As I watched the National Film Board of Canada short film Old Dog, which preceded a documentary screening at this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival, I did a double take. Or, rather, a double listen. I knew that voice. And the credits confirmed it – former longtime Independent Menschenings columnist Alex Kliner was the voice of the elderly gentleman caring for his elderly dog.
Old Dog was created by writer and director Ann Marie Fleming.
“This film started off as a way of talking about aging, inspired by my namesake, Ann-Marie Fleming, who I often get mixed up with in internet searches,” said Fleming in an interview on nfb.ca. “The other Ann-Marie has a company that makes technologies for aging dogs and also for their humans. I was struck by the compassion she has for these vulnerable animals, helping them navigate the latter stages of their lives, and by how much dogs have to teach human beings.”
“Full disclosure,” Fleming told the Independent, “I made a film about twins and doubles many years ago (It’s Me, Again) and there is another Ann Marie Fleming out there I have been confused with, so it’s not unusual that I would do some sleuthing. When I read Ann-Marie’s interview and mission statement on her website for her company, Dog Quality, which makes technologies for senior dogs, I was really moved by her saying that she felt she was her best self when she was caring for her aging canines.”
So, Fleming contacted her namesake last year, and then approached the NFB, who agreed to produce it, and even suggested she use her “team” to make it: animator Kevin Langdale and composer/sound designer Gordon Durity.
“I went to 100 Mile House to meet Ann-Marie and her old dogs (literally), listen to her stories, see her technologies and get some reference footage for the animation,” said Fleming. “Then I wrote the very simple script and drew a storyboard. Kevin took my designs and made them his own – he definitely improves on them. Then it was recording the voice, cutting together an animatic, doing the animation.
“Gordon and I discussed the vibe I wanted – Dave Brubeck ‘Take 5’ meets ‘Freddy the Freeloader.’ Cool jazz from when our human character would have been in his youth. A few months later and shazam! The film is finished right as we go into a lockdown across the country.”
Fleming listened to many great voices for this film, she said. In her mind, she would think, “Does he sound mature enough? Does he sound like he really has a connection with his dog? Alex didn’t sound like anybody else. (You recognized him immediately, right?) The warmth and vulnerability and humour and care he had was just there.”
Alex was the consummate professional, she added. “I felt he was very generous to me with his performance in this little film. He can say a line a dozen nuanced ways. I love working with actors.”
Alex has been in the industry a long time, and his desire to act goes back even further – to Jewish school, when he just 7 years old, and was asked by the teacher to read the Yiddish poem “Why a Grandmother is the Way She is.”
“And I did the poem, and I got a huge applause – not so much perhaps because of the talent but because I spoke Yiddish so beautifully,” Alex told me. “And I did speak it beautifully, just the way any person who has a first language speaks it beautifully. I liked the applause and I liked doing the poem. I liked the ambience of the whole thing and, at that point, I decided I was going to be an actor. And, 20 years later, at age 27, I became a professional actor, got all my union cards because I was working in the theatre, in a union company.”
Over the years, he has been in theatre, radio, film and television, and he’s worked as both an actor and as a director. A very partial list of people with whom he has shared the screen include Melanie Griffiths, Vince Vaughn, Ellen Burstyn, Ryan Reynolds, Eddie Murphy, William H. Macy, Christopher Plummer, Sylvester Stalone, Jerry Lewis, Laura Linney, Isabella Rosselini, Jack Lemmon, Mariel Hemingway, Valerie Harper, Mandy Patinkin and Robin Williams.
“I worked with them either as an actor or as a background performer who interacted with the actor,” said Alex.
He was Mickey Rooney’s stand-in in Night at the Museum, which is also where he worked with Dick Van Dyke and Ben Stiller, among others.
The audition for Old Dog was an ordinary call, said Alex. While he hasn’t done much by way of voice work, he has done some dubbing of acting parts that didn’t come out properly sound-wise in the filming. The process for Old Dog was similar, he said.
“I just did one line and then the director said, OK, time to do the next line. Sometimes, she would ask me to do it two or three times but never more than three times,” he said. “The whole thing took a little more than an hour.”
In this type of work, while the actor doesn’t see the animation, he said, “You know what she wants, like your attitude toward the dog … and then you bring that attitude or that feeling or emotion to the line. But you do it without seeing the movie and then they sync what I’ve done vocally to the film.”
Alex’s wife, Elaine, works with him in the film industry. “We’re both still working,” said Alex. “It keeps us happy and young.”
Earlier this fall, the National Film Board of Canada released the short Come to your senses, co-created Alicia Eisen and Sophie Jarvis. It is part of NFB’s The Curve, an online series “featuring the talents of 40 creators and filmmakers, giving a voice to millions whose lives have been touched by COVID-19.”
Eisen, a member of the Jewish community, is an animation filmmaker and visual artist, while Jarvis is a writer and director. Both women are based in Vancouver and have worked together before.
“We met in 2015, when Alicia was in pre-production on her first short film, Old Man,” they co-wrote in an email interview with the Independent. “A mutual friend introduced us, as he knew that Sophie was interested in learning more about stop-motion. It turned out that we live across the street from each other, and a wonderful friendship was formed.
“We first worked together on a short film for kids that blended live action (Sophie’s arena) with stop-motion (Alicia’s arena) and was basically a vessel for us to learn more about each other’s practice and to test the waters of a working relationship. It was an intense experience that threw every obstacle at us, and we came out stronger and ready for more. Which leads us to the stop-motion short film we are currently working on with the National Film Board, Zeb’s Spider.”
When their work was interrupted by the pandemic back in March, they said, “It was very disorienting to have that full-time routine stopped cold, so, when the NFB offered us the opportunity to contribute to their pandemic series, The Curve, it was a blessing to focus our creative energy into something new, and completely different from anything we have ever created before.”
