Magnus would have felt honoured by the outpouring of praise from friends and colleagues on his blog, on his Facebook page, on the Doc list serv, and in the media. He was a public kind of guy, sharing not only his insights into documentary practice and his love for film in general, but also his more personal life, including the last 5 years as he faced the challenges of illness.
Those five years were incredibly productive, despite the difficult context for documentary filmmaking. His work reached a new maturity and his last film, Ma vie réelle, could well be seen as one of his best.
While he knew the cancer that reared its ugly head back in 2007 might return, it was only in the last 6 months that he really began to feel its effects. There were the twice or 3 times yearly scans to deal with and the worry of leaving his family and a young daughter, but otherwise he was a happy and fulfilled human being until the end, living life to the fullest, aware of every precious minute.
Nowhere was that more evident than in the fréquent forays he made onto Quebec’s rivers, whenever he could find even a few days, often enticing colleagues away from their desks and editing rooms.
We too, his family, have been consoled in our loss by the knowledge that Magnus is being remembered, his work being critically examined, tributes being planned and a filmmaking award being set up in his name.
This blog, which Magnus began 5 years ago seems a fitting place to post some of the more personal letters and tributes from friends and colleagues, those which will never make it into newspaper or academic articles. They reveal the whole person behind the filmmaker, the friendships he valued, the passionate, crazy guy he was.
Marc Glassman, editor of POV magazine, had conducted an extensive career interview with Magnus about six months ago.
One word comes to mind when I think of Magnus: integrity. As an artist, as a family man, as a friend, he was always full value. He never let himself—or anyone else—down.
He came to documentary out of a profound desire to expose injustices in the world. Magnus had a deep sense of what’s right and wrong and he used his camera to bring to light the causes and concerns of at-risk youths in Montreal North, Canada’s Native peoples and the homeless in city cores. He was fearless, taking on institutions ranging from McDonald’s to the Quebec government.
Magnus’ cinema became more personal as he matured as a filmmaker. The wonderful duo in Art in Action, the feisty Choir Boys and the amazing Raging Grannies came to life under Magnus’ quiet and compassionate gaze. Without losing a sense of the political, Magnus created indelible portraits of people he came to know and respect.
I’ve been lucky enough to spend time with Magnus and his wonderful family—-Jocelyne and Bethiele in Montreal and Anna in Toronto. What’s struck me is that Magnus was ever present, participating to the fullest in his personal life as he did in his work as a documentarian. Whether it was riding his bike up the mountain three times a week or keeping an insightful and intelligent doc blog or having a dinner with family and friends, Magnus did it with commitment and style. His life and work is an inspiration to us all.
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.
I find Samian’s lyrics and performance extremely powerful. Normally one would say that art benefits from being subtle, exploring nuances and transposing its vision to something loftier than straight discourse. But Samian just calls a spade a spade, denouncing the conditions in aboriginal communities and government hypocrisy with total directness and a great deal of panache. And it works, artistically as well as editorially.
I have written about Wapikoni mobile before: it’s a really important project, praiseworthy even, a mobile video and music production studio for young aboriginal people. It has been in operation since 2004, allowing youth on reserves in Quebec to produce hundreds of short videos, many of them shown in festivals here and abroad. It’s an essential means of self-expression for young people who often face despair.
But Wapikoni mobile was hit hard by cutbacks by the federal Human Resources Department, losing $490,000, or half its funding, last year. Because of this, it was only able to take its mobile studios to seven communities rather than the regular fifteen last year. This was a huge disappointment to aboriginal youths who had been counting on its presence. As we all know, positive and inspiring experiences are badly needed in First Nations communities in Canada, and these federal cutbacks are incomprehensible. Perhaps paying for less portraits of the Queen, or cancelling the order for just one fighter jet would have allowed this valuable program to go on as before.
The founder of Wapikoni mobile, Manon Barbeau, was celebrated last night, as she vowed to carry on the fight. She told me the project still has funding from Health Canada, Quebec’s Secretariat of Aboriginal Affairs, and some band councils such as that of Chisasibi, a Cree community much affected by hydro development. Manon told me Wapikoni mobile is far from dead, and has many plans, including musical training by professional musicians.
“It’s just too bad that the cutbacks have hit the real heart of the project, the month-long workshops in fifteen communities. This event will help us recover some precious ground.”
Le contexte de production du documentaire est difficile, les fenêtres de diffusion et opportunités de financement se font rares. Dans ce contexte, les bourses de carrière du CALQ sont fort apprécieés. Nous sommes honorés d’avoir l’occasion de rendre hommage à Garry, un collègue inspirant et prolifique. J’ai l’impression que chaque année il sort un nouveau film, film qui raconte toujours une histoire touchante qui nous fait réfléchir sur la condition humaine.
