A conference presentation for the University of Toronto Cinema Studies Graduate Conference, Sightlines, which took place on February 27th, 2016 at Innis Town Hall. - D.D.
Don Owen and the Birth of Toronto Cinema
It’s an unfortunate coincidence that Don Owen passed away, due to health reasons, earlier on in the week, but in honor of him and his important work, I want to dedicate this talk to his memory. Owen is one of the founding fathers of Toronto, English-language Canadian cinema, especially for his film Nobody Waved Good-bye (1964).
Steve Gravestock, in his book, Don Owen: Notes on a Filmmaker and his Culture, describes how in the early sixties, filmmaking in Toronto was non-existent (there were no production companies), and with the city’s conservative and religious values, it was resistant to it. The National Film Board in Montreal, which started in 1939, was the heart of the industry, and Owen had to go there, to its Unit B Candid Eye program, to get the training and resources to start making films. But he would return to Toronto to make a couple of short documentaries, Runner and Toronto Jazz, before making Nobody Waved Good-bye, which, similar to Gilles Carle’s La vie heureuse de Léopold Z (1965), started out as a documentary (on juvenile delinquency) before becoming a narrative feature.
Nobody Waved Good-bye is the story of a rebellious teenager (Peter Kastner), who drops out of school and moves out of his parents house, gets a job working at a parking lot, before trying to leave the city in a stolen car with his girlfriend. Its accomplishments are four-fold: There’s still something about Peter’s plight that resonates today – his charm, indecision and frustration in face of a restrictive society still rings true –, Owen’s guerilla filmmaking, open to improvisation and chance, breathes life into the film and it still feels modern today (Matt Johnson even cites it as an influence); its depiction of the city is valuable as a historical document; and it would establish the groundwork for a Toronto-based film culture and the framework for English Canadian cinema in general.
It’s this depiction of Toronto as a modern urban center, in contrast to a vast uninhabited landscape, and the contribution to building of a major and alternative industry, which makes Owen such an important figure today. The film would also directly address the relationship between Canadian culture and the dominant mainstream one of the United States – Peter makes fun of the Hollywood epic Cleopatra –, which also points to some reasons for its certain marginal status in Canadian consciousness.
The history of Canadian cinema is full of one-off films, poor reception, lack of funding and limited audiences, which is still a sad reality today. Owen made his film, which was modestly positively received, but after his brief stint at the NFB, his career never really took off – the subjects of his later documentaries would have many parallels with his own life, as he would usually focus on outsider artists, who live a bohemian-style life, at the margins of society.
How to Support an Independent Toronto Cinema?
There’s not enough mainstream images that bring together the country and the cultural memory of film-goers is not documented sufficiently. How to remedy this? Watch more Canadian films, support them, and perhaps write about them? So the following is my attempt to do just this.
The Toronto DIY Filmmakers should best be seen, not necessarily as a group or movement, but a fortuitous coincidence of several young people becoming filmmakers, who are based out of Toronto, who started making films, shorts, animation, experimental and feature films, around the same time, since 2009-2010.
So the Toronto DIY Filmmakers are these young filmmakers from the Greater Toronto Area region who are making more independent and artisanal films. The films are mostly shot digitally and most of the filmmakers are from one of Toronto’s film production schools, such as Ryerson and York University. The young filmmakers offer a new perspective, from their vantage point of millennials, on the Canadian experience, which typically are more raw and melancholic, vital and full of life than some of the nation’s more ‘official’ media output. And to actually see them, one must be aware of these one-off or short-run screenings, as their theatrical experiences are either micro- or personal screenings, typically with a small to medium attendance.
The origins of the Toronto DIY Filmmakers can be traced back to 2009 with Kazik Radwanski’s completion of his MDF Trilogy: Assault, Princess Margaret Blvd, and Out In That Deep Blue Sea, Simon Ennis’ You Might as Well Live and Matt Johnson’s Nirvana: The Band.
