Real Estate Development Gone Wild

Invasion Construction
Montreal documentary filmmaker Martin Frigon recently released a film called La Grande Invasion (The Great Invasion, produced by Productions Multi-Monde) on a subject which is very close to my heart: the impact of out-of-control real estate development on local communities.My father who was an artist and art school director in Sweden spent a good part of his life fighting for the respect of the character of the landscape and local communities where he lived on the Atlantic coast north of Gothenburg. But I don’t think in his wildest nightmares he could have imagined the kind of development which is now transforming the Laurentians, a beautiful area north of Montreal where I have some land and spend a lot of my time paddling and hiking.

I saw the film at the Parc Cinema, which allowed time for a substantial panel discussion after the screening. As Martin’s film shows, the development of mega-shopping-centres (‘Power Centres’) and giant housing developments is literally ruining local communities,even forcing many local residents to become refugees. I asked Martin a few questions.

Continue reading Real Estate Development Gone Wild

Kazimi on 3D and Documentaries


Last fall I posted part one of an interview with my friend Ali Kazimi on 3D and its potential for documentary. Here is part 2. Ali is an award-winning filmmaker and most recently author of Undesirables: White Canada and the Komagata Maru – An Illustrated History ( He is an associate professor in the Department of Film at York University, where he has been researching stereoscopic 3D digital cinema since 2008.

Ali Kazimi

Ali Kazimi.

I feel 3D is appropriate only for certain kinds of documentaries that have both very controlled shooting parameters, such as nature, performance or travel with healthy if not hefty budgets especially for post production. Ken MacNeil from Creative Post in Toronto, likes to point out that finishing a stereoscopic 3D (S3D) film is akin to creating a Digital Intermediate for a film shot on 35mm film. i.e. one has to use a very high end S3D capable system to do the overall colour correction and stereo-grading. The colour grading ensures that both cameras are matched as closely as possible, the stereo grading involves fixing the geometrical issues between lenses, the alignment between cameras and determining where the screen plane will lie – i.e. what will be in front of the screen and what will appear behind it.

I take it there is a real learning curve involved here ? You can’t just improvise.

A fundamental knowledge of S3D basics combined with basic knowledge of human perception is essential. For example one of the things that cannot be fixed in post is the depth in shot – this is determined by the Inter-Axial (IA) distance between the two cameras, hence the IA determines the depth in a given shot, in simple terms the greater the IA the more the depth (note: if one pushes this too far you get miniaturization, an effect specific to S3D). What one can adjust in post-production is the point at which both cameras converge – Convergence determines where the screen plane lies. If your depth, as determined by the IA has not been calculated properly, the scene may be unwatchable and the only way to fix it would be either to loose one of the camera images and keep it in 2d or to go for a 2D to 3D conversion.

And how accessible is the equipment ?

Currently at the lower end there are many tools both in terms of cameras and post-production that are making it S3D more accessible. I have been playing around with the new Sony HDR-TD10 S3D consumer camcorder. It is the first affordable true HD camera, with 1920×1080 resolution for each eye. There is now a prosumer version, HXR-NX3D1, but unfortunately the codec used by Sony will only work on their proprietary Vegas Pro system, there are complicated workarounds to edit the material on other NLE software such as FCP, Avid, or Premiere.

On the one hand it is amazing to have these tool, on the other hand it, I go back to the steep learning curve necessary to learn stereoscopic 3D, it would be a mistake to think that this camera can be used to shoot an entire film in the same way that a 2D prosumer camera such as the Sony PD150 or the Sony Z1U was rapidly adopted for docs in the past. The new S3D cameras are good for many kinds of shots, but filmmakers will also need to keep using mirror rigs – i.e. two cameras mounted at 90 degrees with a partially silvered mirror at 45 degrees in between them. I have also seen the Sony shoulder mounted TD 300 camcorder – it offers greater control but again is limited by the fixed Inter Axial (IA) distance – the distance between the two cameras.

A documentary package for S3D production could consist of a Genus Hurricane mirror rig with a two Sony EX3’s and at a Sony TD10 or NX3. Of course, this is already two cameras more than a 2D package.

This sounds quite complex. Is it really compatible with the kind of flexibility and agility we associate with typical docs ?

