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.

Making soup on a nail


For the last two years, I have been working on a film about a man who can be described as a footnote to history, Honoré Joseph Jaxon, alias William Henry Jackson.

An enigmatic figure, his life was full of drama. He admired the Métis and participated in the Northwest Rebellion of 1885, acting as a secretary to Louis Riel. While Riel was hanged for treason, our man was declared insane and let go. He escaped the insane asylum and found himself – less than a year later – involved with the labour movement in Chicago, the fastest-growing industrial city in the U.S.

When anarchist leaders were accused of causing the Haymarket Riot of 1886 – the events which led to the choice of the 1st of May for the annual socialist labour march – he took their defence. Again, his associates were hanged.

Jaxon was an impostor, declaring himself to be a Métis when he was actually born William Henry Jackson of an Ontario methodist family. But he was a visionary, imagining and fighting for a just multicultural society. He ended his days in New York City, where he was evicted from a basement apartment with his huge collection of archives at age 91. He died only a few weeks later.

Jaxon’s story is little known, but Calgary historian Donald Smith has written a terrific book about him, published by Coteau books. Also, Quebec anthropologist and radio host Serge Bouchard did an excellent radio program about him. My own knowledge of Jaxon goes back to the seventies, when I made a series of radio programs about the U.S. labour movement, notably with the help of my friend Pat Quinn, then the Chief archivist at Northwestern University in Evanston/Chicago.

There are of course no moving images of Jaxon, and only a dozen photos. That’s why I say this project is like ‘making soup on a nail,’ recalling an old Scandinavian folk tale about a vagrant who gets himself invited to stay overnight at farm houses by offering to make soup with a nail. ‘If we can just add a little piece of potato, this will be even better….’ You get the idea.

My partners in crime in this undertaking are, among others, scriptwriter Peter Haynes and animator Philippe Vaucher. Here is one of Philippe’s images.


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.

Hot Docs: ‘Position among the Stars’

I wasn’t at the Hot Docs festival in Toronto this year, because I’m in production. But my colleague Tobi Elliott, the writer and filmmaker who helps me with this blog was there, and picked this film to write about. Over to Tobi:

You won’t find a stronger documentary that so beautifully brings out Indonesia’s churning social and religious questions than Position among the Stars (Stand van de Sterren), which screened recently at Toronto’s Hot Docs festival. Earlier this year the film took home the Best Feature-length Documentary at IDFA and a World Cinema Special Jury Prize at the Sundance festival.

Directed and shot by Dutch filmmaker Leonard Retel Helmrich, it’s the concluding film in a trilogy following a poor family living through modern-day Indonesia’s tumultuous decade of change. (His first two films The Eye of the Day and Shape of the Moon won the Joris Ivens Award IDFA – 2004, and the World Cinema Documentary Grand Jury Prize at Sundance – 2005.)

Position among the Stars continues Helmrich’s 12-year documentation of Rumidjah, an elderly Christian grandmother living in the world’s largest Muslim community, and her family. Rumidjah struggles to keep her non-observant Muslim sons on track, and to provide for her granddaughter’s uncertain future in an increasingly globalized economy. Through the microcosm of a single family, we see all the issues Indonesia is struggling to come to grips with today.

Helmrich’s cinematography style is astonishingly intimate. Using his unique “Single-shot Cinema” method – his excellent website where he describes his trademark style is here – and an array of relatively cheap consumer cameras, he brings the audience into startling moments of truth in the family’s life.

After a screening he answered some questions about his film:

Describe your filming technique and how you got such intimate scenes with this family.

I didn’t want to be just an observer, and standing, shooting scenes from the outside. I wanted to be a participant, among them. As I filmed, I was just being with them, together.

There is a drama going on always, and when you get to know people you can predict what will happen, and I just make sure that I get the right angle from the right place. I call it single-shot cinema. At a scene, I shoot in a single shot and only in the editing it gets cut.

I also used five different cameras, normally I have just consumer cameras, but they are all specialized in certain things. I use them like a painter would use a brush. So I can say that in this situation, “this camera would be best.”

