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.

The paradoxes that define us

Queen Christina of Sweden

I’m an outdoors person, and the only thing that reconciles me to a gym is… podcasts! This time of the year, while waiting for more snow, I listen a lot to radio programs, from Radio-Canada, the BBC and Democracy Now in particular.

Over the last few weeks, I noted a few very interesting comments about what defines us: not our so-called characteristics as much as our contradictions.

On the excellent BBC Film Programme, I heard an interview with filmmaker Carol Morley, who previously made an autobiographical film called The Alcohol Years. She has just completed a film about a 38-year old woman who was found in her London flat in 2003, three years after she died. Morley said this about her subject, Joyce Carol Vincent, and her film Dreams of a Life:

All lives are full of contradictions… if you look at Citizen Kane at the beginning, you look at this idea of the last word that someone uttered – which was obviously ‘Rosebud’ – and in Citizen Kane there are a series of interviews which contradict each other. You try to piece together a jigsaw puzzle of a man’s life through contradictory evidence… And I think all our lives are like that.

One: we present ourselves differently to different people and and, two: people are going to define us through their own eyes. I never wanted to ease out those differences, I wanted to make sure that these different views of Joyce were heard. I wanted to present the evidence that she had been in peoples lives and she had mattered.”

Quebec playright Michel Marc Bouchard, whose play ‘Les Félouettes’ was the basis for John Greyson’s film Lilies, is working on a play about Christina of Sweden, after finishing a screen play about her. Referred to just as Queen Christina in my native Sweden, she was very unorthodox and even non-conformist woman for her era, the 17th Century.

In an interview on Radio-Canada Bouchard said (my translation):

“I like characters who are paradoxical, because our paradoxes define us, they confront each other within ourselves every single day.”

I think this is a very profound statement, not just for understanding oneself, but also for making films.

And Bouchard added, again with reference to Queen Christina:

“Of course, for making a movie, the soul of the character has to touch us, not just make us feel like we’re watching a weird creature.”

Thanks to Tobi Elliott for her help with the blog.

The Sprinkler Sprinkled – Interviewing Marc Glassman

Marc Glassman at the site of his (now-closed) bookstore "Pages" - courtesy of BlogTO.com

L’arroseur arrosé was the title of the 1895 Louis Lumière film which qualifies as the first-ever comedy and first-ever fiction film. The idea of the ‘Sprinkler Sprinkled’ has wide currency in French, but much less so in English. Nonetheless it applies this week on this blog to Marc Glassman, editor of POV Magazine, the excellent quarterly on documentary production.

Marc is also known as the editor of Montage and the moderator of many cultural events. (Plus, he used to own the best bookstore in Toronto, Pages, sadly missed.) Marc’s knowledge of cinema, literature and music is encyclopaedic.

I was recently interviewed by Marc for POV magazine – the interview appears in the current issue (you can also download it from my website here, just click on “POV interview” on bottom left). I was very impressed by Marc’s thoroughness: he leaves no stone unturned, even if the resulting interview has to be radically edited before publication.

So I thought I’d turn the tables and ask him about his interviewing techniques and experiences:

MG: I prepare a lot before I do a big interview. Generally, my interviews are either with filmmakers or authors, so I’ll go over bibliographies and filmographies in detail and, if I can, look again at a film or a book to remind me, in an emotional way, about their style and impact.

I used to prepare many questions but now I just think of points that I’d like to have discussed.

Tone is essential: I want the interviewee to be at ease, confident in my approach. When possible, I try to get more time than usually granted for interviews. I feel that the first ten minutes of any interview with a cultural figure is the same: the new work (whether it’s a film or a book or an installation) is hyped and certain specific “colourful” stories are told about difficult or funny moments in the creation of the piece. It’s only when you get time that you can go beneath the surface and find out what’s really happened to your interviewee.

The main thing? Listening! Patrick Watson, a brilliant interviewer, told me that. He said, “Listen to what someone is telling, and respond. Have a conversation.” That’s the key to a fine interview.