I do think it is an exciting time for documentaries and the possibilities S3D offers, however I do feel it will be sometime before we start seeing lower budget films that offer more than just depth, in which the true potential of S3D is exploited. At the moment most S3D films need to work on both 2D and S3D screens. Many including myself feel that S3D on its own requires a different language – slower editing pace, wide angle lenses, more movement, deep focus. Pina is a great example of this, and Wenders has said that the film was designed with only S3D in mind and does not work in 2D, I have to agree with him.

Given the dismal state of documentary financing in Canada today, it is unlikely that anyone would make a film solely designed for S3D. Realistically you are looking at a budget that is significantly higher. Unlike the US and Europe where there are now dedicated S3D television broadcasters, in Canada there are none. Bell and Rogers have been running test channels for the past couple of years with the same compilation reels endlessly looped.

I have met several people who are eager to jump into S3D productions, they are typically focused on rigs and workflows, I do have to keep reminding them that they cannot bypass the fundamentals. Our 3DFlic research project at York has been renewed for another two years, so while I continue to explore content, form and technology for S3D docs, we will also be holding seminars, workshops and the second stereoscopic 3D conference next year.





I Love Docs
Former judge Andrée Ruffo speaks out for docs.

A recent Vancouver Sun article sums up the crisis of the long-form documentary in Canada. Cutbacks everywhere, shrinking budgets and most of all diminishing broadcast windows. Outside of the National Film Board and the arts councils, the whole Canadian funding system is based on acquiring a broadcast license. That’s the key which opens the door to other funding agencies. As networks turn increasingly to entertainment-oriented, cheap-to-produce ‘reality shows’, there is less space and less money for the kinds of docs that investigate and question the real world instead of inventing hokey competitions and survival challenges.

A March 2011 report from the Documentary Organization of Canada examined these trends, showing there had been a six-year decline in doc funding. The situation is worse in English Canada than in Quebec, because this province actually has a cultural policy, a real film culture and some invaluable institutional support notably from SODEC. In addition to the public broadcasters the Astral-owned ‘Canal D’ puts serious money into a handful of long-form documentaries every year.

Nonetheless, the most creative response to the crisis has come from Montreal. A small group of filmmakers, calling themselves ‘Documentary’s G7’, some of them members of DOC’s Quebec chapter, have created a campaign called ‘J’aime le Documentaire’ – I love docs. In addition to using social media for networking, they have made a series of ten public service messages for use on television, during festivals and on the web. These ‘spots’ – quite elegantly made in black-and-white by experienced ad director Richard Leclerc on a minimal budget – feature well-known Quebecers who state their heartfelt support for documentaries. Drawn from a wide spectrum, they include among others singer Chloë Saint-Marie, human rights lawyer Julius Grey, and – cleverly – politicians or former politicians from every major political camp in Quebec. ‘They may disagree on everything else’ says G7 member Patricio Henriquez, ‘but they all agree documentaries have a key role to play in the way we perceive social and political developments and issues. This shows that documentaries can have a unifying effect in society, at least here in Quebec.’ In addition, people who were attending the Rencontres doc fest last November were invited to state their support for the form, resulting in another slew of passionate statements for use on the web.

The ‘I love documentary’ campaign is supported by a series of industry organizations and networks as well as Canal D which has been broadcasting the spots since before Christmas. The ads will also be shown before some films (fiction and documentary) at the upcoming Rendez-vous du cinema québecois.

Thanks to Sally Rylett for help with this blog post.

Controversy in Montreal after Wiseman’s ‘Crazy Horse’ opens RIDM

Crazy Horse - F. Wiseman Paris

The Rencontres Internationales du Documentaire de Montréal opened last Wednesday night. This is an event which allows you to see great documentaries from around the world, films which you rarely see on TV. This year’s program is great.

But the choice of opening film has created a huge controversy in the documentary community here. Veteran U.S. documentarian Frederick Wiseman has made a career of observing the life of institutions, from the mental asylum to the boxing club. In his new film Crazy Horse, Wiseman documents the preparation and execution of a show at the eponymous nude dance palace in Paris. There are some revealing and interesting moments from the behind-the-scenes creative process. The choreographer, the set designer and the costume designer are captivating an complex characters, and we get to know them.

