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.
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 inthe 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.
You are probably familiar with the series 7 and Up by British filmmaker Michael Apted, who has been following fourteen individuals since 1964, filming them every seven years. Well, my colleagues Robbie Hart and Luc Côté have done a variation on that idea, with their film Turning 32. Sixteen years ago they released a series of portraits of 16-year-olds in third world countries. Now, their 16-years-later feature-length movie will play at the AMC Cinema in Montreal Starting Sept. 17th. Going to see docs on the big screen is the best way to ensure they continue to be shown!
Looking forward… as a filmmaker trying to grapple with new forms of storytelling, what excites you or – possibly – depresses you about the possibilities offered by interactive and online documentaries?
Well nothing depresses me about it. In a way, I’ve been waiting for this my whole career. What interests me are environmental questions, questions about the way society works, questions that deal with larger systems. And it’s always been a challenge to deal with those questions in linear format without falling back on really conventional tropes that I don’t think are particularly successful anymore. **
In interactive media, there are still enormous limitations of all kinds, but I think we’re seeing the beginning of something incredibly interesting and exciting. What excites is the possibility of two things: one, creating realistic, virtual environments. The other thing, which Waterlife doesn’t do but which we’ll see more and more in the future, is the possibility of beehive environments that are essentially constructed by the users. Talk to Katerina Cizek about that.
There are two ways you can go: you can construct a large, aesthetic experience, sort of like you do with feature film, or you can construct a beautiful aesthetic experience that is more like a building that users or contributors can come to and build or decorate. Like the NFB’s Highrise, where they’ve built all the ‘girders’ in the building and said, ‘This is what this building can do, but you, the user, are going to contribute this wall, and that user will contribute a window.’ It’s a fascinating experiment. Both those possibilities excite me.
They’re different approaches to basically the same thing, which is to create not just a two-dimensional thing that the viewer passes and looks at, but rather to create an aesthetic the user can move around in. I find that totally fascinating.
What are you working on right now?
We’re working on a big project right now that’s only going to be online, called Planet Zero. The subject is nuclear weapons.
I’ve been working on the subject for thirty years, and have written a book and done two films about it, none of which were satisfactory. I’m hoping that as we’re approaching it again as an online project, that maybe we’ll be able to solve some of the deficiencies of its earlier forms.
As you’re looking at something like nuclear weapons, that’s an enormously complex, physical problem. You’ve got these bombs sitting all over the world. It’s one of those things that are so big and complicated and hidden, that linear media does a really shitty job of being able to penetrate and convey it. Books, which are non-linear, do try, but they aren’t able to bring any emotional content to the subject. Novels do, but technical books have a real struggle…. You’re always tossing and turning, trying to find a voice that can express something that’s complicated and realistic, and do it with passion.
With non-linear media, we’re attempting to create this website – well first of all we’re trying to put the money together to do it – but the idea is to recreate an environment as best as we can, with the resources we’ll have, of a nuclear world.In the first iteration, it’ll be like Waterlife the website, and a construction, like a documentary.
So that’s exciting to me, it’s a new way to approach an old subject in the context where old approaches have not worked very well. Nuclear weapons are something that average folks don’t have much information about, and specialists do. We are trying to think of ways to make it extensible.