Seven Angry Filmmakers
A group of Canadian directors discuss the challenges of making films in an age of political upheaval
On January 14, TIFF conducted a roundtable with seven filmmakers whose work was selected for the shorts section of the Canada’s Top Ten Film Festival. Days before Donald Trump’s inauguration, with uncertainty looming over a brand new year (after a politically disastrous and wearying 2016), the conversation centred on the need to make films in an age of personal and political upheaval. The following is a candid discussion with Canadian shorts filmmakers Emily Kai Bock, Ben Petrie, Heather Young, Thyrone Tommy, Alexandre Dostie, Terril Calder, and Lee Filipovski, moderated by filmmaker and Toronto International Film Festival Short Cuts programmer Danis Goulet. Read on for insightful advice on coping with the decline of the American empire, finding solace in your work, and how to instigate a love triangle for screenplay research. For more short films, TIFF screens a free programme of live-action and animated work as part of our ongoing Canada on Screen series on Sunday, June 18. The Sundance Festival Shorts Tour will arrive July 8, with further shorts programmes themed on “Social Justice” and “Coming of Age” playing in August at TIFF Bell Lightbox.
Danis Goulet (TIFF Short Cuts programmer and filmmaker): 2016 was an awful year. Is everybody feeling this upheaval?
Emily Kai Bock (writer/director, A Funeral for Lightning): It was the Year of the Monkey, swinging from tree to tree, trying to get to the other side. I was trying to finish my film and I spent six months editing in the basement alone.
Danis: Who was supporting you through that process?
Emily: Nobody. I would show it to people and they would be like, "Make it better." (Everyone laughs) It was only after seeing it on the big screen at TIFF that I could have crazy objectivity towards it. It was like having a bucket of cold water thrown on me. I immediately felt like, "Holy shit, this film is not finished."
Thyrone Tommy (director of Mariner): I’m the complete opposite. I finish shooting a film, give it to the editor, then I don't speak to her for two weeks.
Emily: When you saw your film at TIFF, did you feel like it was finished?
Thyrone: It was a little overwhelming. I worked at [the Scotiabank Theatre] when I was younger, so I got really emotional, cried, got drunk, and came back.
Ben Petrie (writer/director of Her Friend Adam): In that order?
Thyrone: It was a release — there it is, it’s out there in the world, it's finally over. People will ask me if I want to expand my shorts into features and I'm always like, "No." Once I leave that world, I've left it.
Ben: Please don't make me go back. (Laughter)
Danis: Is anyone else feeling the upheaval, or are you fresh-faced for 2017?
Ben: It's hard to deny there's some upheaval going on. I was just sitting at home, drinking my coffee this morning, and I know that President Golden Showers is elected, but it's really starting to sink in that it's going to be for four years. That is fucking insane!
Emily: Mm-hmm, it's exhausting.
Ben: It's impossible to approach that knowledge, to actually internalize that for four years the world is going to be influenced by that person as president. Even if he didn't sign a single piece of legislation, just the fact that Trump was elected is already like, "Well, that's a nightmare." The fact that he's going to actually lead the US... it's impossible to fathom.
Emily: It's nice to be Canadian, man. Like, hold on to those passports tight. (Everyone laughs) I live in LA now and I crossed the border to come here. I grew up in downtown Toronto and I remember meeting people from smaller towns who were like, "You don’t see race, you don't even want to talk about it existing with your friends." In America, it is very acknowledged, almost to the point of discrimination. Canadians need to be able to address their racism.
Thyrone: I like to think of it as "polite racism." (Laughter) No one's running around in robes burning down your house, but you experience it in more subtle ways, especially once you leave Toronto. In my movie, I talk about going to Owen Sound and living there for a year. People weren't outwardly racist there, but their experiences with other cultures were very limited.
Terril Calder (director of SNIP): I'm [Métis], white, and grew up in Fort Frances near Thunder Bay on the Minnesota Border. I had a difficult 2016 because I was very ill and anemic, so I was dragging my ass around, trying to finish a film. I’m going to make a film about it because you know what the great thing about a big pile of shit is? You can make a film about it.
Terril: This issue of race has been in my lap my whole life. I ran away from it, went to school, and became an academic, then I came full circle to wanting to talk about the issues while watching my whole community fight. I try to go to the place of love and understanding; that's where I make films from. My family are quick to anger, quick to temper, quick to push. If Trump's on TV, I watch my dumb shows, and my mom goes: "You're not going to watch another movie, are you?"
I'm not going to talk too much about this but my film was written by Joseph Boyden. There's a lot of stuff that needs to be addressed on a world stage, especially regarding my writer. I was thinking of pulling the film from Canada’s Top Ten because I didn't know what my relationship was to it anymore.
Emily: Who is your writer? I don’t know.
Danis: Joseph Boyden is probably one of the most acclaimed writers on the Can-lit scene. He writes Indigenous stories and has been presented as an Indigenous author, so what blew up over the holidays within the Indigenous community, was the question of whether or not he was actually Indigenous.
