Screening ‘Over My Dead Body’

David St-Pierre, Choreographer

David St-Pierre, Choreographer

I recently saw a documentary which I consider to be one of the best I’ve ever seen, OVER MY DEAD BODY (trailer). It follows renowned Quebec choreographer Dave St. Pierre during the several year period when he waits for a lung transplant – the only way to save his life from cystic fibrosis. The filmmaker is St. Pierre’s friend and creative partner Brigitte Poupart, and this is her first film.

Brigitte Poupart, Actress, Dancer, Filmmaker

Brigitte Poupart, Actress, Dancer & Filmmaker

Several things make this film exceptional. St. Pierre is totally vulnerable.  We follow him through the trials and tribulations of the high-risk operation, several times cancelled as the deadline for survival by surgery draws nearer.  Poupart’s commentary is personal, intimate and honest. Her creative vision is remarkably layered and textured, drawing on footage of St. Pierre’s work as well as his health predicament. One has the impression Poupart is a seasoned documentarian who has developed a visual signature over a period of a few decades. But no – she is a performance artist, involved in theatre and dance shows. To top it all off, this film was made on a very small budget, with the support mainly of the Quebec Arts Council and an artist’s centre called PRIM.

Ten years ago I ran a series of screenings called the Lundis du Doc/Docu-Mondays. It was in collaboration with the Quebec Director’s Association (ARRQ), the French program of the NFB and the Rencontres du Documentaire. It was a lot of work, and I stopped doing it in 2005 at the same time as I started this blog. Now, a group of filmmaker friends want to pick up where I left off. My health doesn’t allow me to continue, but I wish them the best of luck. They gave me a carte blanche for the first evening, that’s why we’ll be screening Poupart’s film. For those of you who live in Montreal, it’s at the ARRQ, MONDAY AUG 6TH, 19 HRS, 5154 ST.HUBERT.

Thank you to Sally Rylett for help with this blog post.

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

Blog Changing Its Skin

Chutes Montapen

The other day I went to see spring arrive at the Montapen falls north of Joliette, an hour and a half’s drive from Montreal.


Dear subscribers and other readers,

As you may or may not have noticed, with the overwhelming influx of messages which afflicts most of us, my blog has not been active for about six weeks – except for an old post which went out the other day. The immediate reason for this was a nasty malware-infection which has now been cleaned up thanks to my friends and colleagues Kim Gjerstad and Barry Greenwald and our hosting service Web Hosting Canada. However, it was time for the blog to change anyway. I am facing some serious health challenges, and will not be able to write as frequently as I used to. There was a time when I attempted to cover most significant developments in the world of documentary as well as presenting some of my own work, posting every week. From now on, I will write less frequently, and will focus on issues which are very close to my heart, or on people with whom I have a special relationship.

One of my upcoming posts will deal with La grande invasion, (the great invasion) a film about the devastating impact of real estate development gone wild in the Laurentians north of Montreal. Also coming soon, an interview with my dear friend Ali Kazimi about 3D and documentary – he is an authority on the subject and we have been fine-tuning this interview for several months.  And I will have a chance to report on the editing of my own film on the troubled youth of Montreal North.
All the best

Thank you to Sally Rylett for helping with this post.


Jacques Leduc and Memories of a Different Era

Jacques Leduc

Jacques Leduc

This past weekend I went to some screenings at the annual Rendez-vous du cinéma québecois and caught up with some documentaries I missed last year. The RVCQ offers a dazzling combination of riches: fiction and docs, animation and multi-media experiences, screenings, workshops, panels and round tables. My friend and constant co-worker Martin Duckworth was impressed by a workshop with Montreal filmmaker Jacques Leduc.

