The Long And The Tall Of It.
by Gerald Saul.
Anniversary Edition.

I've been a member of the Saskatchewan Filmpool since 1984, which is a really long time in an organization such as this. I've seen a lot of faces come and go and I have to admit that I can't put a name to all the ones I see when I stop by there these days. When I joined, I was a student all filled with piss and more piss. I wanted to reject the past, oust the old guard from their posts and guide my own destiny. I swore that I would never be like the "old timers" whom I perceived as being set in their ways. I would never take the safe route. Well, one or two safe routes later, I've naturally changed my tune. If I have any voice at all anymore, it must be the voice of the old guard. I am an echo from the past. New members have new ideas and I don't expect them to listen to me any more than I listened to those who came before me. The film co-op is just a big asylum where inmates regularly exchange keys. If anyone ever became the permanent gate keeper, then the creativity would inevitably be stifled and the co-op would not long survive.

Having said all of that, I do maintain that there is a great need for all members, young and old, to commit their voices to a permanent record such as this publication. I have come to realize that the oral tradition of criticism which has always existed within the Filmpool does not survive long. It does not benefit the filmmaker, the film or the co-op for our opinions to exist solely in whispered tones in coffee shops after a screening. Much of our history has already been lost due to such thinking. How were the films of Charles Konowal, Brock Stevens and Joanne Reilly received in their time? I do not know. I saw them years later and didn't even wrote down anything about them at that time, although I am certain that my opinions have changed somewhat. Whether I liked and respected these early Saskatchewan Filmpool films or not doesn't remove the fact that I was influenced by what I saw. In this article, I wish to remember some of those films.

Pet Troll by Brock Stevens has always been the most baffling film by the first generation of Saskatchewan filmmakers. It consists of only a few shots of a man in an almost empty room, talking to his cat and to the camera. The younger me resented the lack of clarity which hangs over this film. The character throws a tin pan under a drip from the ceiling, then begins to swing his watch in front of the camera to hypnotise the "viewer". A few quickly cut shots of his cat looking scary constitute what we must assume to be the hallucination brought on by the hypnotism. However, I cannot so quickly disregard the title of the film. Where is the troll? Puzzled, one must return to the film and look for clues. The throwing of the tin pan is described as "setting out the trap". While this could mean trapping water, it could also be trapping the troll. The viewer whom the actor addresses might not be us, but might be the troll watching from off screen. If that is so, then it is the troll who is hypnotised and the angry cat might be exactly that, the narrator's cat attacking the mesmerized and trapped troll. However, the title still remains problematic. How is the troll a pet, if the protagonist's intentions are to trap and kill it? A better title for the film I am describing would be "Troll Trap". A third interpretation that the cat's name is "Troll" would be valid but highly unsatisfying. Regardless, Stevens does successfully create a film with some intriguing characteristics. By accepting the limitations of budget, equipment and resources, he contained Pet Troll to a single room and dismissed the practice of synchronous sound. Through the destruction of the fourth wall, the film is quite engaging. We are drawn in to (but not quite hypnotised by) the voice and the story being told. Only after the film is finished to we begin to question things and feel unsatisfied.

Following in the same tradition of minimal, one-room experimental narratives, Charles Konowal made A Quiet Moment. Set in a tiny bathroom, this filmic poem demonstrates Konowal's strong cinematic aesthetic. It is a beautiful little film filled with clever camera work, radiant lighting and smooth editing. The conclusion where the toilet is flushed is comical but anticlimactic. Like Pet Troll, A Quiet Moment declines making any strong statements.

It is my feeling that these two films, and many others like them, were not made to entertain but rather to confuse. By giving the audience something so alien to the commercial norm, the filmmaker forces the viewer to reinterpret the methods of spectatorship to which they are accustomed.

Exactly how these filmmakers came to approach their films in this way is not entirely clear to me, but it is likely that the Filmpool was not only the source of facilities but also of ideas. Since its inception, the Filmpool has been both an equipment access centre as well as a "film club" where interested people gather to watch movies. In an attempt to keep in touch with what their counterparts in other cities were doing, the latest alternative films were often screened. Amongst those films may have been other minimal films such as those by Ellie Epp (currents), Michael Snow (Wavelength), and Chris Gallagher (The Nine O'Clock Gun). It was the style of the day to avoid content. Acting and dialogue were mainstream and therefore crass and to be avoided. The only pure cinema was one which defied all the conventions and denied the expected pleasures to its spectators. Many of those films were critically praised for their lack of clarity. Influence of this ideology shows in the works of Stevens and Konowal. However, I do sense a tension between these filmmakers' need to comply with the film/art communities minimalistic trend and the desire to create a piece of entertainment to show to the general public. The resulting films were a fusion of the two needs, minimal films with puzzling endings to "reward" the viewer with a (lower case "j") joke.