The Toronto DIY Filmmakers include Kazik Radwanski, Igor Drljača, Matt Johnson, Andrew Cividino, Isiah Medina, Antoine Bourges, Luo Li, Rebeccah Love, Fantavious Fritz, Kevan Funk, Calvin Thomas and Yonah and Lev Lewis, Simon Ennis, Nadia Litz, Daniel Cockburn, Sofia Bohdanowicz, Nicolás Pereda, Pavan Moondi and Brian Robertson, Steven McCarthy, Stephen Dunn, A.J. Bond, Albert Shin, Blake Williams, Mitch Ariel, Trevor Juras, Leslie Supnet, Sofia Banzhaf, Sol Friedman and Eva Kolcze.
It’s a diverse group and there are sub-categories that could be drawn within it: The Toronto-born DIY filmmakers, First/Second generation filmmakers, women filmmakers, queer filmmakers, experimental and short-film filmmakers. So even within this already small filmmaking movement, which in itself is against the cultural mainstream, there’s distinct and minority voices being expressed. The ethno-cultural conflicts in these Toronto films, which deal with local, national and transnational issues, reflect the cultural, racial, and linguistic diversity of the city. This urban imaginary shows the effects of globalization in Toronto, and through it the films are able to subvert the iconic and stereotypical representations of the city. So these films participate in challenging the Anglo-Canadian hegemonic identity, and taken all-together they present a larger, more complex reflection of contemporary Canadian realities.
The Toronto International Film Festival in September, which showcases many of these works, is important for getting them international exposure and positive receptions, and its headquarters, the TIFF Bell Lightbox, which opened in September 12th, 2010, is one site of programming and socializing for some of them, and so is the Canada’s Top Ten Film Festival and the Canadian Screen Awards.
But what’s important is the creation of a grass-roots film culture. In regards to this, the small screenings of these Toronto DIY films, which have only grown over the years, are really important, especially around the MDFF screening series, which takes place either at Double Double Land, Camera Bar, CineCycle and The Royal. There is the creation of a community and public sphere at these events as, through the films, there’s a meditation on what it’s like living in Toronto, which continues into a post-screening discourse on the subject between film-goers, critics, filmmakers and programmers. Some issues that are discussed include living in the city and overcoming social and economic problems, as well as the filmmaking process and styles of filmmaking. There’s also an aura around these small-scale events: One needs to be there, and go out to these screenings to actually see the films, since the films are not available any other way (only rarely do they get released on DVD, more likely some form of video-on-demand, or on websites like Mubi and Fandor).
As a whole, these films show a stalled Toronto, that of being depressed, angered and saddened towards the state of the country and the world. It’s a world of young adults trying to find themselves and integrating in society and being faced by many challenges, or that of parents trying to do their best, even though they don’t know what’s right or are just plain wrong. This is the Toronto of political scandal and corruption, such as the Rob Ford debacle, and Canada of Stephen Harper’s conservative government, which participated in un-regulating the market to the detriment of natural resources and the decline of the overall quality of life, as well as Bill C-51 which pushed back against immigration.
An important aspect of this group is youth, the average age of the filmmakers range from the early twenties to the early thirties, which means that they are more in touch with growing up in the 21st century urban Toronto, the transition to adulthood and a familiarity with the young-adult geography of the city. The films reflect this dynamism. As well, since they are so young and new in their careers, it means that the majority of them have only completed a few short-films and perhaps one or more full-length features.
Some parameters are necessary to draw the limits surrounding this movement: Their dominantly narrative films, by Toronto filmmakers, about Toronto residents, set in Toronto. The young filmmakers offer a youthful, fresh perspective on growing up in the city – childhood and schools are an important feature of them (e.g. Amy George, Green Crayons, The Dirties) and so is being a young adult (e.g. Everyday is like Sunday, Diamond Tongues, Tower, Drawing Duncan Palmer) – and they offer a unique look on specific parts of Toronto’s urbanism and geography. As well, they have to be DIY, therefore, it excludes major productions and films with major funding: these DIY filmmakers use non-professional, non-ACTRA actors and technicians, and they don’t work within the industry or with its unions.
The filmmakers chisel away on their films on their own time and with their own money, so they end up being more personal for this reason.
The films attempt to reflect their creator’s own vision of some kind of personal experience that takes place in and around Toronto. For example, Isiah Medina’s For May and December is about how he had to move out of his apartment, Radwanski’s How Heavy This Hammer is about family dynamics focused on a father, Cividino with Sleeping Giant is referencing his own childhood summers in the cottage country, and Luo Li’s I Went to the Zoo the Other Day documents a trip to the Toronto Zoo.
