The Walrus Blog

Category Archive: Moving Pictures

Courtney: Red Dress, Normal Girl

A photographer’s search for the consequences of life within and around Ontario’s Chemical Valley

Sarnia, Ontario has often been called the dirtiest place in Canada: it has the worst air quality of any city in the country. The community of approximately 70,000 people sits adjacent Chemical Valley, an enormous cluster of refineries and industrial facilities — including Imperial Oil, Dow Chemical Canada, Suncor Energy, and Shell Canada — which collectively represent 40 percent of Canada’s petrochemical sector.

Courtney Gilmour was born in Sarnia in 1984. Her right arm ends just above the wrist. Her left arm ends immediately below the elbow. She has one fully functional leg; the other ends mid-femur. Courtney uses a prosthetic to assist in walking. As seen in the above video, she performs trivial and complex tasks with only the “nubs” at the end of her arms.

Courtney’s mother routinely drove through Chemical Valley during her pregnancy. Shortly after their daughter’s birth, three geneticists visited the Gilmours to analyze their blood, hair, and other genetic markers. All three experts independently concluded that consistent exposure to pollutants led to Courtney’s birth defects. Her parents accepted these findings, and raised her to become a confident, independent woman. They noted her mental and physical perseverance from an early age. (more…)

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Sunny Side Up

CBC’s beautiful Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town dulls Stephen Leacock’s merciless wit
Sunshine Sketches...Steve Wilkie/CBCKeshia Chanté in Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town

Stephen Leacock, Canada’s preeminent literary humourist, was merciless in his quest for mirth. While not a misanthrope, he associated humans with foibles and folly — objects of relentless criticism. In Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, his 1912 collection of short stories, he at once adores and skewers the residents of Mariposa (a thinly fictionalized Orillia, Ontario). Mariposa has no genuine heroes: Mr. Smith, the hotelier, is a shrewd buffoon with an essential generosity; the Reverend Dean Drone is a well-meaning but bumbling bore, lost in his own scholarly world; Young Peter Pupkin is a pup of a man. Though based on his Orillia neighbours, Leacock saw something universal in the roles such characters played in small-town life. Now, sixty years after its first adaptation, CBC has attempted to bring these stories back to life, in a made-for-television movie that premiered last night.

Executive producer Malcolm MacRury’s screenplay adapts and conflates tales from Leacock’s bestselling collection, and intermingles stories from the author’s own childhood. Drawn mostly from “The Marine Excursion of the Knights of Pythias” and “The Hostelry of Mr. Smith,” Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, the movie, injects the sad story of Leacock’s alcoholic father and the family’s financial failures. If a student wanted to avoid a few hours of CanLit homework by streaming the movie online, she’d certainly confuse some key plot points on the dreaded pop quiz (the hypocrisy of Judge Pepperleigh, for instance, is transferred onto the Reverend Drone), but she would have a reasonable understanding of Leacock’s sensibilities. The sharper sarcastic edges of his writing have been dulled, but the spirit of Leacock’s prose is still there. (more…)

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4’33” for the 157

Joanne Tod’s “Portraits of the War,” in video form

Click here to view the full gallery of Joanne Tod’s “Portraits of the War,” from the July/August issue of The Walrus magazine.

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More Than a Game

A Hot Doc, reviewed: Grinders explores professional poker’s working class blues

Do you like poker? Toronto filmmaker Matt Gallagher does. He’s long been a decent player, and now that he’s broke — small child, recession — and apparently lacking in transferable skills, he decides to try it on as a career. He becomes a grinder.

A grinder, we’re told, is someone whose sole source of income is poker. Gallagher’s Grinders follows two of them: Danny, a well-intentioned, alcoholic dad, and Andre, a clown (“Mark, I love your money, bro! Oh, I love your money!” he declares after a win at the table, pouring the loser’s chips all over his own head). Both are found nightly on Toronto’s underground circuit, which appears robust. They play from 10 pm until 7 am, after which, bleary eyed, they might go to a casino to play more poker, or perhaps pick apples with the family. Both are overweight, speak in a Trailer Park Boys–like patois, and favour t-shirts emblazoned with gangster imagery and/or cartoon characters. Neither is proud of what he does for a living. Andre refers to himself throughout the film as a degenerate, warning us not to be fooled by his “beautiful house” and “two beautiful dogs”; Danny constantly reminds himself, and us, that he’s doing this for his daughters, whose pictures he keeps on the table when he plays. (more…)

