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 www.nfb.ca 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.





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. http://insidedisaster.com/haiti/

 





Storytelling from the fringe

6 12 2010

“Fringe” is a word I used to dislike very much. Maybe because I’m too conservative…? Traditional? Or maybe because I’m the kind of gal who likes to include everybody. Why should we celebrate “fringe” unless we want to practice exclusion as a society? No one should be on the fringes of community!

However, my gripe with “fringe” is possibly the very reason I’m working to become a documentary filmmaker. This is what causes me to go to those the mainstream considers “on the outside” and invite them in, by letting them tell their story to a wider audience who might not otherwise get to hear it.

Telling your story is a powerful way to invite people into your life. Through storytelling, others are invited into your conversation, and you grow into their community. Memoirs, first-person narratives, personal documentary journeys – these could all be just as easily defined as “testimonials” because they testify to where we’ve been, and who we become through the individual circumstances in our lives.

With that in mind – and because it was free, thanks UBC Dialogues! – I attended a panel discussion on “Storytelling from the Fringe” Saturday at the Whistler Film Festival. You want to hear about the juicy scoop on the films don’t you? Well, sorry to disappoint, I didn’t see a single one.

Saturday night’s film A Life Ascending directed by Stephen Grynberg was sold out, and I wasn’t into seeing the German thriller The Silence, although it looks very good. So no movies for me in Whistler, however I did go later that evening to see the striking film Fair Game in a Vancouver theatre – the fascinating account of Valerie Plame being outed as a CIA agent by the Bush administration, and the “discovery” of non-existent WMD that lead to the Iraq war.)

But here’s a good roundup of the fest. I was happy to note that the one film I would have liked to see again after watching it at Hot Docs, Marwencol, won a $2,500 documentary award for “an intimate portrait of an artist who lives between fantasy and reality and whose miniaturized world magnifies our own.”

It’s an incredible film, a fascinating portrait of an artist using toys in to-scale human dramas to deal with the psychological aftermath he lives with after receiving a vicious beating. Here’s an interview with director Jeff Malmberg.

But back to what I did see…

Documentary directors Gwen Haworth (Not Kokura and She’s a Boy I Knew), Nettie Wild (director of A Rustling of Leaves: Inside the Philippine Revolution (1988), Blockade (1993), A Place Called Chiapas (1998), and Fix: The Story of an Addicted City (2002 ) and experimental video artist Daniel Cockburn talked about their experiences in making films “from the fringe.”

In Nettie and Gwen’s case they spoke about filming subjects who are often marginalized from the mainstream, and in Daniel’s case, about his extremely experimental films which – for most people – kind of defines “fringe”, even though he himself was reluctant to subscribe to the term. I’m going to focus on what Nettie had to say because her approach is closest to the kinds of stories I want to tell. And as a sought-after mentor in documentary film who has worked the longest term of the three as a filmmaker, she has a lot of wisdom to offer.

Nettie said that every day she’s filming or editing, she has to ask herself: “Why on earth am I doing this?” She said she is aware that she comes as an outsider to her documentary subjects. Whether in the Chiapas, the Phillipines, or a relationship between a drug addict and a non-user on Vancouver’s streets, Nettie gains access to a world she doesn’t come from through trust and friendship. But it can only go so far. She knows she can only “walk alongside” these people in order to tell their story – which she describes as “high stakes dramas” – and is only allowed as deep as her subjects will take her.

The answer to her question though, is the people themselves who trust her with their stories. Because they’ve been courageous enough to open up and make themselves vulnerable to a perfect stranger, she has an obligation to fulfill, a film to make. This is also why Nettie says she works for a full year following the release of any of her films to ensure it gets as wide a distribution as possible. This is to honour her unspoken contract with her subjects: they let her into their lives and in return she works hard to bring the story to the public, right next to the blockbuster showing at Cineplex.

In Nettie’s case, it seems the “fringe” element is the classic reason documentarians exist: to bring the stories of life on the lonely edges of what we know into the light of the known and acknowledged. (There’s a new book out about Nettie and her films from Anvil Press, and a retrospective of her work will be showing January 15 – 17 at the Pacific Cinematique.)

While Nettie’s stories tend to use a linear, direct-line narrative, Daniel’s experimental videos are far from linear. It took him about 3.5 minutes to explain his latest film You are here to the audience, and even then he had to say the film never makes it clear where the story is set or how his characters are related. In his case, the unconventional mediums Daniel uses to encase his stories is the “fringe” element. (Click here for a good interview with the director about the film.)

Gwen’s perspective as a filmmaker from the fringes is very different yet again.

Her up-close and personal documentary film She’s a boy I knew is an “ethnographic autobio pic” of her family and ex-wife’s experiences and emotions as the filmmaker underwent gender reassignment from male to female. In this case, the subject matter is the fringe area.

Gwen spoke about her determination to honour the voices of those making themselves vulnerable to the camera – her father, mother, sister, best friend and ex-wife – and spoke about how she strove not to centre the film around her life as a transsexual lesbian.

I thought Gwen’s comments were powerful because the tendency in filmmaking is to focus the action on the “hero” – the classic protagonist-going-through-fire. In this case the principal actor chose to truly tell this story from the fringes, from the perspective of those around her.

So far… I have to say that compared to these folk, my storytelling from the fringes has been limited thus far. But there are a few: about a Young Man who decides to quit life on the streets and his home in a Montreal squat, a Woman whose faith goes counter to ordinary human logic as she bucks the odds and brings healing through horsemanship to the “lost children of the earth”, and a couple of Trappers in northeastern BC who love the bush and animals enough to get risk getting involved in the regulatory system around oil and gas extraction.

More on that story to come…