In the scene of the boy running (ED NOTE: a long scene with multiple shots of a young boy running through Jakarta’s alleys after he’d stolen some clothes) I just ran after him, and he ran away… but I knew where he would go, I knew his labyrinth by then. So when I had a number of my shots and I thought “if I want to make my story round I should do something extra – I should do with the camera what he wanted to do himself.” The boy wanted to fly. So I took the little camera and put it on a bamboo stick and lifted it up to get a kind of a crane shot.

How much time did you spend with the family, and how did you meet them?

I was there about 14 months, almost every day, actually living their life for that time. This is the third part of a trilogy, the first I shot almost 12 years ago, so they know me quite a lot.

In 1990 was the first time I went to the village where my mother was born, and it was there I met them. Rumidjah’s husband was still alive, he was about twenty years older than her and he still could speak a little Dutch. Because of the old colonial tie. So it was a great bond between us and we became friends. It was just before the fall of Suharto (May 1998.)

And then I hired Bakti (Rumidjah’s son) as a driver and I was seeing what was happening with the family. And it was historical, this change in the country because the Suharto family was a dictator and he had to step down, and there were huge protests, and it was similar to what is happening now in Arab countries. And I saw that what was happening in their life was a microcosm of what was happening in greater Indonesia so I thought, I’d better focus on them.

Can you talk a bit about the themes you pulled out?

The main reason I decided to focus on religion, economy and politics is because it’s the three things that are very much changing and making this turmoil in Indonesia. If you look at every newspaper they are really the three main things. The economy is booming, but there is a also a kind of reaction from the religious part. And politics of course, you have to cope with these events.

Helmrich said he doesn’t plan to film a fourth installment, but if something were to happen in the family that was important with respect to Indonesia, then “I’m ready.”

Shooting in Montreal North

Joel, Shellby et Danny à Montréal-Nord.
Joel Shellby and Christopher.

For the last nine months – and with six months to go – I have been shooting a documentary in Montreal North. With my DOP Martin Duckworth and our assistant Franck Le Coroller, I have been immersed in the daily reality of a mutli-ethnic ‘underprivileged’ neighborhood.

Compared to downtown Montreal where we live ourselves, this is quite another world, although the differences are not always what you’d expect. The neighborhood has been the subject of much sensationalist press coverage focusing on violence and street gangs, and definitely doesn’t have a good reputation. The ‘Villanueva affair’ which saw a youth killed by police in a park three years ago called attention to the racial profiling and discriminatory attitudes of the police.

Since then, there has been a push for change in Montreal-North. But are things changing fast enough?

At the centre of most of the controversies are the young men of Montreal-North who are considered ‘at risk.’ And they are the subjects of our film. Produced by Jeannine Gagné at Amazone films with a license from Canal D and investment by SODEC and The Canadian Media Fund, it will follow three young men who are struggling to improve their situation despite tremendous difficulties.

Until now, our main challenge has been the ‘casting,’ the choice of our main characters. Each one of the young men we focus on will likely have a link to a community organization that is trying to make a difference in the neighbourhood. In a few weeks I’ll tell you more about them, and about a video training course we organized for one group of young people.

Martin Duckworth tourne à Mtl-N.
DOP Martin Duckworth.

MI et Big Joe à Montréal-Nord.
I put a microphone on 'Big Joe", Jonathan Duguay, youth worker at the Maison Culturelle et Communautaire de Montréal-Nord.

Thanks to Tobi Elliott for help with this blog.

Godin Doc: A Reminder of Heady Times

Gérald Godin and Pauline Julien
I have said this before: I often find myself writing about Quebec matters in English, because I feel like telling non-francophones about what goes on here.

Traditionally, St. Lawrence Boulevard – a few blocks from my house – has been thought of as the dividing line between English and French Montreal, with the francophones living mainly in the East. Although a huge simplification, this notion still bears some truth.

And well East of that line there is a fantastic neighbourhood cinema called the Beaubien that attracts people from many other parts of town. It usually mixes in documentaries with its mainstay of independent – or at least creatively interesting – fiction.

