like house unchanged. When I lived in Etobicoke, Toronto, surrounded by industrial buildings and drab, low-income housing, buzzed by airplanes day and night, I was comforted knowing that back home, there were green rolling hills all year round and raspberry bushes bursting with berries in spring and blackberries in summer and coyotes howling all night long. No matter how far I went and how dreary my present circumstances, that was still there.


I carried the ideal of the farmhouse’s beauty with me everywhere. In Palestine and Israel, exploring the countryside and climbing Syrian hills, I contrasted its desert and rock-blasted landscapes with my home terrain. In Paris, I admired the layout of the arrondissements but decided I couldn’t get used to living that close to neighbours, with that little space. In Nunavut I ached with the beauty of white upon white land and seascapes, but longed for the greens of home. In China I was blown away by the Heavenly Mountains, but knew the view from my bedroom window of the distant Rockies was far more satisfying. There is nothing like travelling far to find you love best the land that you grew up exploring.

I was steeped in the farmhouse lore: how the planks for the curving staircase were once part of a dock, and its pillars, worm-ringed and knotty, had been reclaimed from a pier being torn down; that the upstairs windows came from a 100-year old Catholic church; that the original builder, a fireman, had installed a fireplace that wasn’t up to code and my parents had had to replace it.


It wasn’t the memories of the times I’d spent there, the Christmases with family, the parties and dinners I’d hosted, that kept me attached to the old homestead. I’d had fun there, countless bonfires around which beers were consumed and cloves smoked, berries picked and thrown and baked, gardens planted and harvested, people blessed and welcomed with hospitality and joy. It was more a sense of attachment to the place itself than to what happened to me there. Perhaps you can’t distinguish one from the other. But I felt I belonged there in a way I didn’t anywhere else in the world. The landscape was part of me, and I couldn’t live without it.

Or at least that’s what I believed.

Until I was uprooted against my will, I didn’t think i could be happy anywhere else. Until I moved to a little island with a little cabin by the sea, a warm stove and a room to turn into an edit suite, I didn’t think I could call anywhere else home. At least, not three weeks after the trauma of uprooting!

But that’s exactly what happened. I lost my “one thing”, thought the world was going to end, wailed and protested at length to anyone who would listen, made a “last film”, “last canning session”, “last pie”, “last garden walk through”, “last picture”, “last cry” and I finally walked away and I was… fine.

I am absolutely still fine. In fact, I think I’m better than ever, but what has happened since walking away from the farm is another story.

The point is, I only thought I needed a homebase, and I just made myself miserable for months thinking I was losing it. The truth is, I’m an adventurer. I love to explore. I am made for travel and transplants and new root systems every few years. It was shocking, really, to see how quickly I for used to the idea of living elsewhere, of loving being elsewhere, and let the ideal I held of the farm just… go.

That’s what happened when I lost my one thing. What happened to you when you lost yours?

Comments welcome.









Hot Docs review: ‘Position among the Stars’

8 05 2011

You won’t find a stronger documentary that so beautifully brings out Indonesia’s churning social and religious questions than Position among the Stars (Stand van de Sterren), which screened recently at Toronto’s Hot Docs festival. Earlier this year the film took home the Best Feature-length Documentary at IDFA and a World Cinema Special Jury Prize at the Sundance festival.

Directed and shot by Dutch filmmaker Leonard Retel Helmrich, it’s the concluding film in a trilogy following a poor family living through modern-day Indonesia’s tumultuous decade of change. (His first two films The Eye of the Day and Shape of the Moon won the Joris Ivens Award IDFA – 2004, and the World Cinema Documentary Grand Jury Prize at Sundance – 2005.)

Position among the Stars continues Helmrich’s 12-year documentation of Rumidjah, an elderly Christian grandmother living in the world’s largest Muslim community, and her family. Rumidjah struggles to keep her non-observant Muslim sons on track, and to provide for her granddaughter’s uncertain future in an increasingly globalized economy. Through the microcosm of a single family, we see all the issues Indonesia is struggling to come to grips with today.

Helmrich’s cinematography style is astonishingly intimate. Using his unique “Single-shot Cinema” method – his excellent website where he describes his trademark style is here – and an array of relatively cheap consumer cameras, he brings the audience into startling moments of truth in the family’s life.

After a screening he answered some questions about his film:

Describe your filming technique and how you got such intimate scenes with this family.

I didn’t want to be just an observer, and standing, shooting scenes from the outside. I wanted to be a participant, among them. As I filmed, I was just being with them, together.

There is a drama going on always, and when you get to know people you can predict what will happen, and I just make sure that I get the right angle from the right place. I call it single-shot cinema. At a scene, I shoot in a single shot and only in the editing it gets cut.