Using the format of a group Zoom, Come to your senses explores the question, “Is the human need to make sense of chaos an inherently chaotic pursuit?”
“The five senses can be a somewhat intangible subject to explore, especially through film (which is an audiovisual medium). We aimed to evoke the other three senses with these limitations, which meant that we had to get a little weird with imagery and sound,” said Eisen and Jarvis. “A large part of our process was to let our intuition guide us; instead of planning what footage we needed to collect to complete the film, we issued open guidelines to ourselves and our artistic collaborators and worked with what we received…. It was exciting to see the patterns and instincts that were shared amongst the group (who were all working remotely from each other), and these similarities helped guide our process into the next phase: the edit.
“Our editor, Kane Stewart, was integral to helping organize this experimental film and to creating what you see in the final cut. We gave him direction on the tone and the arc, and detailed notes on the material that we wanted to include, but ultimately let him organize the material with fresh eyes. Our sound designer, Eva Madden, took the core intention of the project and brought her own spin to the film, which was exciting. The score really sets a tone, and we were thrilled to work with Yu Su, whose personal work we admire.”
The film is voiced by an AI voice-generator, said Eisen and Jarvis. “This way, we could manipulate the speed of the voice and revel in the tech restrictions that come with that choice (which are mirrored in the group video call). We landed on a voice named Tessa, who struck the right tone – gentle but commanding, like a self-help audiobook.”
The artists collaborating on the film were people with whom Eisen and Jarvis had worked over the years: Mona Fani, Suzanne Friesen, Meredith Hama-Brown, Charlie Hannah, Kara Hornland, Arggy Jenati and Janessa St. Pierre.
“We gave everybody a list of creative prompts designed to be completed within two days … things like ‘choose a spherical item from your home and interact with it using each of your five senses.’ We asked each person to approach each prompt with a design sensibility informed by our mood board, but to ultimately bring their own flair and artistry to it, so what we received from each person was unique, yet fit into the collage that ultimately makes the film.”
Stills from the NFB’s Highway to Heaven: A Mosaic in One Mile. Richmond Jewish Day School is one of the institutions featured in the short film, which screens at this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival.
The National Film Board short Highway to Heaven: A Mosaic in One Mile, written and directed by Sandra Ignagni, is visually striking. For the most part, it lets the images do the talking, communicating more about cultural diversity than words could.
Part of this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival, Highway to Heaven introduces viewers to the multiple faith groups and institutions along a mile-long section of No. 5 Road in Richmond, which includes Richmond Jewish Day School. In the 17-minute documentary, this strip of road – which has been called “Highway to Heaven” – appears both full of colour and action, as well as remote and removed, not just geographically but with chain link fencing and other security measures.
“We share a world grappling with ethnic and racial tensions, religious xenophobia and violence,” writes Ignagni in her director’s notes. “Such realities are not limited to the world’s conflict zones – they are a part of everyday life, even in the most advanced democracies such as Canada. It was in this context that I was drawn to the peculiar landscape of No. 5 Road … where multiple cultural and religious groups share a short stretch of suburban road. I was curious about how groups pitted against each other in so many corners of the world appeared to be living relatively peacefully with one another, and in very close proximity, in an ordinary Canadian suburb.”
In showing the beauty of the area – both in landscape and in cultural acceptance – Ignagni also captures some of the tensions that exist. The camera jumps from a lush orchard to a mansion mid-construction to a for-sale sign in front of what seems to be part of a forest. In one scene, which looks like it was filmed at RJDS, police in full gear – bulletproof vest and holstered weapons – address RJDS and Az-Zahraa Islamic Academy students, introducing themselves so that the kids should feel comfortable going to the police if they have a problem. The police then referee the kids in a game of ball hockey – boys against the boys, girls against the girls – throwing in questions about boundaries and other issues for the kids to consider.
Referring to the police presence on the road, Ignagni writes that it could “be variously interpreted as bridge-building, protection or surveillance. I learned that, for more than one decade, the Richmond Jewish Day School did not have an exterior sign for fear of antisemitic attacks against its schoolchildren. And, in recent years, the secular residential community that surrounds No. 5 Road launched a major campaign opposing the proposed expansion of a Pure Land Buddhist temple, using the pejorative moniker ‘Buddha Disneyland’ to describe the proposed building in local media and public debates. The mere fact that zoning by-laws have ordered these communities – the majority of which play a critical role in new immigrant and refugee resettlement – to the fringe of suburban land is also ripe for reflection.”
The minimal use of narration or interviews in the film was a deliberate choice. To do otherwise, Ignagni notes, “would be an exercise in public relations, reducing complex issues to soundbites and polemics. Instead, I wanted to make a film that would at once capture the remarkable – because it is truly remarkable – diversity on No. 5 Road, as it actually exists, while gesturing to some of the unresolved issues that underlie Canadian multiculturalism. The film is, therefore, constructed as a ‘mosaic’ – defined by writer and activist Terry Williams as ‘a conversation between what is broken.’”
While she doesn’t rely on words to tell this story, sound plays an integral role in the film: calls to prayer, monks chanting, different languages being spoken (and not translated), kids playing, school bells ringing.
“My film invites audiences to sit with what is unknown, different, raw or only partially visible,” says Ignagni. “To me, a mosaic captures perfectly the subtle tensions one finds on No. 5 Road, where custom and ritual, language and cultural diversity are practised under surveillance cameras and behind locked doors and gates. In making this film, I am asking audiences to look with open eyes and hearts – with a spirit of curiosity – at themselves and their neighbours, and simply reflect on multiculturalism as an unfinished project in need of attention in Canada and around the world.”