MI: Which were the most interesting interviewing experiences ?

Interviewing Jonas Gwangwa and other members of South African cultural sector of the ANC, Amandla!, when they visited Toronto on an anti-apartheid tour of Canada in the mid-80s. I recorded a concert, conducted multiple interviews and cut it all together into a 90 minute radio doc for Ryerson’s community channel, CKLN-FM. (To say I was overly ambitious is an understatement but I learned a lot and some people claimed to like it.)

Interviewing Spalding Gray, the actor and author. He was absolutely brilliant: funny and perceptive. I think I asked three questions in an hour.

Interviewing Quentin Tarantino, when he was at Toronto’s then Festival of Festivals with Reservoir Dogs. The energy coming off the man was indescribable. He was practically leaping off the walls with excitement.

Interviewing Nettie Wild, who is a truly great raconteur. She can hold you spellbound for an hour as she recounts story upon story. One of her doc friends in Vancouver should interview Nettie, film it, and cut it into a piece. Heck, I should do it!

MI: How does POV fit in with your other activities ?

The doc bug bit me when I was in my early twenties. At McGill, my film professor was John Grierson and he influenced me in profound ways, making me think long and hard about the effects media has on society—and what makes a good documentary. My love of literature and the arts in general derailed me from making docs the only focus in my working life, but it’s always one of my great loves. I’ve worked on docs, programmed docs, written and edited articles on docs and now I teach doc history at Ryerson.

Presently, I am the artistic director of a literary programme called This is not a Reading Series, which also features music and film and theatre; edit POV and the Directors Guild’s magazine Montage, broadcast film reviews for a local station, Classical 96.3 FM and expect to be back at Ryerson later in 2012. Docs are a major part of my life but I love balancing it with other artistic disciplines and pursuits.

Thanks to Tobi Elliott for help with this blog.

Alter-Cine Foundation supports filmmakers in the South

From the film " Sands of the Skei Queen"
One of the main characters of Sands of the Skei Queen, Nonhle (right) at a protest.

A few weeks ago I participated in the selection committee for the Alter-Cine Foundation which lends modest but sometimes crucial support to filmmakers in Southern countries. The foundations criteria specify that it favours projects which support human rights and give a voice to people who are powerless or victimized. And of course projects which have a creative edge.

Over the ten years of its existence, the foundation has given grants of $5,000 or $10,000 to some 32 film projects in Latin America, Asia and Africa. Many of these films have had a successful career in festivals. This year, 67 projects were submitted from 35 countries. In the end, we decided to support three projects.

The first grant of $10,000 was awarded to South African filmmaker Ryley Grunenwald for her project Sands of the Skei Queen. The film will tell the story of the Mpondo community to defend its ancestral lands, cultural identity and way of life in the face of a giant titanium mining project. Corruption and intimidation by a multinational with the complicity of the South African government are part of the dramatic story.

The second grant of $5,000 went to the Indian filmmaker Fahad Mustafa for his project Powerless. It’s a look at the many different facets of the electricity crisis in Kanpur, India’s leather capital, which experiences frequent power cuts and deadly accidents as citizens climb electricity poles to connect cables of their own to the grid. It shows the energy crisis in a third world city in all its complexity and promises to be a terrific film. We also supported a third film which is being shot in difficult circumstances. For this reason, the author and title cannot be mentioned at this time.

To contribute to the Alter-Cine Foundation and allow it to continue supporting films in Southern countries, go to this site. The Alter-Cine Foundation was started in memory of my friend and colleague Yvan Patry, who passed away in 1999. It is run by his life partner Danièle Lacourse, also a good friend and ally. Together the couple produced and directed numerous films and television reports about human rights issues in some of the toughest places on the planet.

Thanks to Tobi Elliott for her help with the blog.

Terrific Wapikoni mobile benefit

Wapikoni mobile benefit - Samian

A few days ago I went to a terrific benefit concert for Wapikoni mobile at Club Soda in downtown Montreal. Some great artists, including Anishnabe rapper Samian, Inuit singer-songwriter Elisapie Isaac, singer-songwriter Richard Séguin and the immensely popular group Loco Locass put on a great show. (Photo by Guy Labissionnaire.)