I also used five different cameras, normally I have just consumer cameras, but they are all specialized in certain things. I use them like a painter would use a brush. So I can say that in this situation, “this camera would be best.”

In the scene of the boy running (ED NOTE: a long scene with multiple shots of a young boy running through Jakarta’s alleys after he’d stolen some clothes) I just ran after him, and he ran away… but I knew where he would go, I knew his labyrinth by then. So when I had a number of my shots and I thought “if I want to make my story round I should do something extra – I should do with the camera what he wanted to do himself.” The boy wanted to fly. So I took the little camera and put it on a bamboo stick and lifted it up to get a kind of a crane shot.

How much time did you spend with the family, and how did you meet them?

I was there about 14 months, almost every day, actually living their life for that time. This is the third part of a trilogy, the first I shot almost 12 years ago, so they know me quite a lot.

In 1990 was the first time I went to the village where my mother was born, and it was there I met them. Rumidjah’s husband was still alive, he was about twenty years older than her and he still could speak a little Dutch. Because of the old colonial tie. So it was a great bond between us and we became friends. It was just before the fall of Suharto (May 1998.)

And then I hired Bakti (Rumidjah’s son) as a driver and I was seeing what was happening with the family. And it was historical, this change in the country because the Suharto family was a dictator and he had to step down, and there were huge protests, and it was similar to what is happening now in Arab countries. And I saw that what was happening in their life was a microcosm of what was happening in greater Indonesia so I thought, I’d better focus on them.

Can you talk a bit about the themes you pulled out?

The main reason I decided to focus on religion, economy and politics is because it’s the three things that are very much changing and making this turmoil in Indonesia. If you look at every newspaper they are really the three main things. The economy is booming, but there is a also a kind of reaction from the religious part. And politics of course, you have to cope with these events.

Helmrich said he doesn’t plan to film a fourth installment, but if something were to happen in the family that was important with respect to Indonesia, then “I’m ready.”

Hot Docs 2011

1 05 2011

Officially, Hot Docs began April 28th. But it feels like still it’s the “party weekend” before Hot Docs really begins – the Hot Docs that for so many in the film industry means endless meetings, sweaty pitches, making connections and hopefully, landing a deal.

I’ve had the chance to meet some wonderful people, from festival programmers to producers and filmmakers (mostly at the amazing social nights that start after 9 every day) but the best thing about Hot Docs is, of course, the films. That’s why we’re all here. To see the incredible results of a filmmaker’s vision. To delight in watching what took sometimes five or ten years of work to realize.

So without further introduction, here’s a slice of a few of the films I’ve had the privilege to see over the last 3 days.

The Bengali Detective is my personal pick for audience favourite of the year.

It’s hard to claim that after having only seen 7 films, knowing there are so many excellent ones out there. Over 200 of them! But this film is a true crowd-pleaser. It follows the engaging, loveable Rajesh Ji, a private investigator who secretly wants to be a Bollywood dancer. It’s a crime show-whodunnit-love story-tragi-comedy that hits all the right notes.

Rajesh’s work is serious, as people call on him to solve crimes they feel the police don’t care about. The film points out a system that still today, for all of India’s progress, oppresses the poor and makes the vulnerable pay. But rather than the typical story about another heartbreaking struggle, the story is so vibrant and full of courage, so tragic and comic, that I gained a totally new compassion and understanding of India.

Rajesh is also a loving father and husband, and it’s touching to see his expressive affection for his son and wife. There’s a tragedy lurking, but I’ll let you watch it  – it’s a heartbreaker. All in all I felt this is like a feature film with all the right elements to pull a sophisticated audience along, and it all just happens to be true.

A second favourite is ‘Fightville’, a film about amateur mixed martial arts (MMA) fighters, by veteran filmmakers Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein. Here’s a more complete review in the Globe and Mail than mine could ever be.

I’m not sure why it appealed to me so much – certainly not because of the violence inside the cage where young men in the prime do their best to destroy their opponent. The more realistic the violence, the paler and more uncomfortable I become. It’s not a film for the faint of heart. But I loved this film because it challenged a lot of pre-conceived notions I had about MMA and UFC fighting. It’s a character study with a cage as a set and the sound of blows and grunts as the soundtrack.

It also has a strong theme of the journey to becoming a man. The film follows two young men who have dedicated their lives to being the best fighter in the ring, Dustin Poirier and Albert Stainback. One from a violent childhood, the other who looked up to his fighter father and wants to be just like him. In the sweat and blood of the Louisiana gym where they train, we watch them both learn more about life and themselves. Both men are articulate and give a voice to why some men turn to violence to express what’s inside.

We see through ‘Fightville’ that it almost doesn’t matter that the discipline is mixed martial arts. These men could be training to be fighter pilots or chefs. But through the journey of committing themselves and pursuing something so totally if they’re going to be the best, they become better men. And that’s a story every athlete and artist can relate to.