But this more-than-two-hour film is mostly made up of interminable scenes of erotic dancing, beautifully lit and filmed, but repetitive and soon boring. (The photos show here – graciously supplied by the festival – emphasize the aesthetic, but actually a lot of the film is made up of very tight shots.) One could argue that the film shows up the sexism of the milieu, where the ‘physical assets’ of the dancers count more than anything else. But rather than taking a critical look at this state of affairs, Weisman becomes complicit with it by exploiting these same ‘assets’ endlessly.

Antoine Poupel - Crazy_Horse AntoinePoupel - Crazy Horse

And where the film really falls down is that you never get to know the dancers. After two hours, you know next to nothing about their backgrounds, their aspirations, their opinions, their feelings. Disappointing!

You have to assume some people liked the film. But others left the screening while in process. Others were bored. And some were outraged. A letter of protest was signed by some twenty producers and directors, myself included. The RIDM leadership has agreed to a meeting to discuss the issues after the festival is over.

In the debate which has raged since opening night, red herrings have proliferated. Some people have denounced the Wiseman film as pornography, which it obviously isn’t. On the other side, some people claimed the critics want to censor the film – just a way of avoiding the real issues, as no one has suggested the film should be banned. Others again have defended this choice of opening film saying it was perfect because it generated a debate. Unfortunately this is not the way it was presented – the choice was explained as an attempt to reach out to new audiences – and there was no room for discussion after the screening.

The question I ask myself at this point is whether this controversy will be a useful one which leads to a better understanding of some of the issues, or whether it will just be divisive.

Thanks to Tobi Elliott for her help with this blog.

The Grannies and the Cuban Hat

Four Montreal Grannies
The four Montreal grannies who helped shoot our pitch

Documentary film funding is not what it used to be. With broadcast windows few and far between and cutbacks everywhere, we doc-makers are turning to other sources, using other methods. And one of the new ways is web-based participatory, or crowd funding. This week I am participating in the Cuban Hat on-line pitch in the framework of the Rencontres Internationales du Documentaire de Montréal.

GRANNY POWER, the project I am pitching (see the video pitch here on Vimeo) together with my colleagues, is a feature length English-language film on the Raging Grannies. This film has been in the works for eight years – and it might as well be crowd funded, because no English-language broadcaster will support it. Could it be that politicized elderly ladies are not the flavour of the month?

The Grannies form a very original protest movement, singing for social justice, peace and environment. They will celebrate their 25th anniversary next summer. The film portrays the movement, but also opens a window on the challenges of remaining active as a citizen as you grow older. Our main characters are between 65 and 80.

Checking out the projects and pitches presented at Cuban Hat is interesting, and the more people vote, the greater the chance that the best projects will become finalists and have a chance to win post production services. Hope you can find the time!

Tobi Elliott, who helps with this blog, is one of the producers of the Granny Film. It was her idea to pitch Granny Power to the Cuban Hat.

Kazimi on 3D: part 1

Hazardous - production stills 4

Ali Kazimi is an award-winning filmmaker. Since 2008, he has been researching stereoscopic 3D digital cinema at York University, where he is an Associate Professor in the Department of Film.

Q. Why is there this sudden groundswell of interest in 3D?

The current stereoscopic 3D is propelled by the exponential rise in digital technology in film production, coupled with the phenomenal success of James Cameron’s Avatar. Really, much of the growth in S3D is due to Cameron’s championing and use of digital S3D. Cameron himself did not come to S3D overnight, he spent the decade before Avatar experimenting with making underwater docs with different degrees of success. In fact, his underwater experience reveals itself not only in the very comfortable 3D experience he was able to deliver, but also in the flora of the imagined world which looks and behaves very much like underwater plants do.

However, it is his S3D experimentation that is critical to acknowledge and it is instructive in many ways – or to put it differently, S3D has a steep learning curve. The biggest challenge I feel is getting a grasp on the fundamentals of perception, how we see depth. Stereo vision, or ‘stereopsis’ as it is known scientifically, is the process by which the brain takes in the 2D images from the left and right eye and fuses them together into a single 3D image. However, stereopsis is only one way in which in the human brain perceives depth. We also use a number of other visual cues, called monocular cues, such as perspective or the familiar size of objects to determine spatial relationships.