The films use metaphors as narrative devices to fictionalize the problem that the young filmmakers are faced with in Toronto: Nirvana: The Band is about these young musicians attempting to book a concert at the Rivoli, which stands in for the filmmakers trying to achieve recognition in an unwelcoming creative industry; and so is Tower which is about an animator whose struggling away at his depressive personal project. Health issues are also dealt with in these films: In The Oxbow Cure a woman goes off to an isolated cottage to deal with her recovery and grieving process, and a similar story takes place in Trevor Juras’ The Interior. The films of Rebeccah Love (Abacus, My Love, Drawing Duncan Palmer) also deal with the emotional toll of family death and its bereavement.
Many of these filmmakers did their undergrad and/or Masters in film production, at one of Toronto’s film production schools, most notably Ryerson and York University. Because of this, their technical medium is that of a new digital cinematography, which, unique to this movement in Canadian film history, parallels the total industry shift of film stock to digital.
The Toronto DIY Filmmakers’ focus on an urban imagery – the streets, neighborhoods, homes and apartments in their vicinity – which is one of the defining features of these digital productions. This is in contrast to the richness of celluloid, especially through how its photo-chemical material could capture the visual richness of the pastoral beauty of rural landscapes, which is that of an older realist tradition in Canadian cinema – a quality that owes more to the landscape painting tradition of the Group of Seven.
A unique perspective on Toronto is offered throughout these films. For example, Amy George is set past the Don Valley in the east-side, The Waiting Room in low-cost housing projects in the city’s outskirts, How Heavy This Hammer around Bloor and Gladstone, Drawing Duncan Palmer around St. Clair Avenue, Bohdanowicz’s Dundas Street on the street of its title, Nirvana: The Band around Queen and Spadina, and Diamond Tongues around the gentrifying Ossington Street.
These films are also in opposition to the dominant, state-sponsored English-language television and film production in Toronto and Canada, whose films are perhaps a little bloated, test-marketed for demographics, and made to reflect a somewhat optimistic nationalist discourse. They are also made by an older generation who are somewhat out-of-touch with the interests and sensibilities of the youth.
These smaller Toronto DIY films, on the other hand, are not made with what might seem like a ludicrous amount of taxpayer dollars. These are smaller productions, made in small groups, mostly of friends and acquaintances, as they do not rely on the salaried labor of hundreds of employees.
Canadian Film History
The Toronto DIY Filmmakers have also been labeled the ‘Toronto New New Wave’ or as the Northern neighbors to the New York DIY Filmmakers. These two labels understand it in relation to Canadian film history, and the Toronto New Wave of the eighties in particular, as well as to the independent spirit of 21st century American independent cinema.
Some brief context on the major developments in English-Canadian cinema: There’s the creation of the NFB, the Capital Cost Allowance which led to the tax-shelter films in the seventies, and then the Toronto New Wave, which, more major figures aside, include Ron Mann, Peter Mettler, Bruce LaBruce, and Patricia Rozema.
I want to posit the Toronto DIY Filmmakers as an extension of these previous developments.
The films reflect a knowledge of Canadian film history and build upon it: Radwanski’s realist cinema recalls Allan King’s documentaries (Warrendale, A Married Couple) and the actress Kate Ashley, from How Heavy This Hammer, was in Bruce LaBruce’s No Skin Off My Ass (1991) and Super 8½ (1994). Matt Johnson mentions that Don Owen’s guerilla style filmmaking was a major influence for him, and one can also compare his work to that of Paul Gross’ acting and directing career. The surrealist qualities of Diamond Tongues (the boil-water advisory sub-plot) recalls Don McKellar’s Last Night (1998), and Nadia Litz’s Hotel Congress (2014) recalls the lovers on the run story in Bruce McDonald’s Highway 61 (1991). Rebeccah Love’s Abacus, My Love (2014) has similarities with some of Jean-Marc Vallée’s theatrical stylistics. And Blake Williams’ work brings to mind Michael Snow’s structural films.
