December 25th, 2009

The Hockey Sweater

Posted in Canada, Society and Culture, Video by Christopher DeWolf

Though it’s not actually a film about Christmas, I’ve always associated Sheldon Cohen’s “The Sweater” with the holiday season, maybe because it evokes all of the bittersweet feelings that come with receiving an eagerly-awaited gift, only to discover that it isn’t quite what you wanted. It’s also probably the most quintessentially hivernal of all the NFB shorts. And you can’t beat Roch Carrier’s narration, both in the English version above and in the French version.

Since you might have a bit of extra time for reading this afternoon, check out a couple Christmas posts from previous years, on Chengdu’s strange Christmas Eve tradition and tacky holiday decorations in Montreal.

June 27th, 2009

The Ethics of Urban Documentary

Posted in Canada, Film, Society and Culture, Video by Christopher DeWolf

Vancouver is many things, but perhaps most of all it is Terminal City, a place to which people escape. Movie stars and Cantopop celebrities flee there to escape the stress of their lives in Hollywood and Hong Kong; the less affluent find in Vancouver a place to get away from the constraints and conventions of society. Two films produced by the National Film Board of Canada look at some of the city’s more vulnerable people and their attempts to escape — and they also raise questions about the ethical obligations that documentarians (and, by extension, journalists and other members of the media) must confront when dealing with marginalized people.


May 7th, 2009


Posted in Canada, History, Public Space, Transportation, Video by Christopher DeWolf

Trafficopter, a 1972 National Film Board documentary by Barrie Howells, isn’t especially insightful, but it is certainly stylish. Following the traffic reporter for a Montreal radio station as he soars above the morning rush hour in a small helicopter, it gazes down at a miniature city caught up in the interminable grind of daily commerce.

There are plenty of captivating images here, both of Montreal from above and some long-vanished places like the Montreal Star‘s newsroom. The last few minutes of the film, which depict the city smoking and steaming in the frigid air of a winter morning, are by far the most memorable. There’s also an interesting bit where the reporter mentions that the pollution he encounters flying over the city every day led to an infection in one of his lungs — a reminder that Montreal is probably a lot cleaner now than it was for most of its industrial history.

A nice companion piece to Trafficopter is this short clip from Luc Bourdon’s La mémoire des anges. Here, we see the Turcot Interchange shortly after its construction, images of its soaring concrete spans set to audio of mayor Jean Drapeau musing, in a very 1960s way, about the need for traffic to circulate freely.

January 25th, 2009

Montreal by Night

Posted in Canada, History, Society and Culture, Video by Christopher DeWolf

The National Film Board of Canada has officially launched its new website, which includes hundreds of NFB documentaries, animations and shorts, including some that are iconic (The Sweater, which I must have seen at least half a dozen times in school) and others that have long been forgotten (like Paul Tomkowicz, Switchman, which I wrote about last fall). The beta version has been available for awhile, but many new videos have been added, which I shouldn’t need to say is pretty exciting.

One of these newly-added films is Montreal by Night, a fantastic 1947 short that I first glimpsed a few years ago and have been unable to find since. “Out of the fusion of two languages, two outlooks, has emerged a great Canadian metropolis with many moods,” declares the film’s introduction. It’s the first indication that the city you’re about to see is remarkably different from that of today — nobody would refer to Montreal in such grandiose terms anymore, even if it remains la métropole. The Montreal of the late 40s had the kind of swagger and hustle shared only by the most self-assured of cities.

December 15th, 2008

The Errant Canadians

Posted in Europe, Society and Culture, Video by Christopher DeWolf

It’s fun to see Jean-Paul Riopelle, now considered to have been of Canada’s foremost artists, described as a “young abstract painter” in Les Canadiens errants, a 1956 National Film Board documentary. He describes the open atmosphere of Paris as being particularly conducive to the creation of art. Implicitly, of course, he is referring to the atmosphere back home in Quebec, which was decidedly hostile to any sort of innovative thinking. In 1948, when Riopelle joined fifteen other artists and intellectuals in publishing the Refus global, a manifesto against the conservative Quebec establishment of the era, he was essentially chased out of town. He moved to Paris in 1949 and he continued to split his time between France and Canada until the 1990s.