Terril: I still haven't finished unpacking it myself because he's a friend and I don't know what's going on. But I guess it addresses why I make films.
Danis: Terril’s response to a pre-apocalyptic existence is to try and be calm and reasonable. Ben, your film is like the opposite. It is like, "I'm gonna scream from the rafters!"
Ben: It's the most rational discussion I've ever had. (Laughter) I mean, the idea of reacting to conflict in a calm and reasonable way… I'm all about it. If me and my girlfriend are having an argument and her voice undulates even the tiniest bit towards any kind of anger, I'm like, "We can't have this discussion." She’s like, “You're supposed to be angry, emotions are part of the human experience!” But I can't do it if it's not productive, we're gonna hurt each other.
Her Friend Adam ended up being the way it is because there's probably a lot of congested emotions, where it’s like (screaming) “They got to get out somehow!" I wanted to satirize that type of communication that's insensitive, giving causal inferences about the other person's intentions.
Danis: So what do you think about Twitter?
Ben: I have it, but go on once in a blue moon to maybe retweet something my friend posted. I never engage in any shaming dialogues because I don't think that's very conducive to a good discussion.
Terril: I feel the same way, thank you.
Danis: Alexandre, you talked about your film at the Festival as ending in a moment of great upheaval. I think we can say something explosive happens during somebody's first kiss. What did you want to say with that ending?
Alexandre Dostie (writer/director of Mutants): Chaos, the moment you think you know something, or take something for granted, and life just snatches it away from you. So now, you don't understand, you're not even remotely aware of how fucked up it is. (Laughter)
I hear you guys speaking about this chaotic 2016... For me, 2016 was a time to create my own solace and dig into the things I could control, or where I could have influence, to create a space I could nurture with the best that I could provide. I’m pulling myself out of Twitter, I want to try and flush out Facebook as good as I can. I got friends, family, and a girl I love, so I want to share moments with them and see what creative material can come out of that.
Danis: Do other people feel like they have to turn off the noise in order to focus on their work?
Emily: I feel like that I can't tune out completely. It was beautiful what [Alexandre] said about protecting that part of yourself you don't want to pollute with sadness and despair. To keep the flame of being like, "Art is important, I'm an artist, and I have a purpose." I'm having this weird crisis where I’m like, “I should be using my hands to build houses and dig wells.” Why am I on this selfish road of creating films? Then I realize that films are powerful and now is a more important time than ever to engage in these conversations.
Alexandre: I think the trick is that we're given the illusion we can speak our minds and make a difference. But we're all screaming at the same time, so we hear nothing. We open the computer and it’s a window to the world.
Emily: I feel like now is a time for empathy. Like you said, you open up the laptop and there's a window there. It’s a beautiful metaphor for the idea of opening up people's minds. That’s a really powerful tool we have at our disposal. Films get people out of those echo chambers.
Alexandre: Right, films take time. There’s time allowed to explain, to put things into context. We need to stay informed, but also protect our hearts and that place you create work from.
Terril: Film's more like a journey through something, with somebody.
Danis: Lee, you just flew in from Serbia. Your film is all about your journey as a child, told through your parent's eyes, of when you came to Canada. What’s your perspective as someone who inhabits Canada both as an insider and an outsider?
Lee Filipovski (writer/director of Fluffy): It was really interesting when Thyrone was talking about being from smaller places. I grew up in Oshawa, which is pretty white and pretty Canadian. For me, Canadian means different things, but in Oshawa it means you're white and Anglo-Saxon. I have a Macedonian surname, I was born in Serbia, grew up in Sweden, then moved to Canada. I don't belong literally anywhere, so even my race was called into question in Oshawa. I remember saying something to my friend, like "Well, I'm white,” and she said, “You're not white, you're foreign." In Oshawa, “foreign” became a colour. When I moved here for studies at Ryerson, I really blossomed because Toronto's so inclusive. In Oshawa, I tried so hard to be Canadian in the ways they wanted me to be Canadian.
Danis: What were those ways?
Lee: I don’t know, your dad drives a truck, you go to your cottage, you drink beer with your friends. I would never wear Abercrombie & Fitch, but they wanted you to be blonde and play some sport, just have absolutely no background. My dad has an accent, even I have a weird accent of all the languages I’ve learned throughout my life. I'd be like, "Dad, don’t talk too much in front of my friends." Looking back, that's so offensive to do that to your culture! When I moved to Toronto, I met people from Ukraine, Russia, even Serbia, and they were all celebrating their heritage. That got me motivated to go back to my roots and figure all this stuff out. I realized you can be Canadian but being Canadian is so much more. That's the beauty of this country, actually.
I guess we're all talking about Trump. Having someone who is such a bigot — and who is so open about it — really creates a resistance. I want to thank Trump for being the asshole that he is. We as filmmakers should fuel ourselves on that hate, so we can hit back with our work as hard as we can.