The magazine Cahiers du Cinéma had a feature, New York: La Génération "Do It Yourself", in September 2011 (N.670), where they interview a range of up-and-coming independent New York filmmakers (Bronstein, Safdies, Perry) and ask them questions regarding filming, their motivation to create, and what they think about the city.
The filmmaking issues brought up parallels many similar developments that were occurring in Toronto, and which the Toronto DIY Filmmakers engage with, and so it provide a comparative framework to better analyze and understand what’s going on in Toronto.
As well, there’s an influence of American independent cinema in general, like that of filmmakers such as Joe Swanberg and Matt Porterfield, and its historical tradition which goes back to John Cassavetes. The Toronto DIY Filmmakers have to hustle to make these small-scale films, and there is a lot of work that goes into getting funding to make the films, communal work to get them made, and promotional work to get people to see them.
The two Toronto DIY films that are particularly under this Bronstein-Safdie influence are Tower and Amy George. Just like the protagonist from the New York films, these two films have protagonists that wander around their respective neighborhoods trying to reach out to others, to have meaningful connections, but instead, their desires always seem to get thwarted.
As well, the Québécois magazine, 24 Images, which proposed a similar conceptual framework in their discussion of a ‘New Québécois Generation’ of filmmakers.
From this group, Denis Côté is important as a major influence on the Toronto DIY Filmmakers. Not only does he propose a model for how to be a major filmmaker on the festival circuit, rotating between short-films and features, more commercial films to the experimental; He is also friends/acquaintances with many of the Toronto DIY Filmmakers, offering constructive feedback and support for many of their films.
Though in Toronto, there are many print and digital publications that support a domestic independent cinema, it’s usually tied to ‘film reviewing’, publicizing an event going on, in the upcoming weeks. But the major support for these filmmakers comes from the Toronto-based film magazine, Cinema Scope, which brings together serious film criticism and programming, and as some of they’re contributors are also programmers, this kind of attention can greatly benefit the filmmakers, getting them programmed at internationally recognized film festivals, which in terms of Canadian funding, makes them eligible for more monetary grants.
The End, or, What’s Next?
“Talk to us about the horrors of the world or the powers of life, of death, of love or our times, the beauty of a sky or the realities of the work place, of whatever you want to speak about, but the urgent thing is, for it to be art, there needs to be thought, politics, the circulation of joyous affects, which disinhibits, liberates.” – Jean-Philippe Tessé
It’s not just the cliché: that culture will make us better. But instead, with the growth of urban expansion, rise of population, there’s something vital about what these filmmakers are doing in capturing a distinct Toronto experience and putting it out there in the collective imagination and memory. Their breathing life, into what sometimes seems like a impenetrable city, creating a community where people can come together, be less alienated, and show and talk about their experiences and work in a positive and constructive sphere.
Nobody’s asking these filmmakers to make their work, and they’re not always encouraged or rewarded to do so. But it’s this agency and urgency, that they have to make it, which makes their work so compelling. Cinema is an expensive medium and its distribution is now harder to navigate than ever. These Toronto DIY Filmmakers are doing something important. There’s a leap into the abyss, not knowing what they’re going to make or how, that they’re creating something new, which pushes towards a common good, that of sharing the same world. These stories breathe life into the city.
No Toronto resident would pick the CN Tower, which is supposed be its official symbol, as a defining aspect of how they experience and see the city, so instead the city’s residents find their own communities and places that they identify more strongly with. These Toronto DIY films capture, and contribute, to creating an intimate space and public sphere within the city. They help understand Toronto’s urban and international realities and how to define the contemporary Canadian identity.
To conclude: What can be done to either improve the films or help them get distribution and more attention?
Hopefully you can support them by going to see some of their newest films when they come out. In the upcoming months, hopefully, How Heavy This Hammer, The Waiting Room, 88:88, Operation Avalanche, and Sleeping Giant will get a theatrical exhibition, and, hopefully, short films like Lewis and Drawing Duncan Palmer get a larger premiere. The MDFF events are great public sphere screenings and social events. And there are many other films in production, whose titles are: Sundowners, Nirvana: The Band (Part. 2), Dim the Fluorescents, Props Girl, Spice it Up, Sublet, and The People Garden.
The future of Toronto and Canadian cinema is in their hands.