Warm reception of our film at this fab Hot Docs festival in Toronto where audiences have multiplied over the years. Such is this city's passion for documentary that there is now a cinema called The Bloor which shows nothing but documentaries all year – I AM BREATHING will show there on June 21st. Programmed by the tireless Robin Smith, it is a great model for other cities, defying all expectations with the steady audiences it attracts.
Canada is a natural home for documentary. We exported Grierson here who went on to start the National Film Board and now the tradition is stronger than ever – though funding is under threat.
Local filmmaker Kevin McMahon feels documentary should be protected as a "cherished cultural form" in Canada, with the same significance as "the beaver, the colour red and Maple Leaf tartan." He quotes that great Canadian thinker Marshall McLuhan who felt that Canadians were inherently good observers because "when you are out of the main swim, as it were, you have a much better opportunity of seeing what's going on."
More than ever, Canada needs the subversive, transgressive vision that documentary can bring. This country, once famed for its open-mindedness, is now home to the environmentally catastrophic tar sand extraction and some shocking initiatives by the current conservative government.
I personally have a lot of gratitude to the filmmaking tradition here and in particular to two dear pals and collaborators who have taught me so much over the years. Peter Mettler was the first filmmaker I worked with (Hot Docs is doing a retrospective on him). Tectonic Plates was a magical interpretation of the play directed by Robert Lepage which I collaborated on as an actress and maker. His way of seeing consistently pushes film to a new place – ideas are embodied in the act of perception and alchemical transmutation of life into film. Over the years I learned from him how to trust the act of looking. How filming can create a sort of communion between the observed and the observer and give to the subject you are filming – not take.
Although our film is far removed from any work of his, working with him helped me try to be more present when filming such a situation. I needed this when I had so many ethical questions when making I AM BREATHING.
Years after working with Peter, I made my first long documentary called Flight, and by some chance the highly regarded Canadian filmmaker and DoP John Walker agreed to film it for me. John's own work is a testimony to how he films with great heart and compassion. He engages very intimately with his subjects, ranging from a classic film on Paul Strand to the much loved Men of the Deep which was was picked by Canadian audiences to celebrate the 20th year of Hot Docs – a fitting tribute to a man who has campaigned passionately for the form and who, along with Peter Wintonick and others, advocated for a festival through the Canadian Independent Film Caucus. This became Hot Docs.
John understands the role of the documentary maker in society to connect and create community in a culture bent on disentangling it. His activism inspired me and others to find and support models in our own countries to create community through film.
I feel very lucky to have worked with both and am still trying to absorb what lessons came from them.
The last screening of I AM BREATHING at Hot Docs is tomorrow (Sunday 5th).