Jacques Leduc began working as a cinematographer and director in 1965. His debut as a director was with the short Documentary Chantal en vrac (1965). Leduc followed this with his first feature fiction film two years later, Nominigue… depuis qu’il existe (1967) and then his first feature documentary film Cap d’espoir (1969). For the next two decades in the 70’s and 80’s, Jacques Leduc continued to work films with the NFB. During this time he collaborated on the NFB film Chronique de la vie quotidienne(1978), a series of 8 films. These varied in length from 10 to 82 minutes, in a cinema vérité style of observing the lives of ordinary people. He left in 1990 to become a freelance filmmaker, soon making the film La vie fantôme (1992) that won the Best Canadian Film at the Montreal World Film Festival. Since then he has been collaborating with other filmmakers both as a director and a cinematographer.

Here is what Martin has to say about the workshop:

Rendez-vous with Jacques Leduc was an hour of nostalgia for the end of a golden era (late seventies) when it was possible to get a film programmed at l’ONF with a proposal of a page and a half, and then take a year to make it. A time when there was a collective conscience among Quebec film-makers of a culture to celebrate. A time when the candid-camera style that started with Lonely Boy had reached its peak in the films of Gilles Groulx and Pierre Perrault, leaving room for blending it in with some of the more controlled “cinematic” style then being introduced in Quebec features–dollies, cranes, long takes. A time when documentary film crews could easily blend with crowds, free of the fear and suspicion that has tied documentary crews these days to the laborious task of getting people to sign release forms. The collectively signed films that were shown prior to the discussion (“Chronique de la vie quotidienne”) were born in the tavern where Film Board personnel went for lunch. Jacques Leduc coordinated ideas, crews, locations and editing, and was grateful for the support given by producer Jacques Bobet to a production without a script or completion schedule. One of our most original directors, Robert Morin (Requiem pour un beau sans-coeur (1992),Quiconque meurt, meurt a douleur (1997), Operation Cobra (2001)), credited the series with inspiring him to start up a video cooperative which has been important to many Quebec filmmakers. Fiction director Louis Bélanger (Nightlight (2003), The Timekeeper (2007), Route 132 (2010)) talked of how moved he was by the respect that Leduc obviously had for his characters. And DOP Pierre Letarte who worked for many years at the NFB stressed that it was not the equipment or the shooting style that gave the series its humane quality, but the close relationships that the crew established with the characters.
Robert Morin

Rober Morin

Louis Belanger

Louis Bélanger

Apocalypse – Making history come alive

Apocalypse Hitler-Hitler © CC&C / Nara
Colourized archive footage of Hitler from Apocalypse, Hitler series © CC&C / Nara



Apocalypse Hitler Series-Hitler

Colourized archival footage of Hitler from Apocalypse, Hitler series © CC&C / DR


Over the last few weeks, I have been watching the terrific French mini-series Apocalypse, Hitler on Télé-Québec. It chronicles the rise of Adolf Hitler until the outbreak of World War II using archival footage, providing some of the back-story to the previous five-part series Apocalypse, World War II, originally broadcast in 2009. One would be justified in saying ‘not another series on WW II or Hitler, please…’ but these series, by Producer/directors Isabelle Clarke and Daniel Costelle (two veterans of historical filmmaking, working as CC&C for Clarke Costelle and Co.) are so well thought out and crafted that they reinvent the telling of history for television.

Daniel Costelle and Isabelle Clarke of CC&C

The archival research is exhaustive, and has been taken in directions not previously explored, including home movies and collections that used to find themselves behind the Iron Curtain. The narration, delivered by the multi-talented actor/director/producer Mathieu Kassovitz, is carefully fine-tuned to interact with the imagery in ways which bring home the meaning and impact of major historical developments for ordinary people. The images have been colourized in a very original way – in fact Daniel Costelle rejects the term “coulourized” and calls the technique “mise en couleurs”, a process which involves measuring grey tones and textures to achieve the right color and involves 3 days of work to process 1 minute of film. Some purists have disapproved of this treatment of archives. Personally I think the procedure is as much artistic license as science, and the result, supported by music by Kenji Kawai, is captivating. Now I’m looking forward to seeing their next effort, L’occupation Intime, on Télé-Québec starting Sunday.