Screening right now at the Beaubien is Godin, a very good documentary by Simon Beaulieu about Quebec poet and politician Gérald Godin. It takes us back to the heady days when the independence movement in Quebec was on the march, winning a provincial election in 1976 and losing a referendum with a very close margin in 1995. The film seems to have struck a chord. The day I was there, the theatre was full for a 1.30 pm screening!

Godin was an irreverent poet who loved the good life. He lived for thirty years with one of my favourite singers, the passionate Pauline Julien – I was honoured that she accepted to narrate the French version of one of my films, Uranium. In 1988 Dorothy Todd-Hénault made a very good NFB film about the couple: Quebec… un peu… beaucoup… passionnément….

Godin was a tremendously open-minded and inspired politician who once famously defeated then premier Robert Bourassa in the riding of Mercier where I live. Although he was a Quebec nationalist who fought for independence, Godin was intensely interested in the cultural and linguistic minorities, and actually got a lot of immigrants to vote for the Parti Québecois.

He liked to de-dramatize the linguistic conflicts here. I remember him giving a bilingual TV interview in a local grocery store, saying, “Potato–patate, tomato-tomate, orange-orange – Quel est le problème? What’s the problem?” But of course he did support the protection and promotion of the French language.

Godin became Quebec’s Minister of Immigration and Cultural Communities under René Levesque, at a time when Pierre Trudeau was Prime Minister of Canada. As I left the screening, I heard a white-haired lady say: “Today’s politicians are sorry sight, compared to those days.”

The most touching part of the film deals with Godin’s illness – a brain tumour severely slowed him down and eventually killed him at age 56. We see him in archival footage still doing his best to represent his constituency during the last years, half his head shaven, and saying in essence, “When you’re seriously ill, you have to pack a lot in, because you know there isn’t much time left.”

Thanks to Tobi Elliott for help with this blog.

‘Inside Disaster’: the Interactive Experience

Inside disaster screenshot-12

Last week I wrote about the terrific Inside Disaster series. And here, as promised, is my colleague Tobi Elliott’s assessment of the interactive game on the Inside Disaster web site, where you can choose to be a survivor, a relief worker, or a journalist. (Tobi, as you may have noticed, regularly helps with this blog.)

Greeted by a grim, ashy looking scene of destruction, I begin the “Inside the Haiti Earthquake” experience with a small amount of dread. The disclaimer reads: “Please note that this simulation contains graphic and disturbing imagery.”

Many of the images ARE disturbing. Graphic and heartwrenching. Bodies lying in heaps on the ground. Rioting for food, people getting trampled. Fires and tears and brokenness. Some clips are more vivid than others, but the grainy film texture sometimes adds to the chaos the experience is supposed to replicate. Music underscores many of the clips.

I chose to enter the experience as a journalist, of course, and my job was to create a two-minute feature story on the earthquake for a major network. After arriving in Haiti and travelling to Port-au-Prince, I was given the choice to go out into the streets and film, or stay in the safety of the Canadian Embassy. I chose to go out and get a story.

Following most segments, the player is presented with options to select from, choices that affect the outcome of your story. Some of the introductions/transitions to the next segment are almost hilarious, like a vibrating Blackberry cellphone with a text message from your producer after you file your first story.

Inside disaster screenshot-7
Your choices can lead to harsh, seemingly realistic outcomes, as I discovered when I lost my job after making a poor choice as a journalist! (I decided on a story angle too soon and couldn’t deliver… hmm…)

Generally, I found the experience quite moving because it brought me right into the reality of chaotic post-earthquake Haiti. I forgot sometimes that I was playing “a game.” What was onscreen could believably become what you might see with your own eyes. It became real. Your choices do seem to matter, even if just for a split second, “inside disaster.”

This simulation would probably appeal to almost any age, except for young children, and seems more designed to rouse empathy than to educate. The choices you make can lead to good and bad consequences, but that doesn’t seem to be the point of the experience. Instead, it’s about experiencing the chaos and trauma in a situation like the aftermath of Haiti’s earthquake… where every decision isn’t necessarily a good one, just the best one that could be made at the time.