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Back to Life

A Hot Doc, reviewed: Mika Kaurismäki’s Mama Africa revives the legend of Miriam Makeba
Mandela and MakebaHotDocs.caNelson Mandela and Miriam “Mama Africa” Makeba

Singer Miriam Makeba, known as Mama Africa, died in November of 2008. Ten months earlier, I saw her perform at the Palau de la Musica in Barcelona, Spain. At the time, I didn’t understand what I was witnessing — the denouement of a fifty-year career, the last tour of a woman whom millions would mourn as a saint. Makeba, a South African political exile, American civil rights activist, stateswoman, and brilliant musician, was a hero of the pan-African movement of the 1960s and ’70s, and an influence on virtually every South African singer who has followed her.

Mama AfricaFinal Hot Docs showtimeSunday, May 8, 1:30 PM
Isabel Bader Theatre, Toronto

In 1959, Makeba appeared in the anti-apartheid documentary Come Back, Africa. The filmmaker, American Lionel Rogosin, brought her to Cannes for the premiere. Come Back won the Critics’ Award; Makeba became an instant phenomenon, playing around New York and London, appearing on television, and recording under the guidance of Harry Belafonte, whom she’d met in the UK. However, when she tried to return home in 1960, she found that her South African passport had been revoked. Unable to re-enter her country, she lived in exile until Mandela was freed thirty years later. In the meantime, she introduced South African music (and, to a large extent, politics) to the West.

Mama Africa director Mika Kaurismäki grew up listening to Makeba’s songs on Finnish radio. His feature documentary almost wasn’t made, as Makeba passed away just before filming was scheduled to begin. Kaurismäki pursued the project anyway, partly from an urge to preserve the singer’s legacy. The film doesn’t suffer at all for the lack of its star — Makeba comes across intimately, her story as affecting as if she’d told it herself. Kaurismäki pieces her life together from interviews with Makeba’s grandchildren, former band members, friends, and prominent admirers, along with an enormous amount of wonderfully remastered archival footage. The portrait that emerges is of a woman without fault: a role model in the strictest sense. (Mama Africa mentions only two of Mama Africa’s five husbands.) This may be an unapologetic love letter, but few will object.

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The Not-So-Great Recessionize!

A Hot Doc, reviewed

Trailer for Jamie Kastner’s Recessionize! For Fun and Profit! 15 Simple Steps!

“Funemployment,” “affluenza,” “recessionista,” “staycation” — the recession of 2008 and 2009 introduced a host of strange slang into the common vernacular. With Recessionize! For Fun and Profit! 15 Simple Steps!, Toronto filmmaker Jamie Kastner invents his own term, albeit ironically, he says.

“The way [this recession] was being covered, I realized, was part of the story and part of the event itself,” says Kastner. “The way it was being ‘cutesified,’ basically, and how it was being spun into almost a feel good story or a good news story even though it’s the worst imaginable news.”

Recessionize! premieres at this year’s Hot Docs film festival in Toronto (see sidebar for showtimes). Kastner’s previous documentary Kike Like Me, about Jewish identity, was among the best-attended and most talked-about films at the 2007 festival.

Kastner’s new film opens with archival footage of Great Depression–era New York City. Men in suits are climbing onto high window ledges as people below gawk and take photographs. In a voiceover, the director explains that, contrary to popular belief, these were not rich bankers jumping. Rather, it’s suicide rates among the middle class that increased during the Depression, as they have every recession since. In making Recessionize!, Kastner says he hit the road “to find stories to inspire my fellow middle class children of the free market not to jump.” (more…)

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Party On

Vancouver’s Youth In Action Party livens up election day
The PartyCTV

The Party is a new web series from CTV presented in collaboration with a group of very funny comics from Vancouver. Based on the idea of what would happen if a group of Canadian youth created its own political party, the series is written and produced by Vancouver director Sean Devlin (of Shit Harper Did fame).

In Episode 1, the Youth In Action Party’s leaders hatch an idea for a photo shoot that uses different types of food to represent major voting demographics. (You know, because “young people are hungry for change.”) An example of their hilarious banter: “What is this photo saying? More importantly what is it not saying? It’s not saying jerk chicken! It’s not saying souvlaki platter!”

