Film

The Road to the Red Carpet

The co-writer of TIFF documentary Al Purdy Was Here reflects on decades spent at the festival as a film lover, critic, and now creator

Video still from Al Purdy Was Here
tiff.net Al Purdy Was Here.

I’ve attended every Toronto International Film Festival since it began forty years ago. I don’t know if this is a good thing, really. It has permanently warped my sense of how September in the city works, for instance. I know that no matter how brilliant the weather is outside, I will be navigating my way through sweaty hordes of filmgoers in the human pinball machine of the Scotiabank multiplex. I will be rushing to find a seat in a film that might, like No Home Movie, by Belgian director Chantal Akerman, make me watch a static shot of a frail old woman asleep in a Barcolounger for a very long time.

But in the end, I am grateful that I made the acquaintance of Akerman’s mother in that film, even if I did nap through the endless footage of desert landscapes. Just as one naps at the bedside of a gently fading relative. This is not a home movie but a deliberately stripped-down, uncompromised film about life and death. A festival film.

It also took me back to the early days of TIFF, in 1976, when I first saw Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, an equally audacious Akerman film in which a bored and lonely widow sits in her apartment making filter coffee in real time. Drip, drip, drip. It was on a different cinematic planet than any movie I’d ever seen.

TIFF can be tough like that. It’s like going to a spa where you sign up for treatments that might actually hurt. You decide to pay $150 to get flogged with wet birch branches, for instance. The experience is not entirely comfortable, and at times you want to flee. But you give it the benefit of the doubt. And to your surprise, at the end you emerge from the experience refreshed, invigorated, a tiny bit changed. So it is with festival films.

For instance, this week, I can’t say I relished every minute of watching Downriver, an Australian thriller about an ex-con who may or may not have murdered his little brother. But I won’t forget it.

The opposite can happen, too. I became an uninvited guest at an orgy populated by lissome French youth, which is how Bang Gang (A Modern Love Story) begins. A group of bored high school kids go to a parent-free house party where a kissing game gets out of hand and the sex begins. At first, the couplings on the screen look as innocuous and vaguely sporty as kids on skateboards cruising down a hill. Then, out come the cellphones, the videos and viruses circulate, and the narrative darkens. It’s an accomplished first feature by Eva Husson that feels true to the world of her young characters.

Another highlight was watching The Pearl Button by Chilean director Patricio Guzman, whose film Nostalgia for the Light was a hit at the 2010 festival. His new work reminded me of how easily we accept the narrow bandwidth of big-studio moviemaking. In contrast, this is an exquisitely shot, wonder-filled meditation on many interconnected themes: the life-giving significance of water, the impact of the Pacific Ocean on Chile, the genocide of the Indigenous Patagonians who once inhabited its watery coastal regions, and the extermination of political victims under Pinochet’s dictatorship. The film balances the extravagant beauty of the planet against the acts of cruelty that our race is capable of.

But this year at TIFF was different, because I got to attend the premiere of a film that I was actually involved in making: the documentary feature Al Purdy Was Here, produced and directed by my husband, retired Maclean’s film critic Brian D. Johnson. I was the co-writer on it, and our son Casey Johnson composed the score for the film.

There are many roads to the red carpet at TIFF, most of them long and rocky. This was a film that didn’t begin as a pitch to Telefilm, or an Indiegogo campaign (although lots of pitching and fundraising was involved). It began with a few lines in a poem.

One of Purdy’s best-known poems, “The Country North of Belleville,” includes the line “And this is the country of our defeat.” It’s a poem (ironically, one of his most successful) about a farmer endlessly plowing the unyielding, stony ground of the landscape he was born in. By extension, it is also about this country’s artists who till the thin-soiled cultural fields. The line “This is the country of our defeat” resonated with me when I first read it, because it so confidently described how we live in this place, “a little adjacent to where the world is.” I’ve always been an ardent reader of Purdy and that era of Canadian poetry, because it was writing that reflected a world that I recognized.

So it was Al Purdy’s poetry, his wit, voice, and charisma on the page, that led me to his personal story. This includes the now-legendary tale of how he and his wife Eurithe Purdy came to build his A-frame cabin on the shores of Roblin Lake in Prince Edward County, in 1957. The Purdys had lived through years of poverty and Al’s persistent failure as a poet before they left Montreal to go back to his roots, near Belleville, Ontario. There he connected with the voices of his ancestors and found his own true rhythms as a poet.

Three years ago I began to work on a play about Purdy’s life, because his outsize personality seemed meant for the stage. At the same time I took part in a fundraising campaign led by Vancouver editor and cultural activist Jean Baird, to preserve and restore the A-frame cabin as a writers’ retreat (the place was crumbling and slated for demolition at one point).

In 2013, I helped organized a benefit show for the A-frame at Toronto’s Koerner Hall—a cultural barn-raising that included Gordon Pinsent, Michael Enright, Gord Downie, Margaret Atwood, Dennis Lee, George Bowering, and many other Purdy friends and admirers. We wanted to use some of the amazing archival footage that exists, including images of a cigar-chewing Al arguing with his fellow poet, a quietly plastered Milton Acorn. I asked my husband, who had made several short films, if he would edit a ten-minute montage for the show. Two days before the Koerner event he noticed that we had made no arrangements to film the event, so he did that too.