In addition to RJDS and Az-Zahraa, the list of participating neighbours includes the Evangelical Formosan Church of Greater Vancouver, India Cultural Centre of Canada/Gurdwara Nanak Niwas, Kingswood Pub, Lingyen Mountain Temple, Mylora Executive Golf Course, Royal Canadian Mounted Police (Richmond detachment), Thrangu Tibetan Buddhist Monastery, Trinity Pacific Church, and Vedic Centre.
At VIFF, Ignagni will participate in one of a series of panel discussions presented by Storyhive on Totally Indie Day, Sept. 28, at Vancity Theatre. She will be on the hour-long panel called Not Short on Talent: The Rise of the Short Form Documentary, which starts at 3:45 p.m. For the full film festival lineup, including, eventually, the not-yet-listed screening time of Highway to Heaven – which was an Official Selection at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival – visit viff.org.
Each year, the Eric Hoffer Award presents the da Vinci Eye (named after Leonardo da Vinci) to books with superior cover artwork. Cover art is judged on both content and style and, among this year’s winners is Olga Campbell’s Whisper Across Time: My Family’s Story of the Holocaust Told Through Art and Poetry (Jujabi Press). The book is still being considered for category, press and grand prizes.
Whisper Across Time also won the Ippy Award for independent self-published authors. Campbell’s book was selected as one of the 2019 Independent Publisher Book Awards’ Outstanding Books of the Year under the freedom fighter category. Campbell planned on attending the May 28 gala event in New York.
Julia Ivanova’s National Film Board documentary Limit is the Sky saw its Toronto première on May 2 in the retrospective of the largest documentary film festival in North America, Hot Docs. Ivanova is one of only three directors from British Columbia who have received a Focus On retrospective at Hot Docs since 2002 – the others are John Zaritsky and Nettie Wild.
Ivanova, the director, cinematographer and editor of Limit is the Sky is a Russian-Canadian filmmaker. She came to Canada at the age of 30, became a filmmaker in Vancouver and captured Canada from within but with the ability to look at the country from a distance. She has made documentaries for the NFB, CBC, Knowledge Network, played Sundance and won many awards for her films.
The screening of Limit is the Sky, the NFB film about the Fort McMurray boom-bust-fire circle and the winner of the Colin Low Best Canadian Feature Award at DOXA 2017, commemorates the third anniversary since the worst wildfire and the worst natural disaster in Canada’s history devastated the capital of the oil sands. (See jewishindependent.ca/diverse-doxa-festival-offerings.)
The Hot Docs Focus On retrospective of her work includes the world première of her new film, My Dads, My Moms and Me, a film about the joy and turmoil of parenting in the modern family, including same-sex partners, surrogates, adoption and combinations that break the old conventions. The film follows three families, filmed twice, 12 years apart – in 2007 and in 2019.
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More than 250,000 children participated in the Ontario Library Association’s annual Forest of Reading program and have helped choose the best Canadian authors and illustrators. On May 14 and 15, thousands gathered at the annual Festival of Trees, an annual rock concert of reading, hosted at the Harbourfront Centre, where winners of the 2019 Forest of Reading program were announced. Among the books awarded honours was When We Were Shadows by Janet Wees, published by Second Story Press. (For more on Wees and the book, visit jewishindependent.ca/saved-by-dutch-resistance.)
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By Chance Alone: A Remarkable True Story of Courage and Survival at Auschwitz by Max Eisen (HarperCollins) won Canada Reads 2019. The book was championed by TV host and science broadcaster and author Ziya Tong, and was chosen by the five panelists as the book for Canadians to read in 2019. This year’s title fight asked the question: What is the one book to move you?
After four days of debate in front of live audiences, Tong and By Chance Alone survived the final vote to be crowned this year’s winner. The runner-up was Homes by Abu Bakr al Rabeeah and Winnie Yeung (Freehand Books), which was defended by Simple Plan drummer Chuck Comeau. Audiences can catch up on all of the debates on demand on CBC Gem or by downloading the Canada Reads podcast from CBC or iTunes.
“Before 2016, I don’t remember seeing swastikas, but these days I see them often – in the news and on social media. But here’s something even more shocking: one in five Canadian young people have not even heard of the Holocaust. They don’t know what it is, ” said Tong.
This year’s debates took place March 25-28 and were hosted by actor, stand-up comedian and host of CBC Radio’s Laugh Out Loud, Ali Hassan.
A still from Éléonore Goldberg’s animated short film My Yiddish Papi (Picbois Productions/NFB).
On Jan. 25, the National Film Board of Canada released Éléonore Goldberg’s animated short film My Yiddish Papi (Picbois Productions/NFB). It can be streamed free of charge across Canada on nfb.ca, as well as on NFB’s YouTube channel and Facebook page.
The online release of the film marked the International Day of Commemoration in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust, which is observed on Jan. 27. With My Yiddish Papi, Goldberg has made a personal short film about filial love, duty and the transmission of memory by honouring a promise made long ago: that of illustrating the adventures of her grandfather, a resistance fighter during the Second World War.
Produced by Karine Dubois (Picbois Productions) and Julie Roy (NFB), the film was presented as a world première at the 2017 Ottawa International Animation Festival, and was also selected for the Sommets du cinéma d’animation de Montréal and the London International Animation Festival, among others.
Goldberg is an award-winning Franco-Canadian filmmaker, animator and cartoonist. In My Yiddish Papi, using ink-on-paper animation, she relates the story of her grandfather, Georges (Josek) Goldberg, who became a resistance fighter at age 20 during the Second World War. “He saved many lives and he and his family narrowly escaped Auschwitz,” said Goldberg in an interview on the NFB website. He died, in Paris, in July 2009.
