Thursday, December 14, 2017

NFB Release: Don Owen’s Holstein

The announcement and release of a rare older Don Owen film is as good a reason as any to get excited: Holstein (1978) is now available to watch on the NFB website, which already has been doing a good job at putting up his work. Holstein is a more mature, serene work for Owen. This is fourteen years of being a filmmaker and travelling after his breakout film Nobody Waved Good-bye (1964). It’s a period of settling down for Owen as he would move away from urban centers to take residence and live in Green River in the Ontario countryside and take on smaller, more intimate projects: working a farm, raising a family, cooking, poetry and painting. 
                 This is the period between Cowboy and Indian (1972), Partners (1976) and Unfinished Business (1984) where Owen took on small projects for CBC television to make a series of vignettes about small town Ontario life. These were intended to be broadcasted between other programs and they were known by several titles, which includes Faces of Ontario / Ontario Towns and Villages, Not Far from Home and The St. Lawrence … More than a River (1974). Holstein is a little later on in 1978, and which was made with the NFB.
Owen in his memoir Captain Donald’s Quest for Crazy Wisdom describes these works, “During this period, I was able to earn a living by making a series of small films, for which I was a one man crew. Mainly, I produced portraits of small towns that seemed destined to vanish off the map, since the railway or highway was going somewhere else. I would record the voice of a senior talking about the life of the town and then shoot visuals to go along with it, as though the one person’s voice was the voice of the town. It was a kind of anthropology of Ontario, which recorded the culture of rural Ontario’s past. I sold these short pieces to the CBC and TVO, as fillers.
            But these works were important for Owen as an ever-evolving artist and Holstein, as the only available example of these short films, is striking for several reasons. To get to its basics: Holstein is a twenty-seven minute documentary on the community of Holstein in rural Ontario set in the wintertime. There’s a classic elegance to Owen’s documentary skills through how he selects his subjects, frames them and edits everything together. It’s an elegiac portrait of this older community that is sticking around Holstein even though much of the industry has moved away (the train that used to past through it, at least twice a week, no longer runs) and it beautifully captures the region’s anachronistic way of life. The general store is still a community hub, horse carriages are still a common form of transportation and the only other industries on display are its blacksmith and granary.
            This is farming land and cottage country. But even still there is much life and activity. The church is well featured and school buses go by and children are regularly around. Holstein is a meditation on the changing countryside through its focus on the seniors that are still running its remaining industry. There’s a general store, lumberyard, a granary and in one striking scene the last blacksmith carefully replaces the horseshoe on one of its horses. It’s a mentality that’s being captured throughout Holstein: That of straightforward, honest wisdom of what it’s like to live on this land. Its residents' speak of their work ethics, life on a farm, staying in Holstein, and their comradery within their community. With Holstein Owen is examining the Canadian identity through this community embedded in their regional activity. It’s a work of transmission: to articulate and share the region’s way of life and activity, that of embedding himself in his new community and to learn himself from these seniors, and in the process he can share his own work and beliefs to his son (who was an assistant on the film and, I think, you can hear him question some of the residents).
Owen with Holstein is offering a modest proposal: let’s film the countryside around where one lives, with a small crew (including his own son Andrew, listed as one of the assistants), to capture its beauty, rhythm, and to film its citizens, with respect and care, and to learn about the lives of its seniors and the behavior of its youth. What Owen achieves is that he brings heart and a personality to a cinematic equivalent of the Canadian landscape painting tradition. Out of Owen’s twenty previous projects in the film industry, these portraits of small town Ontario are his first that explored the rural countryside and especially of his own Ontario. Even though Holstein is more conventional than say the work of Jack Chambers (The Hart of London) or Joyce Wieland (Reason Over Passion), it should still be remembered as one of the great cinematic extensions of the Canadian landscape tradition. This is in the art history painting tradition of Cornelius Krieghoff and the Group of Seven. As well Owen was creating an Ontario counter-part to its more modern, cinematographic form like those that were made by the Québécois cinéma vérité directors (Les raquetteurs, Pour la suite du monde). The last scene of Holstein that ends with a landscape at dawn clearly illustrates the natural beauty of the Canadian countryside.
            But Holstein is also a more mature work for Owen. In his earlier Nobody Waved Good-bye and even A Further Glimpse of Joey, Owen sided with the troubled and angry youth and his guerrilla style of filmmaking had a mischievous quality to it: he would film conversations and encounters without their participants consent and he would ‘steal’ scenes that were filmed in Toronto without any permission or permits (a scene of Peter stealing a book illustrates this ethos). But now after the portraits of the middle aged artists in Cowboys and Indians, Owen is more on the side of Holstein’s seniors and his (not so) hidden camera (these scenes are shot in a relatively small general store) use its element of surprise and anonymity to capture the beauty of the community’s quotidian: customers being themselves, making conversation and smiling towards the camera. The scene of the shop owner and his wife playing their instruments (a violin and piano) show how the artistic temperament and creativity can take place just about anywhere and by anyone. This technique, humanity, community and geography are just part of Owen’s directing style, which reach a mature crescendo here in Holstein.
            But what ever happened to Don Owen and why isn’t he better known today? Steve Gravestock in Don Owen: Notes on a Filmmaker and his Culture well describes how he was culturally eclipsed, “A curious thing happened in the decade following the end of the tax shelter era in 1982. The group of filmmakers who had emerged in the sixties and early seventies were almost completely forgotten, especially in English Canada… The tax shelter regulations, which resulted in an undue, perverse emphasis on genre films featuring has-been American stars, stalled the careers of many veteran Canadian directors, most notably Owen, Don Shebib and even Allan King (at least in feature filmmaking)… In some ways, the neglect is understandable. There was an astonishing wealth of talent that emerged in this period, notably the Toronto New Wave.”
                 But it’s still worth returning to Owen as he’s an important precursor to the identity of Toronto and Ontario filmmaking. His directorial style, like that of Allan King (Warrendale, A Married Couple), was one of transforming reality to the level of fiction, with an emphasis on the imaginative hybrid between the two, which also focused on regional narratives and its geography. As Justin Decloux reminds us in his bold essay ‘Why The Hell Don’t We Watch Canadian Cinema?’ the history of Canadian cinema is fading. But there are positive things happening like how the NFB uploaded Holstein. This is important because as more Canadian film history is becoming accessible its traces in its contemporary forms are becoming more clear. For example, you can see traces of the Owen of Nobody Waved Good-bye in the work of Kazik Radwanski (Tower) and Matt Johnson (Nirvanna The Band The Show) and now the Owen of Holstein in Rebeccah Love’s Acres. Canadian film history still has a lot to teach us.

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