Hindsight reveals patterns. The various directions my work has taken over the last five decades — film making, writing, digital media creation, cultural animation — all seem to be plowing the same field with an assortment of different tools and approaches. At the heart of it is a deep ambivalence about inherited cultural and intellectual orthodoxies as well as an ongoing concern with the democratic potential of the art-making process.
Three major themes emerge:
1) Most of these artistic productions and writings are activist: considered responses to urgent political and social justice issues.
2) They question the distinctions between amateur and professional, the spectator and performer, the elite and the “masses,” the avant-garde and the popular.
3) They reveal a fascination with the importance of technologies to the creation of new work.
I have been an intellectual for as long as I can remember. Instead of completing high school, I accompanied my slightly older girlfriend to the campus of the University of Toronto. There I sometimes joined her in class, but more likely we were both attending meetings and rallies for the Toronto Student Movement. It was in the soil of student radicalism and the Women’s Liberation Movement that the roots of my intellectual life took hold. I read the key thinkers of the time: Herbert Marcuse, Simone De Beauvoir, Franz Fanon, Germaine Greer, R. D. Laing, Harold Cardinal. My mother, brother and sister all became Maoists. (My most recent documentary Revolution Begins at Home, documents part of that experience.) When I turned 21 I enrolled at the University of Toronto as a mature student. Over the next eight years I took as many courses as I could while working full time as a filmmaker and teacher. I read broadly in many subject areas. While I never completed my undergraduate degree — I became involved in other projects — the intellectual work I did there became the basis for much of my later thinking.
I began making 8mm movies when I was fourteen. By the time I produced my first feature film in the summer of 1970, I had already made four shorts and worked as an assistant film editor and cinematographer. I have continued to produce work, or contribute to the work of others, up to the present.
When making The Only Thing You Know (1971) I asked the actors to improvise their dialogue, responding from their own experience to the imaginary conditions of the story. I filmed these scenes using a light-weight 16mm Eclair camera in a documentary style. It is important to note that the protagonist at the centre of the movie is a complex young woman. This choice was unusual for the time and was made partly, I believe, because of my experiences with the Women’s Liberation Movement.
The documentary A Right to Live (1977) was influenced by George Stoney’s Challenge for Change unit at the National Film Board of Canada. The movie represents the activities of the Union of Injured Workers, an organization that was set up to challenge to humiliating treatment of claimants by the Workman’s Compensation Board of Ontario. Rejecting conventional documentary approaches, I collaborated with the subjects to create a work that would be useful for them, while still striving for cinematic authority.
“Community arts,” as it has come to be defined and practiced in Canada today, is an emerging field, with a variety of practitioners and theorists, as well as its own granting programs at the arts councils. I was drawn to the democratic possibilities of making art with, rather than for, communities early in my career. In 1971, because of my interest in these kinds of collaborations, I was invited by the Ontario Arts Council to help set up the terms of reference for an Artist in the Schools grant program. Between 1972 and 1975 Margot Cronis and I received funding to run film making workshops in the Regent Park Housing Project (Toronto), Attiwapsikat and Kashtechewan (James Bay), the Six Nations community (near Brantford, Ontario) and at the Guelph Correctional Centre. From these experiences I was able to develop ways of meaningfully collaborating with communities so that the art-making experience was positive for the participants and the final work was artistically valuable.
Between 1979 and 1985, partly as a consequence of this work, I took a sabbatical from film making to rethink my relationship to the cultural system I had been taught to serve. It was during this hiatus that I began researching, experimenting with and writing about the artistic process in everyday life. A Canada Council Explorations grant allowed me to travel to Europe and the U.S. to interview thinkers and cultural workers, including Raymond Williams, R. Murray Schafer and Welfare State International founders John Fox and Sue Gill. My passion for this subject would eventually — in a circuitous process that included a movie called Dance on the Edge (1995) — result in the book Random Acts of Culture: Reclaiming Art and Community in the 21st Century (2010).
In this book I take a long historical view. I try to understand the damage and distortion of artistic work caused by its commodification as a relatively recent historical process. By reflecting on the way people have imaginatively interacted with each other and nature in centuries past and in societies different from our own — through image-making, storytelling, music and dance — I propose a category of creative activity that has, until recently, been ignored in contemporary discourse: “vernacular culture.” I advocate for the cultivation of vernacular activities at the expense of cultural products as an antidote to the social and psychological crisis of 21st century life. I am glad to see that these ideas are gaining traction in many contexts today.
When I returned to film making in the mid-eighties I directed several shows for public television that provoked debate on social issues: immigration, daycare, education, sexual harassment.
Included in the list are several episodes of the children’s television series Degrassi Junior High, produced by former student Lynda Schuyler. This program became famous for its realistic portrayal of ordinary kids caught up in messy, ordinary problems. Almost no subject was taboo. My second feature film, Taking Care (1987), was inspired by actual events. Behind the murder mystery narrative is a feminist deconstruction of the power relations between nurses and doctors in hospitals. I was interested in the idea that untimely deaths might occur in a hospital because the medical system itself is dysfunctional rather than as the result of any individual’s criminal behaviour.
Around that time I was invited to direct a teen drama aimed at discouraging high school students from taking drugs. Each scene in Target had multiple endings. The viewer used a computer to watch and choose the various narrative threads. This was really the beginning of interactive video. Later, at Queen’s, I became an “early adopter” of new digital technologies and learned all I could about how they worked. In 1997 I created a graphically rich, game-like website based on streaming audio synchronized to still images. This was years before it was possible to stream video in the World Wide Web. The site was called Memory Palace: Vernacular Culture in the Digital Age. It made extensive use of the audio interviews recorded a decade earlier. My goal was to provide users with a tool to help them think differently about cultural issues. (Unfortunately, Memory Palace has been removed from the server. The code and software that powered it has become obsolete.)
Digital media technologies make it possible to produce modestly-budgeted videos and reach audiences without having to pander to television’s gatekeepers. This is something I have taken full advantage of, creating a number of video works, often with a strong local focus. A recent example is the hour-long documentary Til The Cows Come Home (2014). This project, which I collaborated on with three other producers, was funded entirely with small donations coming from the local Kingston community. The movie documents the citizens’ movement formed to stop the closure of the century-old prison farm at the local Frontenac Correctional Institution. Some have labelled the movie “Civil Disobedience 101.” As producers we worked very hard to develop a “grass roots” distribution strategy that encourages public viewings of the movie followed by facilitated audience discussion.
Revolution Begins at Home, my next movie, tells the story of my family’s membership in a Maoist group in Toronto in 1969-70. Using a DSLR and Final Cut X, I have was able to photograph and edit this movie almost entirely on my own. While it will undoubtedly be interesting to some of my contemporaries, this movie, at least in my mind, is addressed more broadly to young people involved in anti-globalization, environmental and anarchist movements today. I hope that there are some lessons from the past — about ideological fundamentalism, hidden hypocrisies, and gender politics — that might be useful to them.