“He would sometimes share his wartime memories when we dined together during the time I lived in Paris,” Goldberg told the NFB. “He never bragged; he was a humble, shy person. He would have liked me to make a graphic novel or film about his resistance adventures, and I had committed to doing it. But time passed and I did nothing. At his death, my promise came back to me.”
Hart Snider has followed up his award-winning animated short The Basketball Game with Shop Class, one of four National Film Board of Canada shorts selected for the 2018 Spark Animation Festival, which runs Oct. 25-28.
“I wrote and developed Shop Class while editing the TV series Yukon Gold, Klondike Trappers and Ice Pilots – documentary/reality series driven by ‘manly men’ who would run into big problems in remote locations, but then they’d break out some tools, rock music would start playing, there’d be a montage, and the guys would ‘man up’ to fix the problem,” Snider told the Independent. “While they were very successful shows, it made me laugh to be a not very macho guy telling these stories. It reminded me about being 14 and wanting to take home ec, but instead being forced to take industrial arts class, where my teacher tried to scare us into becoming men. I was inspired to write the story, which, yes, felt very cathartic – especially when I shared it with friends who also had him for a teacher.”
Not only does young Hart have to endure the bullying of his shop teacher, but he and his friends are targets for their bullying classmates. In one scene, Hart and his buddies are hanging out at a convenience store, when the friend checking out the latest Supermensch comic receives a punch in the stomach.
“The comic is not just a reference to being Jewish,” said Snider, “but to my first film. Shop Class is actually a sequel of sorts, to my 2011 National Film Board of Canada animation The Basketball Game, another autobiographical story. It’s about being 9 years old and at Jewish summer camp for the first time, when ex-students of notorious Holocaust denier/high school teacher Jim Keegstra come to our camp in Pine Lake, Alta., for a ‘day of fun and fellowship.’ Early in the film, my character is reading a Supermensch comic (which is there mostly because of the unnamed villain in Supermensch, seen fighting on the cover, that ends up inspiring a nightmarish transformation later in the story).
“Shop Class has a documentary-type scene that takes place in a convenience store, so I added a teenager reading Supermensch, issue #18, the same comic, to show that both the stories actually exist in the same cinematic universe.”
Every single character in Shop Class is voiced by Corner Gas and Dan for Mayor star Fred Ewanuick.
“Fred went from listening to me imitating my old teacher’s way of talking,” said Snider, “to stepping into the recording booth and totally bringing that character to life – and he did it just by saying, ‘Sit down, Turkeys,’ over and over until he totally nailed it.”
As for the other characters in the film, Snider said, “I’m still friends to this day with people I met in kindergarten at Talmud Torah in Edmonton, and I included a couple of them in both of my films. The love interest is totally inspired by my wife, Galit Mastai.”
The couple lives in Vancouver and, according to his bio, Snider “can usually be found either in an edit suite or at the park with his wife Galit, daughter Leora and dog Wolfie.”
In addition to writing and directing Shop Class and The Basketball Game, Snider also wrote and directed the animation segments for I Am Sam Kinison, a feature-length documentary about the late comedian that aired on Spike television. “I’ve edited animated short films as well,” he said, “including Lisa Jackson’s The Visit and Elisa Chee’s Lucy. Most recently (outside of animation), I’ve written and edited the theatrical documentary features I Am Heath Ledger and Botero, which will be released next year.”
On the NFB media site for Shop Class – on which he reveals his plan to create a third short “in this trilogy of animated films about growing up in Edmonton in the 1980s” – Snider traces his love of animation “back to being a little kid on Saturday mornings, glued to the TV. I have loved animation ever since,” he says, “but it took attending a screening of adult animation shorts (which included the film Lupo the Butcher by Danny Antonucci) when I was in high school to make me realize I really wanted to write and direct animated films. After interning at Nelvana animation in university, I thought I was on my way, until a job in post-production on a doc series about Cirque du Soleil back in 2001 led me on a totally different path as a documentary editor and writer.”
So, while he still loves animation, he doesn’t do the art for his films. “I just love telling stories using the medium,” he told the Independent, “and I’ve gotten to work with some brilliant artists – Sean Covernton animated The Basketball Game and the team at Jesters Animation, led by animation supervisor Brad Gibson, brought Shop Class to life.”
Shop Class screens Oct. 26, 11 p.m., at Vancity Theatre (19+). The NFB’s Animal Behaviour, by Jewish community member David Fine and Alison Snowden (jewishindependent.ca/animated-therapy-session), screens Oct. 25, 7 p.m., at Scotiabank Theatre. For the full festival lineup and tickets, visit sparkfx.ca.
David Fine and Alison Snowden wrote, directed and animated the National Film Board of Canada animated short Animal Therapy. (photo by John Bolton)
They’re baaaack! And with another funny – and thought-provoking – National Film Board of Canada animated short. Jewish community member David Fine and wife Alison Snowden, who co-created the NFB’s Oscar-winning Bob’s Birthday 25 years ago, have returned to the genre with Animal Behaviour.
Animal Behaviour, which screened at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this week, will be part of the Vancouver International Film Festival’s True North Shorts program, The Curtain Calls, on Oct. 1 and 8. There are further screenings scheduled for other festivals across Canada.
The 14-minute short, produced by Michael Fukushima, executive producer of the NFB’s animation studio, is written, directed and animated by Fine and Snowden, who are currently based in Vancouver. In addition to countless other projects, the pair also created, and contributed in many capacities to, the adult animated series Bob and Margaret, which was based on Bob’s Birthday.
“We had worked in series and missed making a personal film and doing the animation ourselves, directly,” Fine told the Independent about what motivated Snowden and him to make another animated short. “We really thought it would be nice to get back to the type of filmmaking we started our career with and our producer, Michael, had suggested that he would be keen to see any ideas from us and we happened to have one, so we thought, why not have a go. It’s very different to make a personal film like this than a series.”