Technically, S3D camera systems mimic the way we see. We use two cameras each offset by a certain distance, called the inter-axial (IA) distance, to generate two identical from images from slightly different perspectives, similar to those between our two eyes. The images have to be in perfect sync with identical focus, depth of field, colour and contrast, this is easier said than done. The mechanism for shooting stereoscopic 3D, known simply as rigs, therefore consists of two cameras either side-by-side or at right angles to one another with a partially silvered mirror at 45 degrees in the middle.

In terms of both composition and pacing there is much that is still unknown, filmmakers have to learn how to see the world around us with the z-axis in mind.

A couple of months ago just I saw a screening of shorts, commercials and music videos screened at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. The program, called ‘Selected Package’, had a wide range, from those with high production values to lo-tech DIY retro-inspired music videos. The latter were screened with the Red/Blue, anaglyph format. I have rarely come out of a screening with such acute eyestrain and headache. Once again, these music videos painfully drove home the difference between bad 2D and bad 3D, in that poorly produced S3D can be uncomfortable and even painful. Filmmakers have to recognize that their S3D work can have an immediate physiological impact on the audience. In fact this is the very reason why filmmakers have to step way back and truly re-examine how we see.

On the other hand, Wim Wender’s film Pina is a real masterwork and a true landmark in S3D filmmaking. In my view, the first feature film made solely for S3D, one that explores its immense possibilities with such inspired grace and virtuosity.

Wenders’ keynote address at our Toronto International Stereoscopic 3D conference was one of the most amazing artist talks, and a truly inspirational speech on how he came to 3D and how filmmakers should engage with 3D (read the transcript here). Pina is exciting because it was designed solely as a 3D film, whereas I have long maintained the almost all other 3D content is designed to work in 2D as well. Consequently there can only be limited exploration of a new cinematic language. More on Pina a bit later.

What is it that you have to learn? Theory or hands-on?

On the technical side, digital projection has made it possible to deliver a pretty seamless 3D experience, it is another matter that many cinemas don’t have proper projectors resulting in relatively dimmer image. Of course this is the last but crucial stage in the entire digital workflow.

In some ways the ‘Avatar effect’, as I often refer to it, has been a mixed blessing. The studios and the television manufacturers all jumped on the bandwagon. S3D sets are now increasingly on the market and prices are coming down fast, the problem is the dearth of content. To create content one needs more than tech, training and accessibility is critical. As I have said earlier, S3D has a steep learning curve and there are no short cuts, it will take time to develop a critical mass of filmmakers and technicians.

The most critical position is that of the stereographer – a stereo expert who should ideally be at least consulted during pre-production, who is on the set during production working with the camera rig and who then again at least consults through post-production and during the final colour and stereo-grading. Stereographers are hard to find, in this new field many people claim to be one after doing a workshop or two, one has to be really careful. Errors made in production such as the depth of a shot are impossible to “fix in post”.

Thanks to Tobi Elliott for her help with the blog.

Caravaggio, Kieslowski, Jarl: Inspiration

At a filmmaker lunch last year, my very creative friend Don McWilliams told this story. About fifteen years ago, the famous Polish filmmaker Kryzstof Kieslowsky gave a conference at Concordia University. After his presentation, a professor asked him what his greatest sources of cinematic inspiration had been.

His answer: Molière and Dostoyevsky. The professor found this very annoying, and came back to insist that this was a serious question. And Kieslowsky in turn explained that his was a serious answer. “You have to expose yourself to the arts and the world outside of the cinema,” is the way Don remembers his reply.

What brought this anecdote to mind was my visit to the terrific Caravaggio exhibition at the National Gallery in Ottawa. Caravaggio was a rebel, and the way he revolutionized the visual arts at the end of the 16th century has double relevance for documentary filmmakers. In times when the traditional treatment of religious motifs dominated the arts, he brought the turbulent realities of his contemporaries, ordinary folks included into his paintings: tax collectors, disaffected soldiers, prostitutes, street merchants… It was a breakthrough for realism, but a highly creative form of realism.