More reviews to come, I’ve got to sign off for now.

NFB playlists

28 02 2011

NFB playlists1
I recently spent a morning browsing the NFB’s excellent resource of film playlists. The playlists have been a feature of the new website since it launched in January 2009. Invited guests and their own staff have grouped together films around themes ranging from the powerful to the whimsical, the obvious to the obscure.

I have one conclusion…. You can get lost in there! The only way I can justify spending hours watching ten of these films at a time, is by rationalizing that it’s the duty of every young filmmaker to see the work of filmmakers that have gone before them.

Thanks to the playlists, it becomes a delightful chore. They are a useful tool for whittling down the wonderful selection of films available on the website. They also provide insight into the making-of certain films and in some cases, the historical context that otherwise would be lost to someone of my generation.

NFB Roche playlist
The NFB’s Guest Playlists include film groupings by the following people, some of whom are in-house producers and filmmakers:

* Douglas Roche: The Strength of Peace (Magnus’ film Uranium, Terry Nash’s If You Love This Planet, and Martin Duckworth’s Return to Dresden are included in this list)

* Tre Armstrong: Dance, Music and Passion

* Donald McWilliams: Norman McLaren: Hands-on Animation

* Colin Low: Recollections from a Distinguished Career

* Alanis Obomsawin: a Retrospective

* Gil Cardinal: The Aboriginal Voice

* Katerina Cizek: Manifesto for interventionist Media

* Thomas Waugh, Ezra Winton and Michael Baker: Challenge for Change

* Adam Symansky: Donald Brittain

The guest authors of their collections take one of two approaches in their selections: either they focus on a theme or a particular filmmaker. Cizek’s playlist brings together 11 films on “the philosophy and practice of ‘Art as a Hammer’.” Her picks range from 1944’s short Democracy at Work to 2008’s RiP! A Remix Manifesto.

NFB symansky playlist

Symansky’s collection brings together eight Donald Brittain films, each written up with a personal recollection of Symansky’s about the “making of” of the film. The writing alone is an invaluable resource for younger filmmakers like myself.

In the NFB’s Expert Playlists, their resident collections expert, Albert Ohayon, put together six useful lists:

* 10 Great Films from the last decade you may not have seen

* The 1960s: An Explosion of Creativity

* The 1950s: Television and the Move to Montreal

* Canada’s Diverse Cultures

* Bill Mason: Beyond the wild, beyond the paddle

And finally, the Thematic Playlists comprise almost sixty collections of films and clips, intriguing because there’s such a huge variety. Where else can you access groupings ranging from ‘Winter Sports Movies” to “Canada’s got Treasures!”?

Treasures indeed.

Value in barter

12 02 2011

Honest Ed's knows bargains are where it's at.

Will trade services for goods!

I learned a valuable lesson this week in the value of trades in the current economy. The lesson comes courtesy of a local winery’s event – Township 7’s Taste the Stars – that I’m filming tonight. Because I’d already filmed their grape stomp in October, they asked if I would come back and film the making-of sparkling wine demonstration.

Since I’m always up for more time on the camera (we shoot with Sony’s PMW EX1-r) and…. because it was fascinating… and for a good cause… and… so…

I had to pull out the camera. I couldn’t not record the making of a local sparking wine.

Without going into specifics, we eventually agreed on a trade for services that didn’t involve money.

“But, but!” the business-minded entrepreneur sputters, “You’re trying to start a business! Shouldn’t you be charging for services?”

Absolutely. You cannot afford to stay afloat and actually build a business if you do pro-bono or practically free work all the time. If you provide a service, generally you get paid for it.

But I’m starting to see that credibility and providing a service can be very different things. To get to the point where we can be seen as professionals, we have to bank credibility and track record. It doesn’t just come with the website.

Our company is new. Blue Cyrus is just starting out and no one knows us from a regular wedding-video service, or that we’re professionals who have graduated a little beyond handheld camcorder status. Sometimes, to build credibility we need to work a little harder to prove our true value.

So proving ourselves as professionals can sometimes can mean going the extra mile and doing things for free. I’m ok with that.

Besides, there’s a reason I chose a winery after all…

Let’s just say Township 7’s wine is good enough for Queen Elizabeth II, and it’s said she has great taste.

Company website up and running!

14 01 2011

Check out to have a glance at our new website.

We welcome any suggestions for improvement. Much tweaking still needed!

Thank you, Tobi Elliott and Charlotte Gentis

Horses on my friend Carl Gitscheff's farm Photo credit: Tobi Elliott

PS Thank you to my awesome little brother Matthew, who helped me immensely getting it together. Best birthday present a girl could ever ask for!