Then he sat down to wallow in black and white images of Al from his numerous TV appearances and interviews, and iconic photographs by John Reeves: Al the provocateur; Al the freight-train hopper; Al the wayward husband who realized that when you write your autobiography, “you can’t put in the sexual things a lot of the time.”

Brian saw that this was a singular character and a cultural hero who, fifteen years after his death, was on the cusp of being forgotten. Here was the beginning of a documentary film on his hands. Somebody ought to make the film. So documentarian and distributor Ron Mann, who had already executive-produced several of Brian’s short films, got behind the project.

The next two years were spent fundraising, doing further research, interviewing everyone around Purdy, shooting the film, and editing it. I was the “co-writer,” although documentaries are more assembled than written. What it really meant was a lot of hovering on my part, as Brian figured out how to weave together the many elements of the film: text, biography, archival footage, musical performances.

What was remarkable to me was how this difficult, solitary undertaking quickly began to attract other talents—young artists and musicians, many of whom turned out to be closet Purdy fans. The film brings together poetry and music with performances by Sarah Harmer, Bruce Cockburn, and Tanya Tagaq, along with contributions by Margaret Atwood, Dennis Lee, Michael Ondaatje, and Leonard Cohen.

It really was as if Purdy’s spirit continued to animate the project. Just as the A-frame became a beery gathering place for the pioneers of CanLit (Atwood, Ondaatje, Margaret Laurence, Steve Heighton), the filmmaking process drew in a new generation of writers and musicians—all of whom recognize in Al’s story a little of their own struggles to survive on stony ground, in a political climate where our cultural institutions are being eroded.

The world premiere of Al Purdy Was Here took place on September 15 in Cinema 2 of the TIFF Bell Lightbox. To mark the occasion, we upgraded our Uber ride to a limousine, even though the traffic still forced us to get out and walk long before we reached the corner of King and John.

I was more excited than nervous heading into the screening, because the first reviews were already in, and very positive. The premiere was sold out. The film has also attracted a grassroots distributor, TIFF’s Film Circuit, which has a network of real theatres in 130 communities across the country, many of them one-theatre towns. To be included in TIFF is an honour, but without distribution a festival film can just come and disappear, like a meteor shower.

Brian has a long relationship with TIFF as well, having covered it for twenty-eight years in his job as a film critic for Maclean’s, until his retirement two years ago. He also worked for the festival in the early days, as a “film driver.” His job was to drive an Econoline van around the city and deliver the heavy metal cans that contained the film reels. In those pre-digital days he was the Pony Express guy, racing across town and sprinting up fire escapes to get the film to the projectionist in time. (Martin Heath, chief man in charge of print traffic, ran every inch of celluloid through his experienced fingers, looking for nicks and flaws.) Brian always claims it was his best job ever.

When he was running around with the film cans, I was at home with our infant son Casey. Now our son and his girlfriend were sitting beside us in Cinema 2, waiting to hear how the score he had composed would sound in a big theatre.

The film went by. I was too excited to immerse myself in it. The onscreen presence of Al’s ninety-year-old widow, Eurithe, was a high point. She has all the attributes of a good poem herself: direct, economical, strong-minded, charismatic. And the scene in which Joseph Boyden plays the jaw harp along with Tanya Tagaq’s visceral, hair-raising interpretation of “Say the Names,” a Purdy poem that evokes Aboriginal place names on the map, still gives me goosebumps.

But the silence of an attentive audience can be misleading. Shouldn’t they be laughing more? Do they find Ondaatje’s letter to Al just before his death as heartbreaking as I do? And who cares about a dead white poet anyway?

Then came the final scene, with the voice of Leonard Cohen reading “Necropsy of Love,” one of Purdy’s most devastating love poems. We watch Eurithe walk through a snowy cemetery to visit Al’s grave. She brushes an inch of snow off the top of the book-shaped headstone, engraved with the phrase “Voice of the Land.” Then we see the A-frame in February, grey, with curtains drawn as the snow blows diagonally. My son’s lovely, searching score plays. The film ends cutting to sunny LA, as Bruce Cockburn carries his guitar to a studio to record his own Purdy song, an infectious little ditty about peddling poetry in the street.

I’ll give you three Al Purdy’s for a twenty dollar bill.

And, as in a dream, the audience claps and gets to its feet in a standing ovation. I’m thinking of “The Country North of Belleville,” about the hard-to-farm land of Al’s home turf. But what is easy to overlook in that poem is how the stinging phrase, “this is the country of our defeat” is followed by another crucial line: “And yet.” Followed by the image of the farmer looking up to see the patch of red and gold that reappears every fall, on the tops of the trees.

It wasn’t in the cards that Al Purdy—Trenton high school dropout and factory worker—would persist as a poet, to become a cultural icon. And it wasn’t in the cards that a low-budget documentary made by a retired film critic about a rude Canadian poet would make the cut at TIFF and be embraced by audiences.

And yet.

Marni Jackson is an author and former Walrus editor.

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