The first four episodes of The Party are streaming on now.

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Mixed Reviews

Reflections on TIFF 2010: Trigger, Small Town Murder Songs, and Repeaters

Critical reflections on TIFF 2010: Trigger, Small Town Murder Songs, and Repeaters

TriggerTracy Wright and Molly Parker star in Trigger


Ten years after an expletive-laced onstage breakup, two former bandmates reunite for a night of bickering, jamming, and, ultimately, catharsis in Trigger, Bruce McDonald’s latest film.

In the late nineties, Vic (Tracy Wright) and Kat (Molly Parker) were Trigger, a badass, hardcore, and completely dysfunctional duo of chick rockers. Both are now recovering addicts — Kat is an alcoholic who imagines herself breathing fire and writhing in orgies after indulging in one sip, while the ghost of Vic’s junkie persona literally follows her around, heckling and cackling as she fights the urge to get high.

After a decade apart, the ex-bandmates meet for dinner before heading off to a benefit honouring their contribution to women in rock. At first glance, they’re reprehensible. Kat, now working as a television music consultant, struts in an hour late in her fuchsia stilettos. She is flaky and pretentious, name-dropping the chef and ordering quail and sparkling water. Vic, who’s still working on her music, is overly sensitive and passive-aggressive, grumbling at Kat’s extravagances but refusing to call her on them. (more…)

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Family Matters

With Ingrid Veninger’s Modra, the Toronto International Film Festival has its mother-daughter moment

With Modra, the Toronto International Film Festival has its mother-daughter moment

Ingrid Veninger (right) directs her daughter, Hallie Switzer, in ModraIngrid Veninger (right) directs her daughter, Hallie Switzer, in Modra

Slovakian-born, Canadian-raised writer, director, and producer Ingrid Veninger is also an actor, although you might not guess it to see her: “I have these dreadlocks,” she sighs. “People seem to think that mothers or girlfriends or producers can’t have dreadlocks on television, and I don’t want to cut them off.”

But Veninger’s time off-screen has been a productive period. In 2008, she co-wrote and produced the Genie-nominated Nurse.Fighter.Boy, and co-wrote and co-directed Only, a tween love story about a lonely boy whose parents manage a motel in northern Ontario. The latter feature starred Jacob Switzer, Veninger’s twelve-year-old son.

“I knew that he was going to hit puberty and change very rapidly,” she says during a phone conversation in late August. “Before that struck, when he still had the baby fat and the freckles and the squeaky, scratchy voice, I really wanted to do something with him.”

Veninger’s latest project and first solo production, Modra, enjoys its world premiere at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. The film, shot on location in Slovakia, is a charming love letter both to the country and to the romance of travel, while simultaneously crafting a realistic, poignant portrait of two teens on the brink of adulthood.

Modra’s casting signals a pattern — its leading lady is Veninger’s seventeen-year-old daughter, Hallie Switzer; other relatives play many of the film’s minor characters. Hallie stars as Lina, a seventeen-year-old Canadian girl who, after being unceremoniously dumped by her boyfriend, invites a school acquaintance, Leco (Alexander Gemmal), to join her on a trip to visit her family in the Slovakian village of Modra. What follows is a charming Bildungsroman in which Lina and Leco are forced to confront their insecurities, desires, and the whirlwind of teenage emotions. (more…)

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Behind the Screen

TIFF Cinematheque programmer James Quandt celebrates two decades of artful film curating

James Quandt, senior programmer of the rechristened TIFF Cinematheque, celebrates two decades of artful film curating

James Quandt (TIFF)
James Quandt (courtesy of TIFF)

Film programmers are cinema’s unsung heroes. Granted, block bookings of Avatar or Marmaduke (opening this Friday, marking the first sign of the Rapture) at your local multiplex are divined by some Invisible Hand, but at any worthwhile art house, quality programming requires a certain thoughtfulness that is no less methodical.

This summer marks the twentieth anniversary of the TIFF Cinematheque — née Cinematheque Ontario, recently rebranded along with all of the Toronto International Film Festival’s various adjunct organizations. And for two decades, James Quandt has worked diligently to line up hundreds of series, from retrospectives of major filmmakers to national surveys and thematic programs. He has not only brought the best in contemporary and classic cinema to local audiences, but toured the Cinematheque’s programs throughout North America and Europe.