The couple humorously tackled some of the issues of being middle age in Bob’s Birthday. In Animal Behaviour, they explore – also with much humour – some of the pros and cons of following our natural instincts versus doing what is socially acceptable. They do so using the vehicle of a weekly group therapy session led by Dr. Leonard Clement, a Labrador retriever.
Lorraine, the leech, has attachment issues and experiences panic attacks; Todd, the pig, has an eating disorder and suffers from insecurity; Cheryl, the mantis, hasn’t had a lasting relationship, and the fact that she has 1,000 kids is the lesser of her two main problems; Linda, the Tabby cat, has obsessive compulsive disorder and doesn’t ever feel clean enough, despite constantly licking herself; and Jeffrey, the blue jay, has some serious guilt issues as a result of something he did when he was a very young bird. The members of the group seem to know one another well and there is a rhythm to their session. Then walks in Victor, the ape, with his anger issues, who believes that everyone else is an idiot and that people in therapy are navel-gazers who just need to get on with their lives.
“The notion of going to therapy to change seems like a tall order, so we thought it would be fun to look at therapy and have a character who comes in and questions its validity,” explains Fine in an NFB interview online. “At the same time, we’re careful not to go for the low-hanging fruit or make fun of the process. We don’t want to answer the question (‘Is therapy valid?’), we want to pose the question and start the discussion.”
“It was quite a difficult script to write,” says Snowden in the NFB interview. “We thought it would be easy, because it’s in one room, there’s one conversation, but there are so many possibilities with all the animals, and if we did it wrong it would get boring.
“At first, there were a lot of characters, but you couldn’t get attached to any of them, so we honed it down. Really, it’s about the ape and Dr. Clement – that’s the showdown. Then they all came together. The others are in the room, they’re observers, and they’re there for comedy. But the key characters are those two and their drama.”
“From idea to final film was probably about five years,” Fine told the Independent, “but there was a development period, which was sporadic and took time to get to the green light. Once in production, it took about 2.5 years to make, in terms of pure working time.”
About working in animation, Fine said, “We like controlling every frame and effectively being both directors and actors, because we pose and make the characters act. We also love working with voice actors and then being able to edit the track in a way you can’t really do in live action. It’s really about all the nuance and control, which is so much fun.”
The creative process starts with the writing, he said, “with the idea and the script,” which they “work to refine…. After that, the voice record was key. We interviewed about 300 voices to cast this group. All the actors are Vancouver-based, which we are very proud of.”
Among the credits, thanks are given to the animation programs at Capilano and Emily Carr universities, and the film is dedicated “to the wonderful doctors, nurses and staff at Vancouver General Hospital.”
“During the production, near the end, Alison was struck with a very sudden, serious health crisis and was in intensive care and recovery for five months,” explained Fine. “VGH saved her life, so, when we were finally able to finish the film together, it was very important to us to make that dedication to show our appreciation.”
For tickets to The Curtain Calls and the full film festival schedule, visit viff.org.
Ryan Sidhoo’s new docuseries, True North, looks at the youth basketball scene in Toronto. (photo by Yasin Osman)
“Wherever I travel, I go play pickup basketball and I always make friends, and maybe end up at someone’s house for dinner … you go ask to play basketball on someone’s court, there’s always that moment of, ‘Who is this guy?’ but, once you get out there and you start playing, it’s an inviting, universal sport that you don’t need a lot to participate in,” filmmaker Ryan Sidhoo told the Independent in a phone interview from Toronto.
Sidhoo is the creator and director of True North, a nine-part online docuseries produced by the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) and Red Bull Media House about the youth basketball scene in Toronto.
“More and more young Canadians are playing basketball – over 350,000 according to the 2014 Canada Youth Sports Report – and the trend is particularly pronounced in and around Toronto, where a wave of second- and third-generation Canadians are shaping Canada’s new game,” notes an NFB blog about the series. It also notes that, “Canada now has over a dozen players in the NBA [National Basketball Association], more than any other outside country.”
In episodes ranging from 15 to 23 minutes, True North examines “the rise of the Toronto hoop dream through the stories of five young athletes.”
The series – which was three years in the making – “has a multigenerational appeal,” said Sidhoo, who spoke with players, coaches and families. Given the subject matter and format, he said younger viewers enjoy it but that, also, people closer to the age of the parents of the kids featured get something out of it from a parenting point of view.
In the series format, he said, we can tell in-depth stories, “but then that 15-minute episode has to be focused on one kid and their journey. I think that’s an appeal of the series, because they’re highly personal episodes and they’re not trying to do too much at once.”
Sidhoo has worked on various projects, including for Pulse Films, MTV and NBCUniversal, and he has produced and directed content across various VICE platforms; he was the creator and executive producer of Welcome to Fairfax, a 10-part docuseries for Participant Media about a group of young entrepreneurs in Los Angeles.
Born and raised in Vancouver, he’s since lived in California and New York. It was in New York that he earned his master’s in media studies, with a focus on documentary filmmaking, from the New School, in 2013.
“The seeds of the project were really planted at that time,” he said, referring to True North. At the New School, he wanted to do a project “on this old streetball legend named Fly Williams, who I’d read about in a book my dad had given me as a kid called Heaven is a Playground.”
In his search for Williams, Sidhoo ended up at a few different basketball tournaments. At the time, YouTube was just taking off, he said. “What I was seeing at these gyms in New York were these parents marketing their children as the next best basketball phenom. You started to see this cottage industry around youth basketball.”