À la fin des années 80, quand je suis arrivée à Montréal de Toronto, j’ai très vite entendu parler de Gary, ce grand cinéaste anglophone qui a exploré toute la richesse culturelle du Québec. Enraciné dans la culture anglophone et la communauté juive, Gary est aussi parfaitement bilingue et amoureux de la culture francophone de Montréal. En tant que cinéaste engagé, Gary a été un modèle pour moi.
Durant trente années, Garry a documenté des rencontres passionnantes entre des individus qui représentent différentes communautés, différentes sensibilités et différents points de vue. Des individus qui – comme Garry lui-même – tentent de construire des ponts et trouver un terrain commun, un langage commun.
Ces rencontres, il les documente toujours avec beaucoup de respect, avec de la compassion, avec un sens de l’humour. Ses films nous font découvrir des voisins que nous ne connaissions pas, ou pas asssez, et de comprendre les défis auxquels ils font face.
Je trouve ses films sur les gens qui sont gravement malades et sur les gens qui tentent de les aider maintenir une dignité et à donner un sens à la vie très touchants.
Les films de Garry sont appréciés sur les écrans, grands ou petits, ici et ailleurs. Ils enrichissent notre mémoire collective, et demeurent pertinentes pour des années, voir des décennies, après leur sortie.
Garry s’est intéressé dans ses films à des communautés, à des individus en transition et à des artistes. Des films qui sont merveilleux.
Il a aussi fait vivre à l’écran la communauté juive du Québec dans toute sa diversité. Dans Bonjour! Shalom!, il a posé un regard sur les rapports parfois tendus, parfois harmonieux entre les juifs hassidiques et leurs voisins francophones et non religieux. Ma chère Clara raconte une histoire d’amour juive qui se déroule pendant la deuxième guerre mondiale à Montréal, en Pologne et en Russie.
Chez Schwartznous fait pénétrer dans l’univers multiethnique des personnages et Socalled, le film, nous fait découvrir un artiste qui fusionne la musique traditionnelle klezmer, le hiphop et le funk. À plusieurs reprises, la communauté juive de Montréal a honoré Garry pour son travail et pour sa contribution humaniste.
En yiddish, une autre langue que Gary possède, on dirait de lui qu’il est un véritable « mensch », c’est à dire un être humain d’exception.Toutes mes félicitations Gary.
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.
MAGNUS: 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 Clarais a Jewish story of love and longing set in Montreal, Poland and Russia during the Second World War. InChez Schwartzour appetites are whetted as we follow a delightful melting pot of characters, and The Socalled Moviebrings 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.
This past weekend I attended a memorial service for Guy Tremblay, a sometimes-homeless singer and volunteer worker affectionately known as ‘Ti-Guy’ in the shelters and soup kitchens in downtown Montreal.
The service, at the Notre Dame des Lourdes chapel on St. Catherine street East was warm and unpretentious, marked by the social context of an area that has a lot of marginalized people. The testimonies to Guy were touching, describing him very candidly as a sometimes-manipulative guy with addiction problems, but sensitive, generous and talented.
Guy was one of the main characters in my film Les Enfants de Choeur/The Choir Boys, about Montreal’s homeless choir, La Chorale de l’Accueil Bonneau, released about ten years ago. My terrific editor Louise Côté really liked Guy, and all his good and not-so-good sides were much in evidence in the film. People sometimes ask me – with a critical tone in their voice – why I included a scene were Guy, under the influence, pointedly tells me “Magnus, if you film me now I will…” He didn’t say #*$#@#, but it’s clear what he meant. Well, we showed him the fine cut, and he graciously accepted it without requesting any changes.
Guy was 47 when he died, one week after participating in his last concert. The homeless choir has come back to life, under the name ‘La Chorale sous les étoiles,’ the Choir under the Stars. They sang at the service – not a funeral, because Ti-Guy had been buried already in his hometown of St. Siméon.
But another big influence was undoubtedly my mother Kerstin, who passed away a year ago. This is an excerpt from a short text I wrote about her for the funeral. For those of you who have seen my films – or who read my blog – the connections to my work are pretty obvious.
Kerstin was a renaissance person, and a citizen of the world. The former in the sense that she was intensely interested in everything: family and society, nature and culture; cooking just as much as history and philosophy; the trees outside the window as much as religion and literature.
To her everyday life she gave a sense of style and elegance, but that was only part of her reality, because culture was her life. Sometimes she reminded me of my experiences with some Native Americans who don’t make a hard distinction between reality and myth – for them, the two merge into one universe where the mythological creatures are just as real as the neighbours in the village.