Check it out here and see for yourself: www.insidedisaster.com/experience.

Inside disaster screenshot-5

Thanks to Tobi Elliott for her help with this blog. You can find her at her new website here.

“You Don’t Like The Truth”

Interrogation Number 4
CSIS interrogation of Omar Khadr

The director of programming of the Festival du Nouveau Cinéma, Claude Chamberlan, had a question for the programmers of the Toronto and Vancouver film festivals: “Why did they turn down the amazing and crucial film You Don’t Like the Truth – Four Days Inside Guantanamo ?”

“I know them well,” he said, “and I wouldn’t have cared if they had shown the film first. I just want them to give me an answer.” He then introduced the directors of the opening film of this year’s Focus Québec-Canada section, my friends Patricio Henriquez and Luc Côté.

Omar Khadr at age
Omar Khadr at age 21.
Omar Khadr at age 15 (above) and 21.

The film is about the shocking case of the young Omar Khadr, the 24-year old accused of terrorism and killing an American soldier, who has been imprisoned for seven years, most of that time in Guantanamo. I will not summarize the case and describe this moving and incisive film in any detail, because I would not do as good a job as Cinema Politica’s Ezra Winton – read his article on the Art Threat blog.

Suffice it to say that the film is a deconstruction and analysis of the surveillance camera video of the seven-hour, truly revolting –Orwellian more than Kafkaesque– interrogation of Khadr by representatives of CSIS, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.

Ezra is right in pointing out that we all have a share of responsibility for what the Canadian government is doing to this young man, a child soldier at the time of the events. You can only leave this film with a sense that something has to be done, even though Khadr’s lawyer explained at the launch that he is stuck between the devil and the deep blue sea.

Indeed, it seems – in the bargaining going on right now – that he will have to choose between pleading guilty to a crime he didn’t commit and continue serving time in prison, or rot in his cell in Guantanamo (the facility Obama promised to close!) forever. Amnesty petition here.

The film will screen at the Royal Cinema in Toronto and at the Cinema Parallèle in Montreal starting Oct. 29th.

Since the film premiered, Patricio and Luc have been caught up in a whirlwind of activities, including a repeat screening of the film at the 700-seat Imperial Cinema where it premiered, and an upcoming screening on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. They nonetheless took the time to answer a couple of questions:

When we watch the film, the concept comes across so clearly and the structure seems so simple, so obvious. But during your process of creation…?

PATRICIO: The chronology in the shooting of a documentary doesn’t always provide an interesting dramatic structure. Often in the editing room you need to betray this chronology to give meaning to the images. Of course, in this case, we weren’t the ones who filmed the interrogation of Omar Khadr at Guantanamo by the Canadian secret police. Nevertheless, the seven hours of video recorded over four days in February 2003 (accessible to the public thanks to a decision by the Supreme Court of Canada in 2008) had a progression that we kept in our film.

Luc, our editor, Andrea and I, we watched these seven hours – of very poor technical quality – several times. We quickly discovered that each day had its own specific, separate nature. So we decided to identify each day as a journey: Day 1: Hope. Day 2: Fallout. Day 3: Blackmail, Day 4: Failure. Also, we understood we would need some context for these four days. So we directed our research toward eyewitnesses, people who had seen Omar, experts (scientific and legal), objective observers such as the Toronto Star reporter Michelle Shephard, and politicians. All these people had to help us better understand what played out during this four-day interrogation.

Andrea first edited together the interrogation in this order, and then we showed all the participants the passages they could appropriately illuminate for us in interviews. Then, we inserted these new elements into the structure of the interrogation. And voila, it wasn’t a very complex creative device.

Patricio Henriquez
Patricio Henriquez

Having followed this story for several years, how do you evaluate the media’s coverage of Khadr’s case?

PATRICIO: In Quebec, the coverage was particularly lacking. To my knowledge, the first print media to send a journalist to Guantanamo was Rue Frontenac, the website of the locked-out journalists of the Journal de Montreal. That’s totally to their credit.