Fascinated by this, Sidhoo said he kept his finger on the pulse of that world. He noticed that Canadians were having a lot of success getting into the NBA and the question of how basketball became significant in Canada led him to Toronto, “the epicentre of it all.”
“For me,” said Sidhoo of his love of basketball, “growing up in Vancouver, and, especially, having immigrant roots on both sides – my mom is Ashkenazi, they came from Poland and Winnipeg and eventually Vancouver, [while] my dad’s side of the family is from India – I just think that the popular sport in Canada is, obviously, hockey, and winter sports in general have more of a built-in tradition … [but] basketball lends itself to newcomers to a country, so my dad gravitated towards basketball as a kid. For me, growing up, basketball was always in the house, it was always on TV, it was something that I was around and I, naturally, through my dad, was introduced to the sport…. Of course, I like hockey and Wayne Gretzky and all that, but basketball was the thing that was a part of my identity … I always felt comfortable in the niche community of basketball in Vancouver because it was really diverse and it was very multicultural. As someone who had these mixed backgrounds, I felt at home in that world.”
Sidhoo played in various leagues in Vancouver, as well as participating in more than one JCC Maccabi Games. He described as “pivotal,” the Kitsilano Youth Basketball, run by Mel Davis, a former Harlem Globetrotter. Davis’s son, Hubert Davis, directed Hardwood, a documentary (also produced by the NFB) about his relationship with his father and basketball. When Sidhoo saw that film, he said he had two thoughts: “one, that’s amazing, because I know Mel and remember Hubert refereeing the games but then, secondly, it’s projects like that that plant the seed that, hey, maybe I could be a documentary filmmaker, too.”
As a kid, Sidhoo and his brother were encouraged to do what they wanted creatively. “I’d go out back and make videos of myself playing basketball,” he said. “My dad was always showing us films that maybe he shouldn’t have been showing us at that young an age, but explaining why he was showing them. So, basketball was always there and these offbeat films, or films that were aged above my viewing in terms of age appropriateness, that was always a constant, too.”
Growing up, he was also exposed to books, art shows and other culture. Sidhoo recalled his father taking him to one of the first Slam City Jams, a skateboard competition, in the early 1990s, when Sidhoo was 5 or 6 years old. “Back then, skateboarding wasn’t as corporate as it is now, it was still pretty punk,” he said. And, while it was a bit different to be at such an event, “at the same time, it’s normal because I’ve been consuming this kind of content and going to different, what you could call counter-culture, events, with my dad. So, the fascination with subculture was always there, along with basketball.”
True North is Sidhoo’s first project with the NFB. He called the film board with his idea while in Vancouver, and spoke with Shirley Vercruysse, executive producer of NFB BC & Yukon Studio. “She was open-minded,” said Sidhoo and connected him to the paperwork he’d have to submit for the NFB to consider producing the documentary.
“What I think attracted the National Film Board,” he said, “was that basketball is shaping Canadian identity, because we’re exporting so many amazing basketball players to the south that the perception of Canada is not just hockey anymore … basketball is part of the shifting Canadian identity. On a global, macro picture, that resonated with the film board. And then, also tapping into the human, story-driven documentary approach that I wanted to take is what the film board has been doing for a really long time. It spoke to a story that was big, but then also was told through the intimate, personal narratives of these kids. It was a nice combination for them, I think.”
In The Mountain of SGaana, sea hunter Naa-Naa-Simgat is abducted by a killer whale and his lover, Kuuga Kuns, must try to save him. (image from National Film Board of Canada)
One of the highlights at this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival will be the animated short The Mountain of SGaana, presented by the National Film Board of Canada.
In The Mountain of SGaana, Haida filmmaker Christopher Auchter tells the tale of two lovers, sea hunter Naa-Naa-Simgat and Kuuga Kuns. When Naa-Naa-Simgat is abducted by a killer whale (SGanna, in Haida), Kuuga Kuns must negotiate a supernatural undersea world in order to save him. If she doesn’t succeed, they will both become part of the spirit world forever.
The film starts in the present-day, with a thoroughly modern fisherman, Skipper, ignoring all that is around him; his focus being solely on his cellphone, until a small mouse catches his attention and, literally, knits the supernatural tale. Auchter notes in an interview on the NFB website that SGaana also means “supernatural” in the Haida language.
“The Haida are an indigenous people whose island territories lie off the West Coast of Canada and in the southern regions of Alaska,” explains Auchter in the interview. “The modern name for the archipelago is Haida Gwaii, which best translates to “people’s island.” There was a time when the islands were called Xaadlaa gwaayee, which means ‘coming out of concealment,’ appropriately named for its location in the world’s largest remaining temperate rainforest.
“Haida Gwaii was formerly named the Queen Charlotte Islands, after the ship of a British explorer who landed there in 1787. The lands of the Haida nation were re-named in 2009.”
Auchter first read the story told in The Mountain of SGaana years ago in an anthology. In subsequent research, he encountered various versions of the tale, but all contained the same fundamental elements.
In addition to directing the 10-minute short, Auchter co-wrote the film with Annie Reid and the film’s vivid and magical animation was created by Auchter, Tara Barker, Marco Li and Sitji Chou. Jewish community member Michael Mann is listed as compositor, VFX and after-effects animator.
“Chris Auchter designed and created this beautiful world of The Mountain of SGaana, which had this beautiful Haida iconography and told a really wonderful story,” Mann said in a phone interview with the NFB. “What I did is, I took this 2-D animation and basically added lighting, camera moves and visual effects. Say, I get a flat image of water, I make it feel more watery and rippley.”
Mann also colour-graded the film. He explained that certain parts of it needed to look aged, as the film contrasts an older world with a more modern one. He said, “My reading of the story is, it’s a modern-day character [Skipper] who’s lost connection with his stories…. For a long time, they’re very separate and by the end they connect.”