Thanks to Sally Rylett for help with this blog post.

Terrific films at the Rencontres (RIDM)

Position Among the Stars

The Rencontres Internationales du documentaire de Montréal just ended. It was an opportunity to see many truly excellent films. Sad to think that most of them will not be available to audiences here now that the festival is over. Judging from what I heard from friends and colleagues, I missed many of the best ones. But here are some I found excellent.

The most inspiring film to me was Position among the Stars, by Leonard Retel Helmrich. The third film in a trilogy dealing with the life of a poor family in Indonesia, it is spectacularly shot. Retel is now famous for his ingenious and inexpensive accessories allowing for striking and revealing camera movements, capturing life in surprising ways. There are some close-up shots of cockroaches observing the humans which are priceless! But he is also a great storyteller. And I was most impressed by his ability to maintain a coherent story line and dialogues along with the spectacular images.

Another truly captivating and disturbing film was the beautifully made The Tiniest Place, by Tatiana Huezo. It tells the story of one village in El Salvador which was practically erased from the map by the army during the civil war in that country some 20 years ago, at a high cost in human life. Now the survivors have returned and rebuilt the village. But their memories of the brutal repression are terrifying. One of the strongest scenes is from a dark, wet cave where dozens of people hid for a couple of years with their children – until the were found and dragged out. One of the few survivors tells the story. This film got a special jury mention.

Inside Lara Roxx

Among the Canadian and Quebec films I saw, I particularly liked Inside Lara Roxx, a harrowing story of a young woman from Quebec who goes to Los Angeles to perform in porn movies – and becomes infected with the AIDS virus after just a couple of weeks. The film provides a revealing view of that industry, but most of all it’s an emotional journey through stages of despair and hope, with a very touching main character. Another film from the excellent Eyesteel Films production company.

Thanks to Tobi Elliott for her help with the blog.

A McLaren film for the 21st Century: Philippe Baylaucq’s 3D film ORA

The other day I went to see two exceptional films in 3D at the Festival du Nouveau Cinéma in Montreal. Millions of words have been written already about Wim Wenders’ film about the amazing choreographer Pina Bush, and I don’t have anything to add.

But that film was preceded by another extraordinary dance film, Philippe Baylaucq’s ORA. Shot with infrared cameras which capture only the heat of the bodies, with no light source whatsoever, it creates totally original images of translucent bodies dancing to a score by composer Robert Marcel Lepage. Philippe had chosen this project for his two-year residence in the National Film Board of Canada’s French program. I asked him what motivated this choice.

“The project started with the idea of marking the first century of abstract painting. I re-read Kandinsky and wanted to explore that period of painting and set design (Diaghilev, etc) when the human figure was still present in environments that were becoming increasingly abstract.

Initially I was interested in exploring the relationships between the human figure, dance, colour and space. I wished to work again with my friend and colleague dancer-choreographer José Navas and met up with him before applying to the NBF for one of their two year residencies. I was lucky, I got in and began to read up on my subjects. Soon I became aware of what was being done at the NFB StereoLab where I was blown away by what I saw, by what I was shown by Munro Ferguson. It became clear to me then that my two years spent at the Board would have to lead to a film that could be done there and nowhere else. Hence the 3D.

I had a full year of tests before opting for a world technological first: 3D thermal cinematography.

One does not really tell stories in the linear sense with dance. One does however have to be aware that most film spectators expect a storyline of some kind. I started with the title of one of Paul Gauguin’s most famous paintings: Where do we come from, who are we and where are we going? For optimal formal freedom, I wanted my dancers to evolve in a non-naturalistic setting, giving me the chance to be more audacious with gravity, depth, light, texture, movement.