To mark the Cinematheque’s vicennial, the senior programmer and his team have prepared a robust summer schedule. Celebrating what would have been the hundredth birthday of Japanese master Akira Kurosawa, the Cinematheque is presenting the suitably titled “Centenary of the Sensei,” which unspools over two dozen of Kurosawa’s films from June through August. There are also retrospectives dedicated to the work of British actor James Mason, Italian provocateur Pier Paolo Pasolini (“The Poet of Contamination” according to Quandt’s programming notes), a tribute to the late Canadian film critic and scholar Robin Wood, and plenty more.

Like the bulk of TIFF’s operations, the Cinematheque is currently preparing for its move to the festival’s new headquarters at the Bell Lightbox, a space which promises to expand the purview and possibilities of art house programming in Toronto. chatted with Quandt about history’s role at the Cinematheque, the dizzy logistics of programming, and the impending relocation to the Lightbox. (more…)

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Coming Down From David Wants to Fly

A Hot Doc in hindsight

I had expected the premiere of David Sieveking’s David Wants to Fly to be a modest proceeding. The premise of the documentary — recent film school grad devotes himself to Transcendental Meditation because David Lynch tells him to — is ridiculous.David Wants to Fly

© Adrian Stähli

I had expected the premiere of David Sieveking’s David Wants to Fly to be a modest proceeding. The premise of the documentary — recent film school grad devotes himself to Transcendental Meditation because David Lynch tells him to — is ridiculous. There couldn’t be that many people who would skip Still Alive in Gaza for it.

I arrived late, then spent ten minutes looking for a seat. The place was packed. Eventually I squeezed myself between a slight grey-haired man and a boisterous couple who traded Lynch anecdotes as a Hot Docs programmer took the stage. “So, how many of you are here for your interest in Transcendental Meditation?” he asked. The small man next to me and a few others raised their hands. “And how many of you are here for your interest in David Lynch?” Hands shot up like reeds around the theatre. There was even some whooping. Of course! This was a Lynch fan event.

David Wants to Fly
is about whackos (David Lynch), lost film school grads (David Sieveking), and exploitation (Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and his “TM movement”). It’s told through Sieveking’s personal narrative: He wants to make great movies, like his idol, David Lynch. At home in Berlin, he hears of a TM conference at Fairfield, Iowa’s Maharishi Peace Palace where Lynch will be speaking about, or rather advocating for, the practice. (more…)

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Family Ties

Canadian filmmaker John Kastner uncovers the truth behind a heartbreaking small-town murder
Still from Life With Murder

Because it’s a film that so crucially relies on carefully developing its story, and playing out its various startling revelations with measured restraint, it’s tricky to talk about John Kastner’s Life With Murder without exposing its secrets. (Indeed, we’ve been explicitly urged by the producers and Kastner himself to check any impulse to do so.) But it’s no spoiler to say that the triple Emmy Award–winning Canadian filmmaker has produced what will likely emerge as one of the most talked–about documentaries to screen at this year’s Canadian International Documentary Film Festival, better known as Hot Docs.

Co-produced by the CTV, NFB, and Kastner’s own production company, Life With Murder tells an exceptional story that’s made all the more improbable by virtue of its verity. In January 1998, the town of Chatham, Ontario became the unlikely site of a murder, when eighteen-year-old high schooler Jennifer Jenkins was gunned down in her family home. Just as her traumatized parents were coming to terms with their daughter’s death, local police zeroed in on their prime suspect: Jennifer’s twenty-year-old brother, Mason.

Though Mason asserted his innocence, he was eventually convicted of first-degree murder, and is now serving a life sentence at a medium-security correctional institute nearly 500 kilometres from the scene of the crime. Determined to keep what family they have left intact, Brian and Leslie Jenkins remain in close contact with their son, frequently visiting him in prison, exchanging jokes and birthday gifts. Life With Murder is at once a gripping small-town murder mystery and an agonizing portrait of parents’ grief, which only deepens as the film unfolds.

Again, to say too much about Life With Murder is to effectively ruin it. But with its premiere at Hot Docs this weekend to be followed by an airing on CTV (date TBA), as well as other robust (though also undisclosed) distribution deals in North America, it is a film that demands to be seen and, afterward, seriously talked about. spoke with Kastner about how he discovered Mason’s case, and the manner in which his film’s story revealed itself. (more…)

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