And Mann also had to unite the characters that inhabit the different worlds. “One thing that’s really fun,” he said, “is playing with sunlight and darkness and rain. And all these mythical characters, how do you make them feel they’re all in the same world?”
He said, “I think of myself as a visual sandwich maker sometimes because, basically, someone gives me one layer of the sandwich and then I add all those other layers up to it so that it looks like it’s all one meal, like it’s all one world.”
Mann mostly worked on The Mountain of SGaana remotely from his studio on Salt Spring Island, but came to the NFB offices in Vancouver at the end for an intense 36-hour session with Auchter to finalize all the film’s effects.
Mann’s work as a visual storyteller – using animation, illustration and graphic design – has been featured in the opening ceremonies of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, on Nickelodeon, on PBS, in advertising campaigns, in documentaries, in video games, at Ontario’s Stratford Festival, the list goes on.
“Whether working on documentaries, commercial projects, government initiatives or collaborations with other artists,” reads his bio, Mann “loves using creativity to translate cultural concepts to new audiences.”
And The Mountain of SGaana certainly communicates, if only in a small way, something about Haida culture.
“I used Haida art to help frame the action and highlight key moments in the story, and to give those important moments an exclamation mark,” explains Auchter in the online interview. “I also use the Haida art as symbolism: at the beginning of the film, the character of Skipper is surrounded by multiple frames featuring various scenes from his environment. He ignores what’s going on around him, and doesn’t engage with his world. These scenes that surround Skipper are framed with black lines. This works in contrast with the other more complex multi-panel Haida formline shots we see throughout the course of the film. Skipper doesn’t get this more complex visual treatment until later in the story when he actively begins to engage with the world around him. His biggest moment comes when he throws the rope to Kuuga Kuns and Naa-Naa-Simgat and pulls them in. This symbolizes that he is pulling his culture closer to him.”
The Mountain of SGaana won the Young Audiences 6-12 Official Competition at this year’s Ottawa International Animation Festival and was an official selection for ImagineNATIVE 2017 and the Vancouver International Film Festival. It screens at VIFF on Oct. 5, 9:15 p.m., and Oct. 12, 3:15 p.m., at International Village 8, as part of the Strangers in Strange Lands shorts program. For tickets and the full festival lineup, visit viff.org. The festival runs Sept. 28-Oct. 13.
In the very talented ensemble of The Road Forward by Marie Clements are Michelle St. John, left, and Jennifer Kreisberg. (photos from National Film Board of Canada)
This year’s DOXA Documentary Film Festival features several films with Jewish community connections. They explore a wide range of topics: First Nations activism, Fort McMurray and the oil sands, real-life mermaids, bigotry against larger people, and being a freelance journalist in the Middle East. They will make you question your assumptions, ponder the various ways in which humans find connection, and introduce you to ideas, people and places you probably didn’t know existed.
Opening the festival, which runs May 4-14, is The Road Forward. In the very talented ensemble of this musical documentary by Marie Clements are Michelle St. John and Jennifer Kreisberg. As many of us do, St. John and Kreisberg have multiple cultural heritages that form their identity; in their instances, First Nations and Jewish are among them. In addition to performing, Kreisberg also composed and/or arranged many of the songs; the main composer is Wayne Lavallee.
The Road Forward began as a 10-minute performance piece commissioned for the Aboriginal Pavilion at the 2010 Olympics, and premièred as a full-length theatre show at the 2015 PuSh Festival. The documentary has mostly traditional components – interviews, archival footage, news clips – but these are broken up by a number of songs, which add energy and emotion to the film.
The documentary uses as its starting point the Native Brotherhood and Sisterhood, which were established in the 1930s, when First Nations people were not permitted to meet and organize. The groups’ “official organ,” the Native Voice, was the first indigenous-run newspaper in Canada.
“The idea was to honour B.C.’s history, so I started researching and reading online and came across the archives of the Native Brotherhood and Sisterhood, the oldest Native organization in the country. Their parent organization, the Native Fishing Association, is located in West Vancouver, close to me,” explains Clements in the press material.
The Road Forward touches on many issues along its journey to current-day First Nation activists, who carry on in their ancestors’ paths. Though their goals are varied – some fight for particular legal or policy changes, others for restitution and reconciliation, yet others for their own voice and place in the world – they are all seeking justice, equality, understanding.
The songs highlight the immense struggles. As but two examples, “1965” is about the decades upon decades that First Nations have been denied the basic rights that most other Canadians have long enjoyed, and “My Girl” is a heartbreaking tribute to the aboriginal women who have been murdered along British Columbia’s Highway 16, the “Highway of Tears.” The Indian Constitution Express, a movement organized by George Manuel in 1980-81 to protest the lack of aboriginal rights in then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau’s plans to patriate the Canadian Constitution, receives somewhat more attention than other activist achievements, and the song “If You Really Believe,” based on a speech by Manuel, is quite powerful.
The May 4 gala screening of The Road Forward is the official launch of Aabiziingwashi (#WideAwake), National Film Board of Canada’s Indigenous Cinema on Tour. For the length of 2017, NFB is offering films from its 250-plus collection to all Canadians via [email protected]. The film also runs on May 10 and Clements will participate in a Q&A following both screenings.
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Limit is the Sky follows a handful of 20-somethings who have moved to Fort McMurray to follow their dreams. A few years before the price of oil plummeted in 2015 and the 2016 wildfire decimated the northern Alberta city, the average family income in “Fort Mac,” was $190,000 a year, according to the film. Working on the oil sands was where the real money lay, but others were drawn to the college or to places that serve the oil workers (and others), such as hairdressing salons and restaurants.