From then on, I was interested in working in the “Norman McLaren” fashion which is to say that the filmmaker is led to his story-line through the interaction with the tools, materials and technologies that he is exploring. Our work with thermal imagery led us to discover very interesting phenomena that spoke of larger themes such as Darwinian evolutionary theory and classical myths such as Prometheus and Narcissus. Slowly, through the fundamental research with the technologies, a story immerged and eventually a film… It was fascinating.

2. A lot of the comments have been about the striking technical achievement, but the structure of the piece, with the music and choreography, must have been a considerable challenge. How did you work with composer, choreographer, dancers?

Working with me on this kind of subject is a trapeze act without a net. From the start, everyone becomes aware of the exploratory aspect of what we are doing. People are generally stimulated by uncharted ground, it gets them out of their routine and forces everyone to be ingenious, to extend further out and test their talents. Again I was blessed with many many inspired collaborators. I worked with people that also work in the documentary field and this is very important because it signifies that they know what it means to be open to chance and aware of what is there, in the world and not strictly on the pages of a script.

The film was loosely written, but my main collaborator José Navas, his magnificent dancers, my DOP Sebastien Gros, my musician Robert Marcel Lepage, my sound designer Benoît Dame, my editor Alain Baril, and many others, everyone was open to the idea that this piece was going to evolve until the very end of the very last stages of post production.

This requires a lot of patience and a very open minded producer. René Chénier did a remarkable job accompanying me through this open ended process. Despite the cutting edge, high-tech aspect of our novel technology, we tried to keep our feet on the ground and not get swept away by the myriad possibilities that both the camera and postproduction computer input might provide us. We tried to never lose sight of the organic, human aspects of our on screen subjects: the dancers. They are all that we see as they at once both the subjects and the light sources that define the subjects: they carry the light, they are the light.

The film is probably one of the very first films to have ever been shot without a single light source: no fire, no sun, no electricity; only heat, the heat of the body, biological light, the light of living things, the light of life itself.

Thanks to Tobi Elliott for her help with the blog.


Uncovering the hidden history of the Roma in the Holocaust

Ceija Stojka

Going to the Montreal World Film Festival is a hit-and miss kind of affair. One easily has the impression there is no serious programming effort, it seems like anything goes, and screening some of the films gives you a strong impression nothing would ever be turned down. But there are also some excellent films.

At the most recent edition went to see a couple of documentaries which had interesting subject matter but which seemed unfinished. But I also saw one really excellent doc, A People Uncounted, produced by a team of filmmakers which includes several children or grandchildren of Holocaust survivors, most of them Jewish, at Urbinder films.

Shot in eleven countries, it tells the horrific story of the Roma – often known as Gypsies – as little-known victims of the nazi death camps. I found it to be a very compelling and very unusual film, sort of a hybrid between an information-heavy current affairs doc and a very sophisticated beautifully shot film. Another peculiarity about this film is that it was made with – anonymous – private money.

One thing about the film really bothered me, as you’ll find out in my second question to the director Aaron Yeger, who had this to say:

About the style and structure of the film, I agree that it is not conventional. The film does have a dramatic story arch with three acts, however the arch doesn’t follow any particular person or event, but rather the experience of an entire people, the Roma. All the various people who appear in the film collectively represent that experience.

With that in mind, the structure is patterned more after a scripted drama than most documentaries, and it somewhat epic in scope. The first act lays out who the Roma are, both in terms of fact and fiction and shows how they are seen and represented. The second act jumps back in time to the Holocaust to explain by way of both the personal and historical/factual how they were murdered in that genocide. The third act takes us back to the recent past and to the present to explain how the present day situation for the Roma, which is rife with persecution, is a reflection of what happened during the Holocaust. The arch rises and falls with the level of drama and nature of the material, rather than the experience of one person or event in particular.

… We wanted to show what happened to the Romani people during the Holocaust, what’s happening to them in present day, the connection between the two, and what this says about humanity and racism in general. And to make matters more complicated, so little is known about the Roma in general audiences that we also needed to show who they are and what they are not.