Kerstin’s world was largely populated by artists and authors, composers and actors – some of whom she had actually met and known personally – but actually the others seemed just as real, and her relationship to them was just as meaningful. Faced with some day-to-day problem she was just as content to discuss it with Herman Hesse or Susan Sontag, as with a friend or family member.
She also had very vivid memories of people she had met, and kept them alive in her memory. In this way, she was never alone, although of course she lived by herself since we were children. And we must not forget the music: it was an important part of her world. That she should have chosen the music for her funeral is perfectly logical, and when you listen to it, Bach and psalms, folk and popular music, it reminds you of the range of her interests.
She was a citizen of the world in at least two ways. Her cultural interests knew no borders. She had vivid memories from her many trips abroad. She read in English and French, and until her last months she was still looking up words and learning new expressions. She read other literature in translation. It was always fun to talk to her when the Royal Swedish Academy had made its decision for the Nobel Prize. It was rare that they would decide on an author with whose work Kerstin was not familiar, and she always had her opinion about their choice.
She also followed world politics, not just with interest but with a constant concern for the best ways to solve problems and resolve issues. I was amazed that she never tired of this or gave up. Until her last weeks, even in the hospital, she wanted her daily paper. It was important for her to keep track of new developments and to make up her mind about them. Every conversation with Kerstin, even on the phone, moved quickly from family matters to culture and world politics.
Kerstin’s profession involved working with children, usually children with learning difficulties. In her archives, many folders and binders with course plans, certificates and childrens’ drawings attest to the quality of her work in this domain. Other teachers who worked with her saw her as an example.
As adults, many of her former students have spoken of her particular way of taking children seriously. Just one example: my older daughter Anna once said to me: “Can you believe this, Grandma just asked me if hip hop music is progressive. How old is she anyway?” Well, she was in her mid-seventies at the time, and even at that age she could make the rest of us feel intellectually lazy.
I will always think of Kerstin with gratitude and admiration.
The film has all the characteristics of a Longinotto documentary: it has amazing access to intimate situations, it deals with the rights of women, it’s tough and uncompromising, and doesn’t stay away from contradictions and difficulties. In this case, the main character is admirable, but Longinotto doesn’t idealize her, and at one point the film clearly shows her making a selfish and morally questionable choice which has serious consequences for a young woman who she has taken under her wing. The film is beautifully shot by the director herself.
I went to hear Longinotto speak at a workshop at Hot Docslast spring. I was very impressed by her modest and unassuming presentation. What struck me the most was her combination of caring for her subjects but her incredible tough-mindedness. She is so close to the characters that they will, it seems, let her film just about anything, no matter how hard it is.
And she does – even when the scenes are almost unbearable to watch, as in a famous scene from a female genital mutilation in Africa. Life is often unbelievably hard for women in ‘Third world’ countries, and Longinotto is determined to show it – but always from the perspective of people who are working to change the situation. It’s an attitude which seems to be rooted in her own harsh childhood experience as a homeless orphan, and her feeling that filmmaking “saved her life.”
I come from a family of teachers and the artists. From the former, in particular my mother Kerstin and her father Effe, I learned about thevalue of intellectual curiosity and learning. From the artists I feel I learned not just about aesthetics, but also about the value of a creative interpretation of the world around you.
And most of all an attitude: when you have something to do, do it. When you have something to say, say it. Even if it isn’t what’s popular at the moment, even if it isn’t easy, even if it costs you a lot.
I see myself more as an artisan than an artist, but that heritage is precious. I think of it when people look at my sometimes almost-impossible five- or six-year projects and tell me that in my place, they might have given up.
My father Arne Isacsson founded an art school, Gerlesborgsskolan, on the Swedish Atlantic coast in 1944. It soon operated summer courses in Provence and a division in Stockholm, and it soon grew to become the biggest private art school in Scandinavia.
When I was young my dad was mostly busy running the school, but since he retired some twenty years ago he has had more time to devote to his own art. Working mainly in aquarelle, he has pioneered new techniques, notably with laminates of watercolours, which make it possible to produce large-scale works for public installations.
Last year, he completed two “watercolour sculptures” together with the sculptor Pål Svensson. Totally original works, they stand several meters high and look out over the ocean. If I had lived in Sweden and not in Canada, I would have made a film about their joint creative process.
Still innovating, at the age of 93, my father really is an inspiration!
Arne’s wife Margareta Blomberg is also an artist, often they exhibit together. My sister Eva, also an artist on the Swedish west coast, combines the heritage of Arne and my uncle Torsten Renqvist in sensitive drawings and more conceptual collages.