Canada has always been a country of immigrants but what isn’t as widely known is that it has been, for just as long, a country of emigrants. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, immigration and a high birth rate were the only things preventing Canada from losing population as hundreds of thousands of people left for better economic prospects in the United States. Throughout its history, many of its luminaries have found it more worthwhile to live abroad — Mordecai Richler in London, Leonard Cohen in Greece, Mavis Gallant and Anne Hébert in Paris, just to name a few. Even today, an estimated two million Canadians live outside of Canada.

What interests me about this is how the expatriate experience has informed the Canadian identity. Unfortunately, the film above doesn’t really offer much in that regard, dwelling mainly on the surface of why such talented people decided to leave Canada for Paris and London. Unlike immigrants, who leave their countries to join family abroad or to pursue better educational or economic opportunities elsewhere, expats tend to come from positions of relative privilege. For them, moving abroad is a lifestyle choice more than anything else. That has been my experience in Hong Kong, at least, and from what what I can glean in Les Canadiens errants, it was true in 1950s Europe, too.

December 11th, 2008

Street Racing for the Penniless

Posted in Canada, Society and Culture, Video by Christopher DeWolf

The homeless guy pushing around a shopping cart full of bottles and cans is so well-entrenched in our imagination that it has become a bit of a stereotype. In cities with large concentrations of marginalized people, however, like Vancouver, they serve as a constant reminder of the dredges of the urban economy. When they are in such an unfortunate position, then, how can they assert themselves and make the city their own?

Carts of Darkness might shed some light on the answer. Former snowboarder and sports filmmaker Murray Siple turns his gaze to bottle-pickers in the suburbs of Vancouver’s North Shore who engage in an exhilarating and potentially lethal pastime: shopping cart racing. “I don’t have any furniture, I have no wife, I have no kids to look after, I got nothing,” says one of the characters in the film, explaining why he gets such a rush from something that could potentially take his life.

What seems particularly interesting about this in the context of urban space and social order is how unbelievably subversive cart racing is. Just imagine — grown men speeding down steep suburban streets in stolen shopping carts. It’s completely at odds with everything they are supposed to do and everything the environment around them tells them to do.

October 5th, 2008

Songs and Dances of the Underground

Posted in Society and Culture, Transportation, Video by Christopher DeWolf

It often seems like the subway is treated as a metaphor for urban life in general. When we’re immersed in the optimism of economic expansion, it represents progress and vitality. In more troubled times, it becomes a symbol of crime, danger, aggression and alienation.

Last winter, while browsing the shelves in Stephen Welch’s bookstore on St. Viateur Street, I came across Michael Brooks’ book, Subway City: Riding the Trains, Reading New York, in which he weaves the history of the New York subway’s development with the history of public attitude towards it. His point is that how people feel about the subway has always been as important as the actual operation of the subway itself.

I had this in mind when I saw Songs and Dances of the Inanimate World, a 1985 National Film Board piece by Pierre Hébert, Robert Lepage and René Lussier. Through animation, still photography and drawings, the film serves as a portrait of the Montreal metro, but it’s not a very flattering one, dwelling on the alienation and inhumanity of the underground. It’s fascinating to watch but I find the message a bit tiresome.

By virtue of where I lived, I only rode the metro occasionally in Montreal, getting around mainly by bus, foot or bike. Here in Hong Kong, though, I’m a regular subway commuter. On most days it’s monotonous, and on particularly bad days it’s insufferably hostile, but it always affords me a chance to consider the people I normally pass by on the street without thinking twice about. Last week, as I rode the MTR in the late afternoon, I considered how the teenage schoolkids heading home infused the train with a nervous hormonal energy. Another day, I watched, bemused, as a little white girl climbed up one of the support poles as if she was on the monkey bars. Her dad smiled but the middle-aged Chinese ladies across the aisle shot dagger looks, as if to ask, “How could he possibly allow that?”