So in the end it is a very diverse array of content with a lot of people and a lot of places and topics of exploration, but still with the goal of making the experience as cinematic as possible. It’s a film with one foot in education and the other in cinema and popular culture.

Director Aaron Yeger

Magnus: You go out of your way to be inclusive, to make links between the experience of Jews and Roma, to refer to other experiences of discrimination and genocide… and yet there (as far as I remember) not a single reference to the gays who were also targeted for extermination by the nazis and sent to the death camps. Given the extremely thought-through inclusiveness of the whole film, this cannot be an accident. (I did notice the little line in the end credits about people whose story was covered…)

Part of our goal was to make a film that elevates the Roma from a footnote in Holocaust history to a place of dignity. The point of the film was to focus on the Romani experience in the Holocaust and present day. Having said that, it’s impossible to show their experience in the Holocaust without drawing connections to the Jewish experience. This is partly because most people when they hear “Holocaust” think of the Jewish experience, so it’s pertinent to note the similarities in the style of the various acts of genocide and the Nazi rhetoric (such as that many Nazi policy statements referred to the [final solution of the Jewish and Gypsy question/problem] together in the same sentence.

The other reason is that organically, it came up time and time again in our travels and meeting lots of Roma that many of them feel a kinship and solidarity with Jews in the aftermath of the Holocaust.

We also chose to relate the present day civil rights struggles of the Roma to the African-American civil rights movement in the past, for the purpose of hoping to inspire people today to change things for the better. The similarities are startling. Roma in present day Europe often suffer from school segregation, lack of access to jobs and institutionalized racism, as well as openly pejorative rhetoric in the political and media mainstream. They are stereotyped as criminals who are unwilling to work. And they were slaves in the past, emancipated at approximately the same time as African Americans.

I agree that telling the story of the genocide of gays, as well as many other groups is very important, which is why there is that statement at the end of the film. But we didn’t want to make anyone into a footnote in this film. Gays and other groups murdered also deserve the dignity of a film dedicated to their suffering and I would like to see that film made.

Thanks to Tobi Elliott for her help with the blog.

Rithy Panh

From Rithy Pahn's film Le Papier ne peut pas envelopper la braise

I recently had the opportunity to hear the French-educated Cambodian filmmaker Rithy Panh speak at the Cinemathèque Québecoise. The occasion was a retrospective of his very impressive work.

I first saw one of his films in 2000, when we both had films in competition at the Cinéma du Réel festival at Beaubourg in Paris. His film The Land of Wandering Souls, about the laying of optical cables through Cambodia, featured the encounter beteen modern globalized technology and medieval working conditions. It very deservedly took home the main award.

Unlike his own parents who died of starvation in a camp, Panh is a survivor of the Khmer Rouge genocide of the early ‘70’s. His entire oeuvre is marked by varying degrees of sadness and despair about the human condition.

Rithy Panh

The same goes for his own discourse: he speaks of ‘un travail de mémoire’ – not a duty to remember, but a choice – one could choose to forget. It’s just work to be done, if you choose to do it. He speaks as if there was nowhere to hide and no use pretending.

The filmmaker also needs to face up to his dilemmas: there is an obvious risk of voyeurism, of taking advantage of people. Like every other activity, it’s fragile and perilous.

This time I was particularly struck by Panh’s 2007 film Le Papier ne peut pas envelopper la braise, about a group of young female prostitutes who share a house in Phnom Penh. The film is unbelievably sad, as the young women grapple with illness, unwanted pregnancies, violence and poverty.

The aesthetics of the film are striking: it’s all shot ‘verite’ in the sense that Panh just observes and captures moments of their life. But at the same time every image is carefully crafted, with just the right angle and framing.

How did he achieve this? I wondered. He explained that it was all a matter of patience. Being there for many months, shooting the same kinds of scenes many times over, and carefully selecting just the right shots – out of 300 hours of rushes – in the editing.

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.