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.

Wapikoni Mobile benefit - Manon Barbeau

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.”

Thanks to Tobi Elliott for her help with the blog.

Dix fois dix, by Jennifer Alleyn

Danseuse - Otto Dix

I’ve always been fascinated by paintings and music from Germany’s inter-war Weimar period. My friend Jennifer Alleyn has created a film on one of the most representative artists of that period, Otto Dix. (View the trailer here.) The film came out earlier this month in Montreal and Quebec City (see original post – in French – here.)

Jennifer is the daughter of painter Edmund Alleyn, the subject of her excellent film, L’Atelier de mon père. In her latest film, Jennifer uses a Dix painting rediscovered in Montreal as a starting point to explore the artist’s work. Inspired by Nietzsche and his experiences as a soldier in the First World War, as well as the economic and political crisis that would lead to the rise of Nazism, Dix did not shy away from depicting harsh realities such as war and prostitution. In Jennifer’s words:

Jennifer Alleyn2

“After L’Atelier de mon père, I was looking for a compelling topic. I really wondered what I could work on next. I wanted to feel the same certainty, the same strong connection with a subject. In the world of Otto Dix, I found difficult realities that are still all-too present, but I also found elements of mystery that completely fascinated me.

“It was during an art history class that I discovered Otto Dix’s Portrait of the Lawyer Hugo Simons, 1925, which is part of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts collection. The painting had a strong effect on me. I found it at once unsettling and captivating. It was that paradoxical sense of horror and beauty, terror and attraction that made me want to explore further.

“I then found out that the MMFA was planning a major exhibition of Dix’s work. I figured if I got the go-ahead to film the paintings, the preparations for the exhibition and the hanging of his works, it would make for a dynamic and interesting introduction to a film. The project expanded beyond the exhibition when I decided to include episodes from Dix’s life, and visited the family home in Hemmenhoffen and a Berlin gallery.

FIFA - Peter Duschenes avec le portrait l’avocat Hugo Simons (1925)

“The story behind the Portrait of Lawyer Hugo Simons, 1925 was like something out of a novel: the Jewish lawyer’s trial and escape to Canada, his regular correspondence for more than 20 years with Otto Dix . . . I felt the work had a strong emotional charge. Like an archaeologist, I headed off in search of the fertile soil that gives works their aura of mystery, the layers of history and human life that are laid down over time.

“It was challenging to trace the path of a man who had killed (Dix was a soldier in 1914 and again in 1945). His work reflects traumatic experiences that were to haunt him for the rest of his life. I was attracted by his strength and courage. Branded a degenerate artist by the Nazis, he never stopped painting or portraying the horrors he’d witnessed. In my research, I came across this phrase by Nietzsche: “Art is given to us to prevent us dying of truth.” I knew that Dix was very fond of Nietzsche’s philosophy, and this phrase kept coming back to me, guiding my film. I believe it’s key to understanding Dix’s work.

“I think I needed to shift my focus, to experience a more raw and shocking type of painting.

ABOUT THE FILM: “It’s very powerful. Rhythmic. Unexpected. Profound. Moving. Surprising.” Nancy Huston

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.

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.

Dix fois Dix de Jennifer Alleyn

Danseuse - Otto Dix

J’ai toujours été fasciné par la peinture et la musique de la République de Weimar, la période d’entre les deux guerres mondiales en Allemagne. Mon amie Jennifer Alleyn a un film sur un des artistes le plus représentatifs de cette période, Otto Dix, et le film prend l’affiche cette semaine à Montréal et à Québec. C’est un film en dix tableaus, d’où le titre Dix fois Dix.