Songs and Dances‘s French synopsis describes it as a “metaphorical and expressive representation” of the “rapports d’agressivité” — aggressive relations — in the metro. But are they really aggressive relations — or just the superficial indifference of urban life?

September 17th, 2008

Paul Tomkowicz, Switchman

Posted in Canada, Society and Culture, Transportation, Video by Christopher DeWolf

I always wonder about the street cleaners I see around Hong Kong, small and weathered by sun and age, who sweep the pavement with coarse straw brooms. Their wide-rimmed hats, like the kind traditionally seen on Tanka “boat people,” seem oddly anachronistic next to their reflective safety vests and surgical masks. Who are they? Where do they live? How did they find themselves on a path that led to days and nights spent brushing the gutters free of debris?

I wonder if anyone thought the same when they saw Paul Tomkowicz, a Polish immigrant who worked as a street railway switchman fifty-five years ago. In the bitter air of midwinter Winnipeg, his job was to clear and defrost the city’s frozen streetcar tracks. In a beautifully-shot 1952 National Film Board documentary, we observe him as he works, silently, to clear the tracks, his ghostly frozen breath illuminated by the kerosene lamp he keeps at his feet.

It seems a lonely, anonymous life, but Tomkowicz doesn’t seem to mind it too much. He seems resigned to it more than anything, if only because the alternative, for him at least, would have been far worse. “Winnipeg’s alright,” he says. “In Winnipeg, you can go in the street, daytime, nighttime, nobody bothers you. My sister wrote me from my village in Poland. The soldiers came in the night. Murdered 29 people. My brother. My brother’s wife. Why’d they do that?”

August 21st, 2008

The City to Yourself

Posted in Canada, Transportation, Video by Christopher DeWolf

Biking around at night is a uniquely satisfying experience. You begin to feel ownership as you pass through shadows and empty streets: for once, you have the city all to yourself, and it becomes a fantasy landscape, a blank slate for adventures and flights of fancy.

Earlier today, while poking around the National Film Board’s online archives, I came across a film that captures this experience. The Tomorrow(s), a short video by Gabriel Allard Gagnon, André Péloquin and Guillaume Marin follows the musician Matt Fuzz as he rides his bike through nighttime Montreal. “Through the street lights and cityscape the urban elements begin to answer the beat of his Game Boy-made music, and fluid forms of reality bubble to surface,” reads the synopsis.

July 23rd, 2008

Another Time, Another City

Posted in Art and Design, Canada, History, Video by Christopher DeWolf

The National Film Board of Canada is about to release La mémoire des anges, a new film by Luc Bourdon about life in 1950s and 60s Montreal, created by stitching together footage from the NFB’s vast archives. If this trailer is any indication, it will be an absolutely fascinating look at a city that, for all intents and purposes, no longer exists. The Montreal you see here is brash and cocky, a self-assured metropolis still unaware that it would be forced to suffer a prolonged existential crisis in the 1970s, 80s and 90s.

Just as the images in La mémoire des anges seem to capture so well the city’s past life, another soon-to-be-released NFB documentary, Roadsworth: Crossing the Line, reflects the current state of Montréalitude. Eclipsed economically by other urban centres, racked by decades of political instability and cultural uncertainty, Montreal has regained a measure of its old self-confidence, but this time in a somewhat different way. The old hustler city of the past has transformed itself into a city of flâneurs, a creative, self-referential place that thrives on its own eclecticism.

May 27th, 2008

The Street

Posted in Canada, Society and Culture, Video by Christopher DeWolf
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When a street, neighbourhood or city is mythologized, its private spaces are torn open for the world to see. Stories might be just that—stories—but they have a way of humanizing the people that might otherwise be strangers. That’s what Mordecai Richler did for St. Urbain Street and Montreal’s old Jewish neighbourhood, which includes much of Mile End, with his fiction. The Street, a collection of semi-fictional stories and vignettes, is one of my favourite books of his because it focuses so singularly on the 1940s-era life of St. Urbain. In this short 1976 National Film Board film, animator Caroline Leaf captures the essence of that life.