Caravaggio’s use of and depiction of light was equally revolutionary. One of the filmmakers who has most inspired me, the Swedish documentarian Stefan Jarl, has this to say about Caravaggio’s use of light:

‘Caravaggio is a master of light and shadow. There is a fantastic painting which describes how Jesus asks Matthew to follow him, in which the light from the window illuminates the characters in the shades. It’s one of the most vibrant paintings ever made. Everything he did during his tumultuous and much too short life was of the highest order when it came to lighting. Filmmakers have much to learn from him…’ (My translation, from a book by Cyril Hellman.)

If you have a chance to see the Caravaggio exhibition before it closes, you should!

Thanks to Tobi Elliott for her help with this blog.


Silda Wall Spitzer and Eliot Spitzer in CLIENT 9: THE RISE AND FALL OF ELIOT SPITZER, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

With the news of the indictment of International Monetary Fund Managing Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn on charges of sex crimes against a hotel maid in New York, you may wonder why a wealthy and powerful man practically considered to be a front-runner for president of a world power (France) would (if indeed guilty) do something so unacceptable and self-destructive.

Some fragment of the answer having to do with the intoxication of power and fame can be glimpsed from a truly excellent documentary called Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer. It tells the story of how former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer got caught using an agency to book appointments with thousands-of-dollars-an-hour call girls.

Spitzer was famous for taking on the banks and speculators in Wall Street, and had been touted as a possible democratic candidate for the U.S. presidency. He didn’t commit the kind of crime Strauss-Kahn is accused of, but he fell from high and hit the ground hard.

The film, directed by Alex Gibney, is a model of documentary filmmaking. Not of the unpredictable fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants kind, but on the contrary, very carefully planned and executed. The mix of sex of politics is explosive, the characters, including Spitzer himself, hookers, madams and Wall Street sharks – his powerful enemies who helped get him caught -are fascinating.

Highly recommended!

Thanks to Tobi Elliott for help with this blog.

Disturbing realities: Annabel Soutar

Seeds - Alex propagating

I recently wrote about PorteParole theatre’s Montreal documentary theatre performance Sexy Béton (Sexy Concrete) created by artistic director Annabel Soutar. And I have seen other documentary plays she put on in the past – one of them was “Seeds,” about Saskatchewan farmer Percy Schmeizer’s fight against Monsanto and its genetically modified seeds. Just as interesting and thought-provoking.

This is the theatrical equivalent of creative non-fiction, a fascinating literary genre. And even among visual and installation artists and filmmakers there is a lot of talk about the relationship between documentary and fiction these days. I asked Annabel why she thinks this is so.

>> Annabel: I think that artists become obsessed with the boundary between fiction and reality when, in real life, we have lost touch with what is ‘really going on’. We have arrived at a point where we, unwittingly or not, accept a fictional narrative about the real world. Why? Partly because the truth is too hard to face. Why would I want to talk about my credit card debt when I could just go and enjoy another sushi dinner without really paying for it?

But also, people of my generation (who came of age in the 80s) have grown up on the idea that the news is not a description of reality, but a source of entertainment. Since the 80s we have been bombarded with mediated current-event stories: the advent of the 24-hour news cycle, the birth of ‘niche news’ (business news, weather news, celebrity news, etc…) and the evolution of instant and personalized news through the Internet.

Recently, it has dawned on us that we probably aren’t getting a true picture of reality from the news media. And most recently, with the Wikileaks cables, we have abruptly learned that we have been completely duped about a lot of things. Why have we trusted news media for so long? Why haven’t we noticed that what the media has been saying isn’t really going on in the world?

Well… partly because we’ve just been enjoying the stories so much. The news is entertaining. But also because we have accepted that our relationship with the world around us should be completely mediated. We are no longer going out into the world ourselves to learn and document reality because we are so busy consuming ‘stories’ about it.

You could say that the mediated world has replaced the real world for most of us. And in that mediated world, the search for truth is much less relevant than the ability to grab peoples’ attention and create another layer of buzz.

Annabel Soutar Jan 2011

>> MI: I am just reading a little book called ‘The Storyteller’ which my daughter Anna gave me. It’s about the ‘documentary turn’ taken by many artists. It says: “Faced with a reality fraught with global conflict, artists are increasingly seeking to respond to and come to terms with the world around them… events are re-imagined and thereby re-experienced through the artist’s personal encounter or the character’s narration.”

In your work, you have anchored your stories very solidly in a documented reality. Why? Will that strategy allow a closer relationship to a certain truth? Will that perceived relationship to the truth allow for a greater impact on the audience?

