A tribute to Garry Beitel

Bonjour/Shalom film poster
The poster for one of Garry Beitel's films, 'Bonjour! Shalom! the relationship between Hassidic Jews in Montreal's Outremont district and their French-Québécois neighbours.

Quebec fortunately has a cultural policy and the institutional framework to implement it. Last week the Quebec Arts Council (Conseil des arts et lettes du Québec) celebrated the recipients of four special career grants in media arts. One of them very deservedly went to documentarian Garry Beitel. Together with Helene Klodawsky I was asked to say a few words about Garry’s work – here are our notes – in English. (I’ll post the French version also.)

MAGNUS: These career grants are announced at a time when the kind of work Garry does is severely threatened because of cutbacks and policy changes. We need people like him, courageous long distance runners who can help maintain the documentary genre. We are honoured to have the opportunity to pay tribute to Garry, a creatively inspiring colleague with an impressive track record, and a filmmaker with inexhaustible energy and drive. Every year, Garry has a new film out, with a touching and thought-provoking story to tell.

HELENE: When I moved from Toronto to Montreal in the late eighties, it didn’t take me long to hear about Garry – this great Anglophone filmmaker who was making films about subjects that reflected Quebec’s cultural diversity. For me, Garry provided a model of what engaged filmmaking could be in Quebec. Bilingual and in love with French Montreal, his spirit was also rooted in English and Jewish worlds.

Helene and Magnus with Garry (centre). Photo: Jean-Guy Thibodeau

His work over more than thirty years has provided a fascinating encounter between inspiring characters from different communities, with different viewpoints, who are trying to build bridges and find a common language. Garry has documented relationships between young and old (in Bittersweet deliveries), between citizen and newcomer (in Aller-Retour and Asylum) Jew and non-Jew (Helene will mention some examples), Anglophone and Francophone (Nothing Sacred) between the healthy and the infirm (Endnotes, The Man who Learned to Fall) with great respect, compassion and humour. His films lead us to discover neighbors we didn’t know and become familiar with the challenges they confront.

I find his work on people whose health is severely challenged – and the people who try to maintain a sense of dignity and meaning in their life, especially touching. His films give new depth to people and places we thought we know, but – we realize when watching his films – only knew superficially– for example Schwartz’s smoked meat restaurant, Santropol Roulant’s meals on wheels for the elderly, Josh Dolgin La Presse and the Gazette’s cartoonists Serge Chapleau and Aislin. His films are embraced by a large public on both the small and big screens, and in festivals around the world. His stories enrich our collective memory and still speak to us twenty and thirty years after they were created.

Besides making wonderful films about community, individuals in transition, and the creative process, Garry’s films have brought us inside various expressions of Jewish life in Quebec. For example, in Bonjour! Shalom! Garry took us, for the first time, to Outremont to explore the tensions and friendships between Hassidic Jews and their secular, and French Catholic neighbours.

My Dear Clara is a Jewish story of love and longing set in Montreal, Poland and Russia during the Second World War. In Chez Schwartz our appetites are whetted as we follow a delightful melting pot of characters, and The Socalled Movie brings us inside a joyful fusion of funk and hip hop with traditional Klezmer music. The Jewish community has also recognized Garry for his films and for his all-round humanity and generosity.

In Yiddish, Garry’s other language, he is called a true “mentsh”, or a great human being. We are thrilled for you Garry.


Thanks to Tobi Elliott for help with this blog.

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Magnus Isacsson

As an independent documentary filmmaker I have made some fifteen films dealing with social, political and environmental issues. Previously I was a television and radio producer. I was born in Sweden in 1948, immigrated to Canada in 1970. I live with Jocelyne and our daughter Béthièle in Montreal, and my older daughter Anna lives in Toronto.

One thought on “A tribute to Garry Beitel”

  1. Hi had Garry Beitel as a teacher at McGill way back in 2002. I took his Documentary film theory and history class which inspired me to dream about one day becoming a filmmaker myself. The class was a perfect foundation for aspiring doc filmmakers. I am so happy to see Garry being honored in this way. He is a great documentarian, artist, teacher and person!

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