Most striking about the population we meet in Limit is the Sky is their diversity: they not only come from other Canadian provinces and the United States but from much further afield. The seven young dreamers featured include Max, from Lebanon; Mucharata, from the Philippines, who had to leave her 2-year-old son behind initially (for fours years); and KingDeng, a former child soldier from South Sudan, who had to help support his wife and children (in Edmonton) while at school in Fort McMurray.
“I was looking for young people who’d just recently arrived in Fort Mac, full of hopes, dreams and naïveté,” says filmmaker Julia Ivanova in the press material. “I wanted to walk the viewer through their ups and downs in a place where the men seem tough and the women even tougher. I wasn’t looking for tough characters, though: sensitivity and beauty – both inner and physical beauty – were important to me.”
Ivanova, who has Jewish roots, migrated to Canada from Russia many years ago.
“Being an immigrant myself,” she notes, “I could feel what was at stake for these young people and the challenges they face on a very intimate level.”
The main filming ran from fall 2012 to spring 2015. She felt welcomed by the people in the city, though not by the industry. “That was a brick wall I hit over and over again,” she says. “There was no filming of anyone allowed, anywhere, period.”
By the end of the film, most of the millennials featured had left the city, along with many others. “The town felt almost deserted, compared to how I had seen it in 2012 and 2013,” says Ivanova. “So many people were leaving. There was so much anxiety. I went to all the places I loved – and they’d all changed.”
Ivanova’s film shows the hope, the drive, the challenges, the loneliness of her interviewees. The dynamics are much more complex than one might assume of a city that relied on the oil sands for its prosperity. The environment is of crucial importance, obviously, but people matter, too, and this documentary shines a necessary light on that fact.
Limit is the Sky screens May 5.
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Falling into the who-ever-would-have-thought category, Ali Weinstein’s Mermaids introduces viewers to real-life mermaids, of a sort.
Rachel’s underwater job at the Dive Bar in Sacramento, Calif., helps her deal with a family tragedy. Vicki and a group of former Weeki Wachee Resort (in Florida) swimmers recall their mermaid days, including a show for Elvis and a 50th anniversary performance. Being a mermaid helps Cookie, who was abused as a child and has mental health issues, manage life, and she and her soulmate, Eric, who makes her mermaid tails, are married in a mermaid wedding, after being together for some 30 years. Last but not least, Julz, a transgender woman who was bullied as a child and disowned by her father, discovers acceptance and love in a Huntington Beach, Calif., mermaid group.
Weinstein intersperses these stories with brief summaries of long-told mermaid tales, “from the 3,000-year-old Assyrian figure of Atargatis to the Mami Wata water spirits of West Africa.”
It really is a fascinating documentary, showing just how resilient and resourceful the human spirit is.
Mermaids plays twice during DOXA, on May 6 and 13, and Weinstein will be in attendance at both screenings.
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Think of the cartoon villains and the hapless sidekicks. How are they often portrayed? As fat, dumb and/or oversexed? If those weren’t your first thoughts, think again. The documentary Fattitude convincingly shows how widespread bigotry against larger people is – so much so that it can be overlooked, until pointed out. Then, you wonder how you ever missed it.
From the old woman in the candy house that eats Hansel and Gretel, to Star Wars’ Jabba the Hut, to the evil squid in The Little Mermaid, these are just a few of the villains. Then there is the heavyset and dumb Hardy, sidekick to thin, smart Laurel; the stereotypical chubby best friend in so many movies; and the archetypal black nanny, forever cast in the caring, subservient role. Miss Piggy is a more complex character, both strong and confident in herself, but also sex-crazy over Kermit. And, in the entire Star Trek franchise – where have the larger people gone?
From the age of 3, the film notes, we are already programmed with negative stereotypes. When all put together, it’s quite depressing. However, Fattitude is a rather upbeat documentary, as its interviewees are spirited, determined and intelligent enough to effect some change, mainly via social media.
Filmmakers Lindsey Averill and Viridiana Lieberman speak to almost 50 people and, to a person, they provide an interesting perspective, connecting the body images depicted in films, television shows, cartoons, magazines and advertisements with their effects on viewers and on our perceptions of ourselves and others. The film discusses the links between race, socioeconomic status and weight, as well as the reasons why Michelle Obama’s campaign to end childhood obesity was misguided.
Fattitude screens May 9.
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Being a journalist in a war zone seems dangerous and frightening, and it is. But it is also tedious and lonely. At least this is what it seems from watching Santiago Bertolino’s Freelancer on the Front Lines.
Bertolino follows Toronto-born, Beirut-based freelance journalist Jesse Rosenfeld as Rosenfeld hustles to get story ideas and budgets approved, waits in sparse hotel rooms for fixers to connect him with interviewees, and ventures into Egypt during its post-Arab Spring elections, the West Bank during an Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a Syrian refugee camp in Turkey and to Iraq, where they witness the fight against ISIS from the front lines.
Some of the more disturbing images are of the bodies of Palestinians gunned down in a home by undetermined executioners and the corpses of dead ISIS fighters dumped in the back of a truck, as well as tied to its back bumper. In another memorable part, Rosenfeld yells questions to a caged Mohamed Fahmy, when Fahmy and two fellow Al Jazeera journalists were on trial in Cairo. (Fahmy, who holds both Canadian and Egytian citizenship, spent almost two years in jail of a three-year sentence.)
Rosenfeld has strong views and isn’t afraid to share them, though he struggles to make eye contact with the camera when he makes his pronouncements. Some of the best exchanges in the film are between him and Canadian-Israeli journalist Lia Tarachansky, who hold different opinions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Freelancer on the Front Lines screens May 13 at Vancity and will include a post-film discussion.
For tickets and the full DOXA Documentary Film Festival schedule, visit doxafestival.ca.