>> Annabel: I definitely feel like I NEED to research and write these documentary plays. Firstly because I can’t trust the version of the real word that is being presented to me by the media so I need to go out and experience the world first hand. But second, because if I don’t go out and encounter the real world in a concrete way, that world becomes an abstraction that is so easily misperceived, dismissed and neglected.

My theatre creation process is a process of engagement – engagement with ‘the other’, engagement between myself and experiences that were hitherto completely foreign to me, and ultimately engagement with the other artists I collaborate with to come to terms with what is really happening in the world.

Much of what “is happening” out there is invisible in our day-to-day lives, and much of what people are thinking and doing is unspeakable. The theatre brings concrete form to what we can’t see in the real world and gives the audience the courage and inspiration to speak about the unspeakable, and to recognize the invisible forces that are influencing their lives.

Thanks to Tobi Elliott for her help with this blog.

Talkies in Toronto

Talkies poster-3-1
A few weeks ago, I was invited to present a film at an event called Talkies in Toronto. It was one event in a series of screenings and discussions, organized by York University humanities professor Mark Cauchi and his co-conspirator filmmaker Azed Majeed.

I thought about the choice of film for a while. In the end I suggested to Mark and Azed that I show either the controversial documentary Capturing the Friedmans, which would have allowed us to discuss many tricky issues of access and consent, or one of my own films. They decided to go for one of mine, because it would be their first documentary and the Toronto premiere of Art in Action.

Now, if you read this blog often, you’ve already heard enough about Art in Action (see previous post). So let’s talk about Talkies. The very congenial but intellectually intense event takes place in what would be a loft if it wasn’t a basement, in Toronto’s East End.

Mark explains it this way:

“The films are selected primarily by the speakers. We give them free reign to pick what they want. We figure that they’ll know best what film they can discuss in an interesting manner. This has resulted in wide variety of films being selected, from Antonioni and Godard to the 80s thriller Angel Heart to a recent film like Doubt.”

“When we conceived the series, one of the ideas was not to confine it strictly to “film studies.” So we’ve been selecting people who have expertise in certain fields or practices, who also like to work with and think about film, and who are engaging speakers. We don’t want a classroom. This means we’ve had speakers take philosophical, political, psychoanalytic, sociological, and anthropological approaches. Most have been academics, but that’s not by design as much as by circumstance. We want to get more film makers and other artists and non-academic writers to participate.”

Talkies in Toronto organizers Mark Cauchi and Azed Majeed.
Talkies in Toronto organizers Mark Cauchi and Azed Majeed.

Can you give an example or two of interesting discussions?

“Nikolas Kompridis (Professor at the Center for Citizenship & Public Policy, University of Western Sydney) gave a presentation on Antonioni’s classic, Blow-Up. He suggested that the film was challenging the modernist ethos of mastery and control (exemplified in taking pictures, technology, and swingin’ 60s consumption) by presenting its main character and its viewers with an enigma that no amount of control (exemplified in blowing up a picture) could resolve. The main character and viewer learns that instead of always attempting to control actively one’s environment, sometimes one must simply be receptive to what is beyond oneself.

“Kristine Klement (a graduate student in Social & Political Thought at York University) and Paola Bohorquez (Instructor of English, York University) gave a co-presentation on the recent film Doubt. They highlighted the fact that there is no evidence of crime in the film, and yet characters and viewers are compelled to regard the main character of the film as guilty. Leaving aside the question of whether or not he is guilty, they used psychoanalytic theory to explore the psychological processes that lead to such discrepancies.”

“Both discussions opened up the films in interesting and unexpected ways and generated a lot of discussion and response by our viewers.”

What’s coming up?

“The next Talkies will be on Saturday February 26.

We will be screening Bruno Dumont’s 1997 debut film, The Life of Jesus. Despite the title, this film does not depict the life of Jesus, a la Pasolini’s Gospel According to Saint Matthew or Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. The film will be in French, with English subtitles.

John Caruana (Professor of Philosophy, Ryerson University) will be discussing the film. As usual, the event takes place in the basement at 245 Carlaw Ave, suite 004 (just north of Queen East), and starts at 7 pm.

Thanks to Tobi Elliott for her help with this blog.