Thyrone: We live in a world where Black Lives Matter exists. It would've been nice to see Hillary Clinton win instead of Trump, but how much of the life of a Black man would change under her leadership? There is something to be said about the shit being on the table.
Emily: But as a woman, it's unprecedented that someone who has devoted their entire life to politics lost to a bogus TV celebrity; it's just a huge slap in the face. If anything, the election proved that America is more sexist than it appears to be.
Danis: Heather, I saw you nodding. What were you nodding about?
Heather Young (director of Fish): Misogyny. (Laughter) I feel the same way as you do, Emily: if Hillary was a man she would've been elected; that misogyny is deeply rooted in North America and probably in most of the world.
Emily: Directing and politics have a lot in common.
Danis: Heather, the lead character in your film is basically struggling with a deadbeat dad. Where do you think she ends up?
Heather: At the end of the film, I feel like the character comes to a realization he's not going to step up, and that she's going to have to go on and raise her kids by herself. I was raised by a single parent and I find it fascinating how women are always expected to immediately become a nurturing and maternal entity. That if you doubt yourself or have doubts about your feelings of maternal competence, it makes you less of a woman. No one puts that expectation on a man.
Terril: I have a 14-year-old, and I was one of those people where people were like, "Holy shit, you're having a baby?" (Laughter) It wasn't my lifelong dream, it was a drunken conversation: "Let's have a baby, let's do that!" I was a visual artist before I was a filmmaker and everything always felt like it was really on the line when I showed my work. Now that I have a kid, that's where my heart is. Film is a part of that. I’ve got this duality and it makes me a lot braver.
Lee: Agnès Varda had her kids on set when she was shooting her feature. Why is it so hard? It's a little thing made of meat and blood that runs around, it's not a giant tumour that prevents you from functioning.
Danis: As filmmakers, we all have to come up with strategies to keep making our work. I think parenthood is just another dimension of cultivating resilience. I want to end on a final question: what are you hoping for the year to come?
Alexandre: Honesty, both outward and inward. I think it would be a good time for that.
Ben: Hear, hear!
Emily: Is anybody writing a feature? Are we done with shorts?
Alexandre: No, I'm making another short.
Lee: I'm making another short.
Thyrone: You have to in the meantime, just to keep the muscles going. You can watch the Criterion Collection all day, but you have to make a film in order to get better.
Lee: It's not fair! DPs and editors always work with different people. As directors, we're so solitary and only once in a blue moon do we get a chance to get on set again. You forget about it! Like, how did I do this again? Do I say action? (Laughter) So we need to keep filming and doing things, as much as possible. Shoot that elusive feature… You hear self-doubt always; it’s horrible.
Emily: I'm excited about writing my feature because I have this huge canvas to stretch over 90 pages. My short film was 24 minutes long, but I found I was really boxed in. There were some really long, beautiful takes we had to shave down to two seconds. It would have been nice to be able to let moments breathe, have things slowly evolve, get to know the characters. Also, to have moments of silence play out and not make things so cutty. I'm really stoked to have that much time to play with.
Ben: I always come up against the struggle of, "Oh shit, I think I'm trying to take a feature idea and squeeze it into a short." Now that I'm making a feature, I’m like, “Dammit, I'm trying to take a short idea and make it into a feature!” (Laughter)
Lee: I'm digging through my past again and my whole family is like, "Oh god, here she goes again." Now that I have more time, I can destroy them slowly. The last time they had to sit for 25 minutes in the cinema — it’s two hours now!
Thyrone: Has anyone said, "You cannot do that, you cannot tell this story?"
Lee: I think they've realized that this is how it's going to be, so they're editing themselves when I talk to them about the past. (Hysterical laughter) My mother said, "I don't want to hear myself in your movies anymore because I sound so horrible." I'm trying to push away from myself, but I find it's easiest to write people that you know; it's the most honest.
Alexandre: If it works in real life, it's gonna work on screen, right?
Lee: Exactly. And if you have any doubts about a scene, you can try to test it out with real people in real life. Don’t tell them what you're doing, but really try to make it happen, then write it down.
Ben: I try to instigate it.
Lee: My new short is a love triangle, so I really orchestrated the thing I wanted to have happen in real life and it was amazing.
Emily: How did you get two people to fall in love with you?
Lee: It was a lot of... can I go off the record? (Laughter) It was a lot of Game of Thrones-y playing with people's emotions. Then you just sit, write it down, and go, "Perfect, I see how he would react, I see how she would react, I see how I reacted, and now I have a film!”
Alexandre: Human testing!
Danis: You guys are talking about real-life interventions, disrupting people, and disrupting yourselves, which is very interesting. (Laughter)
Lee: Well, if I'm writing about these people, I might as well give them a chance to redeem themselves. Your character is going to be in my movie anyways, so here's your shot to say what you gotta say. Maybe people shouldn't be friends with me if they don't want to end up on screen.
Danis: If there is not enough upheaval in the world, we can always try to orchestrate some more.