Elsewhere, they trafficked in misinformation. One example: in a report aired Nov. 13, 2009, a Téléjournal correspondent in Washington said this of Omar Khadr: “He has already spent over seven years in Guantanamo, waiting for his trial for the murder of an American MILITARY DOCTOR.”

There are two grave errors in this communication. The 1st Class Sergeant Christopher Speer, in whose death Omar Khadr is allegedly implicated, had never been a military doctor. At the start of the proceedings against Khadr, the Pentagon stated (perhaps not innocently) that the victim had been a medic (‘un infirmier’ or ‘un brancardier’ in French.) The Radio-Canada reporter translated badly, calling him a “doctor.”

But even worse: Omar Khadr’s lawyers have proven since 2004 that the Pentagon has held back the fact that, in reality, Sergeant Speer was in Afghanistan as a member of the special forces known as Delta Force. And although he had been trained at one point as a medic, his primary role in Afghanistan was not to heal, but to kill.

This difference is doubly loaded with consequences for Khadr, because, according to the laws of war, killing a duly identified nurse or medic is a war crime. Therefore, probably more by negligence than in bad faith, Téléjournal reinforced all the same this idea that Omar had committed a war crime in killing a medical doctor. It’s not a shock then that public opinion, having fallen victim to similar misinformation, is still largely indifferent to the fate of Omar Khadr.

Then, we realized that practically every media in Quebec and in Canada has been content to merely reproduce the most emotional part of these seven hours of recorded video, the moment where, yielding to the psychological pressure of the Canadian secret agents, Omar cracks and falls into a depressed state, crying uncontrollably. No one seems to have taken pains to listen to the tapes in their entirety.

omar distressed

We do understand that journalists, working constantly under pressure, haven’t had the time to decode the material. This is where, sometimes, the documentary can be useful in supplementing, more calmly and later on, the picture of a certain reality.

How did you manage to finance the film?

Luc Cote
Luc Cote

LUC: Financing this film hasn’t been very easy. After being refused by broadcasters and public institutions, we went to Jean-Pierre Laurendeau and Sylvie de Bellefeuille at Canal D. Without hesitation they agreed to give us a license. With this license, we had access to tax credits. But there still remained an immense hole in the budget of 50 per cent. One of my best friends, Kevin Kraus, who closely follows our work, offered to lend us money. So we went ahead by investing our salaries, our equipment, etc. For lack of resources, all of the filming – camera, sound and interviews – was done by Patricio and myself alone.

Thanks to Tobi Elliott for her help with this blog.

Super-Grannies – and two shorts

Les super mémés at Cinema du parc

The normal progression for a budding filmmaker has generally been from student films and shorty shorts towards longer shorts, and then medium-length films and finally feature length ones. Working on the short films, he or she would learn the ropes, learn how to use equipment and tell a story. Later on, with more resources, would come a bigger crew and competent technicians or co-creators.

Not so in my case. When I started making audiovisual stories for television, I already had many years of storytelling behind me as a radio producer. And as a television ‘producer’ (meaning actually director) at CBC and Radio-Canada television, I didn’t have the right to touch the equipment. I remember the editors saying to me, “You can screen the cut again while I’m on my break, but close the door and don’t tell anyone.” It was a co-conspiracy by the bosses and the union.

Things have changed a lot since then! Now, in the digital world, many television journalists and directors do their own shooting and editing.

And for my part, I am looking after the beginnings I never had as a filmmaker. Over the last couple of years, I have made my first short films. And they will be screening at the Park Cinema in Montreal, before my film Super-Grannies (subtitled version of ‘Les Super-Mémés’) from Oct. 18th to 22nd.

Here is a brief description of the three films – with apologies for the PR language!

Béthièle & Magnus

Letter to Béthièle. (8 min. 2010) In French with English sub-titles.

In a touching visual letter to his adoptive daughter Béthièle on her 10th birthday, Montreal filmmaker Magnus Isacsson reflects on her roots in Haiti and his own in Sweden, drawing some surprising conclusions.