Blue Cyrus Media presents…

12 01 2011

Charlotte and I recently registered our new partnership – Blue Cyrus Media – and we’re going through all the honeymoon tumult that you can expect with a startup. Our chosen passions are an interesting mix: Charlotte loves documenting horses and orphans in hot sunny climes (see the trailer in previous post)

and while I’m totally into it, I’m always running back to snowbound northeastern BC to capture the life and tribulations of a trapper who “manages animal populations” (ie kills them when necessary).

We’re an interesting duo to say the least. But the dynamics of a partnership aren’t what I want to explore here.

Starting out a career as a documentary filmmaker sounds great… but HOW exactly do you get there?

For answers, I look to my friend and mentor Magnus Isacsson, whose brain I get to pick on a regular basis. He got his start after producing radio (8 years) and television (6 years) for Radio-Canada and CBC in both French and English – can you imagine? – before he decided to strike out on his own as a filmmaker. Four years after he left public broadcasting he released his first film Uranium (1990), available on the National Film Board’s website (where you can access most, if not all, of the films they’ve ever produced online.) His most recent film Les Super Mémés premiered on the closing night of the Festival de Films sur les Droits de la Personne de Montréal.

And Barry Lazar, the man who actually got me into this medium of telling stories with his class on documentary filmmaking. Barry has also been the route of the working professional – for CBC, on various productions for other broadcasters, and even as a writer for the Montreal Gazette. His latest film won many accolades at last year’s Hot Docs – the fantastic The Socalled Movie – and is now touring the world and out on DVD.

It was almost exactly a year ago that I was sitting in Barry’s class at Concordia University, digesting the fact that I had found a career that would fulfill my passion for telling real-life stories in a format I can live with.

Outside Concordia University Jan 2010: A shopping cart that hasn't yet found its passion.

A year! It sounds like a long time… and it is if you’re measuring your progress by how much others seemingly can accomplish in a year. When I compare myself to these two and other filmmakers, I’m overwhelmed by how far I have to go. I’m tempted to make excuses: “But they’re more experienced than I.” “They already have networks.” “They know what the heck a production schedule looks like!” I think I can excuse their success and momentum of filmmaking by saying they’ve been “in the industry” and they “know people.” But does that really make a difference?

In today’s media-saturated world, in order to get someone to pay attention to your idea, and even more crucially to trust you with funding, you need more than a CV that includes university, stints on other people’s shoots and even a host of films to your name. You need connections.

One filmmaker I’m in touch with who has grasped that idea intuitively is Claudia Pelz, a producer who lives and works in Italy. After 14 years producing for television and doing a few documentaries of her own, she has seen the television market change drastically in the last two years. Most European broadcasters are no longer as interested in funding “one-offs”. They are looking for series and to fill slots in “theme days” with several documentaries at a time.

Claudia says she is keen to network with other producers and directors around the world because “networking is a possibility to serve the market requests… and will help small production companies and film makers with only one or two films about one topic.”

While her advice is crucial for the age we’re living in, some advice remains timeless. Magnus wrote an excellent document with just that: “Letter to a Young Filmmaker” (bottom of the page on left – click to download). I’d like to quote everything but here are a few choice tidbits:

  • It’s gonna be tough: “The most important… is to have something to say, or a story to tell, and a real urge to do it. Because this is not an area of work you’re going to enjoy if you’re not strongly motivated: the conditions are too difficult, and the competition for limited resources too stiff. If you feel like working in the field but you don’t have that drive for getting your own story or your own vision across, you might be better off working as a cinematographer, a sound recordist or an editor. These are all important and very creative jobs, all very challenging and indispensable to good filmmaking.”
  • But if you are determined to go ahead… first get your own experience: “Getting experience doesn’t necessarily mean directing your own film right away. It means doing things, hands on, which will help hone your skills and test your instincts. It could be writing for the student newspaper or doing stories for the community radio, making an activist video or even just a home movie.”
  • Five essential ingredients: “a good story”, “important issues”, “a point of view”, “good characters” and “emotion and drama”.
  • MOMENTUM: “to find all the resources needed to make the film… you need to create a momentum. You need to give your subjects, and the people who will give you the resources the feeling that your film has to be made, and that it will be made, because you are determined to make it. You need to make people feel that while, of course, you’re still a nice person (at least most of the time), respectful of others, saying no to you is not really an option. To quote Luc Jacquet, the director of March of the Penguins (the biggest grossing documentary ever in North America) “Even if you have no money, if you give energy to a film, it will eventually seduce a financial partner.”
  • Talk to the end-users at the start: “The smarter you can be about designing your film so that it will work for your intended audience, the more successful film you will end up with.”

See Magnus’ blog this week for some excellent suggestions on docs to watch about the reconstruction effort in Haiti.

International Support

From the series 'Inside Disaster'. Photo by Nicolas Jolliet.