Jennifer est la fille du peintre Edmund Alleyn sur lequel elle a fait un excellent film, ‘L’Atelier de mon père’. Après la sortie de ce film, l’histoire d’un tableau de Dix retrouvé à Montréal l’a mis sur la piste de ce nouveau film. Inspiré par Nietszche et par sa propre expérience en tant que soldat dans la première guerre mondiale, et par ce contexte de crise économique et politique qui allait mener à la montée du nazisme, Dix confronte les sujets les plus durs : la guerre, la prostitution.

Jennifer raconte :

Jennifer Alleyn2

Après ‘L’atelier de mon père’, il me fallait un sujet fort. En fait, je me demandais vraiment ce que je pouvais faire après. J’attendais de retrouver la même certitude, un lien très fort au sujet. L’univers d’Otto Dix, en plus de dépeindre des réalités dures et malheureusement criantes d’actualité (la guerre, la prostitution), comportait des aspects de mystère qui m’ont happée complètement. Pour me distraire, je suivais un cours d’histoire de l’art et c’est là que j’ai découvert le Portrait de l’avocat Hugo Simons,1925 d’ Otto Dix, qui est dans la collection du MBAM.

Ce tableau a eu beaucoup d’effet sur moi. Il m’inquiétait et m’envoûtait à la fois. C’est ce sentiment paradoxal, d’horreur et de beauté, de frayeur et d’attrait, qui m’a donné le goût de creuser l’oeuvre.

J’ai alors appris qu’une grande exposition allait se poser à Montréal, au MBAM et me suis dit que si j’obtenais la permission de filmer les tableaux, la création de l’exposition, l’accrochage, j’avais une porte d’entrée dynamique et cinématographique. Puis l’idée de greffer des épisodes de la vie de l’artiste, par des incursions dans ses lieux (maison de famille à Hemmenhoffen, Galerie à Berlin, etc..) ont fait sortir le film des murs du Musée.

FIFA - Peter Duschenes avec le portrait l’avocat Hugo Simons (1925)

L’histoire du Portrait de l’avocat Hugo Simons, 1925, était tellement romanesque, avec ce procès et la fuite de l’avocat juif vers le Canada, la correspondance soutenue sur plus de vingt ans entre l’artiste et l’avocat, m’ont convaincu qu’il y avait, derrière, tout une charge émotionnelle qui enrichissait l’oeuvre. Comme une archéologue, je suis partie à la recherche de ce terreau fertile qui donne aux oeuvres cet aura de mystère, bâti par le temps, les mouvements de l’Histoire, la vie humaine.

Il y avait un certain défi à explorer la trajectoire d’un homme qui a tué (Dix était soldat en 1914 et encore en 1945) et son oeuvre fait état des traumatismes qui l’ont poursuivis toute sa vie. J’ai été attirée par la force, le courage qui émanait de son parcours. Considéré comme un artiste dégénéré par les Nazis, il n’a pourtant jamais cessé de peindre. De dire et de montrer les horreurs dont il avait été témoin.

Dans mes recherches, je suis tombée sur cette phrase de Nietszche : “L’art nous est donné pour nous empêcher de mourir de la vérité”. Sachant que Dix avait été très touché par la philosophie de Nietzsche, cette phrase qui a trotté dans mon esprit pendant un an et guidé mon film. Je crois qu’elle offre une vrai clé pour comprendre l’oeuvre de Dix.

J’avais je crois besoin de me dépayser mentalement, me confronter à un univers plus cru, plus choquant de la peinture.


‘Dix fois Dix – un portrait du peintre allemand Otto Dix’ prend l’affiche du cinéma Beaubien à Montréal et du cinéma Le Clap à Québec avec en avant programme, La vie imaginée de Jacques Monory, un autre film de la réalisatrice Jennifer Alleyn. Du 4 au 10 nov. 2011

” C’est très fort. Rythmé. Inattendu. Profond. Émouvant. Surprenant.” – Nancy Huston

Voir la bande-annonce.

Lauréat du “Prix tremplin pour le monde Artv” – FIFA 2011.

Sélection officielle Pessac (France) – Festival international du Film Francophone en Acadie 2011