Sonny Joe & the Casino

Sonny Joe & the casino. (22 min. 2004)

Sonny Joe Cross collects used clothes from the residents of the Mohawk territory of Kahnawake. He sells some in his store and gives the rest to the homeless and poor in nearby Montreal. A former hard-drinking gambler, Sonny Joe leads a suspense-filled campaign against a casino promoted by the band council.

Les super-mémés. (45 min. 2010.)

Decked out in gaudy shawls and outrageous hats brimming with a cacophony of colours, «Raging Grannies» defy the invisibility so often experienced by older women. They are a colourful presence at most demonstrations and grassroots meetings promoting peace, social justice and environment.

On the surface, they are amusing, even hilarious. But underneath that humorous veneer, they are deadly serious. The film does more than portray of the movement and its members. It raises universal issues very seldom addressed by the current media, such as the role of senior citizens in our society. “With this documentary film, I wanted to accomplish myself what these exceptional women do so well: entertain while forcing us to reflection,” says the filmmaker.

Production: Island Filmworks

Distribution: Vidéo Femmes

Thanks to Tobi Elliott for her help with the blog.

Documentary and globalization: favouring understanding

Age of Stupid - Sydney
A still from the documentary "The Age of Stupid", directed by Franny Armstrong

I have just spent two weeks teaching at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington State. More on my course another day, but I also had the opportunity to speak to the students and faculty about Documentary in the Context of Globalization.

I talked about how the new digital technologies have democratized access to audio-visual production and how the web has made it possible to instantaneously distribute videos worldwide. This has opened up a two-way street, making local stories available to the world, and bringing the world (or stories from elsewhere in the world) to audiences just about everywhere.

To illustrate my points, I showed excerpts from three films. Burma VJ is one I wrote about on my blog earlier. The film documents the use of small digital cameras by courageous video journalists – VJ’s – to reveal what goes on inside the Burmese dictatorship. With digital cameras and satellite uploads they distribute images worldwide within hours. Their work made all the difference during the 2007 uprising led by Buddhist monks across the country.

Another example I used was the video of the killing of a young Iranian woman during the 2009 protests in that country. It graphically showed her dying moments, and really touched people emotionally. Thanks to the web and cell phone – Twitter was particularly instrumental – it spread like wildfire, and actually helped change the relationship of forces between the regime and the opposition.

As an example of how the new production and distribution context has allowed people who did not traditionally have access to the resources to express themselves audiovisually, I used the amazing Wapikoni mobile experience, which has been running for six years in Quebec. Young aboriginal people have been given training and access to production facilities, and the result is impressive. Many of their films have been presented at festivals and won awards.

For some filmmakers, the starting point is not local but global. That was the case with the 2009 film The Age of Stupid by Franny Armstrong. The premise, established with much aesthetic panache, is that while the world has gone to ruin, one man (played by Pete Postlethwaite) remains in the Global archive in 2055. His archives reveal the stupidity of the people of our era who knew the world was on the road to perdition but didn’t act – stories set, naturally, in our own time.

Finally, I spoke about the phenomenon of immigrant directors (or children of immigrant families) making films about their home countries in the ‘developing countries’. Having access to the funding mechanisms of the richer countries as well as an intimate knowledge – or at least personal connection – to their country of origin, these talented directors have made some great films. Ali Kazimi’s Narmada – A Valley Rises, Rithy Panh’s films about Cambodia are good examples, but I chose to show an excerpt of Up The Yangtze by Yung Chang (NFB & EyeSteel Films).

There are increasing numbers of excellent films coming out of the countries in the South. As a member of the board of the Alter-Cine Foundation, I am able to see the incredible diversity of projects from Asia, Africa and Latin America looking for funding every year. Just reading the proposals, one gets a sense of the many aspects of reality which are not adequately covered by our television networks.

Conclusion – it sound a little simplistic when summarized, but it’s true: by offering a more in-depth treatment of other realities, documentaries contribute to understanding and awareness between peoples.

Thanks to Tobi Elliott for her help with this blog.