Equally puzzling is Steven Surjik's Razor In The Wind. With this film, the co-op proved that it could put together a technically sound dramatic structure film. Although lacking dialogue, the lighting, camerawork and editing were all superb. However, no matter how many times I've seen it, its message continues to elude me. It is the crowning achievement in the questionable Art-of-Confusion.

Confusion must not have proven to be a rewarding enough goal as it did not evolve into a large body of work for any of these filmmakers. While Surjik moved east to find success in commercial film (Wayne's World 2), Konowal took a stint with the NFB and turned his attention to documentary. Stevens continued to be a Filmpool member for many years, but never made another film of his own.

Another filmmaker from our co-op's formative years was Joanne Reilly. Along with her husband Steve, she created at least five films and numerous videos. While her counterparts were intellectualizing the filmmaking process, Reilly was attempting to inject heart into her films. While Paradox At Five seems like a naive rendition of a Dada film, there is not doubt of the joy which went into making it. In A Message For Shamus, Reilly commits the ultimate [modernist] sin of giving her film a didactic purpose, it is a time capsule for her newborn son. Fortunately, the Saskatchewan film community has never been highly judgemental of the direction its artists take. Reilly was left on her own to drift from film poem (Reflections) to documentary (Prairie Motorcycle) to children's drama (The New Toy) and still maintaining the same support from her peers at the co-op. While Shamus is Reilly's only film which is overtly about her family, most of her work reflects this subject in one way or another. For example, Reflections begins as a formal piece about reflective surfaces but becomes a metaphorical film about Joanne's self image as a wife and mother and concludes as a portrait of the Reilly family.

Some aspects of Joanne Reilly's introspective self-analytical films may have been labelled as little more than home movies in their time. This type of personal filmmaking has only recently returned to being fashionable. Looking at the films by Reilly, Konowal and Stevens leads me to wonder if our current film producing members are in tune with and/or following the trends that exist in experimental filmmaking today.

Throughout the eighties and nineties, the Filmpool has experienced a tremendous influx of new members, especially from the University of Regina film program. More and more, the films which influence the membership are seen through the school rather than through the co-op. The direction of the works produced at Filmpool are split between dramatic and experimental, but the co-op manages to maintain a non-judgemental stance.

One new film, Diane Ouellette's Srassha (1996), appears to be influenced by both history and current trends. I saw this film as a mythopoetic film (such as Brakhage's Dog Star Man or Kenneth Anger's Scorpio Rising) which I would loosely describe as an experimental film which tells mythic tales in a highly metaphoric and poetic way. Ouellette claims that this film was greatly influenced by her time spent in a Catholic boarding school. The "story", as close as I would be able to interpret it after only one viewing, is about an angel who is watching over a young girl (who is codified as "innocent" through her act of skipping rope). The angel is shrouded in darkness and seems likely to be the angel of death. A woman who is covered with mud is lying in a bath of red liquid. The earth as well as the blood, being strong metaphors associated with women, denote this figure as an earth goddess. I expected a collision between Catholicism and Humanism would be the central theme of the film. However, the lounging pose denotes this goddess as indifferent to the actions of the people. Meanwhile, the angel is seen in progressively brighter lit settings until eventually the girl approaches him, feathers in hand. He appears now to be more of a guardian angel, watching protectively over her. We can interpret the angel as having double role, he is both guardian and death. Fear is destroyed when he is accepted.
The soundtrack of Srassha consists of a woman's voice accompanied by some vague, bassy music. The narration consists of fragmented lines and words such as "I am pain, I am woman". This approach is similar to many avant-garde films which have been made by women in the Toronto area over the past few years. The words carry the properties of a diary, an outlet to express the pain, apprehension, confusion, doubts and changes Ouellette must have been feeling. The clever mixture between the sound and the images creates a tension to help establish the dreamlike quality in this film. However, the fragmented voice is somewhat distracting from the far more powerful visual side of the piece. I personally would have preferred to watch the film silent or with only music.

I would like to conclude that Ouellette is just as influenced by the history and trends of avant-garde as her early eighties Filmpool predecessors were. However, other than Brakhage, Ouellette claims not to have seen any of the early avant-garde films I feel set the groundwork for her piece. Furthermore, she seems to be unaware of the work of her Toronto contemporaries. Why then do I see a reflection of these other works in hers? Perhaps in reaction to similar upbringings, the use of powerful religious icons and the disruption of the dramatic norms is a natural reaction for any film artist, even without being influenced by others who have done similar things. Without seeming fatalistic, perhaps there are certain formal and stylistic directions that any artist will gravitate to, given certain tools and (lack of) resources.

In conclusion, it appears to me that the isolation of living in Regina, where the range of influence is always limited, does not prevent filmmakers from evolving. Parallel evolution will exist because the avant-garde is not immune to influence from our shared culture, mass media, politics, world events and religion. The Saskatchewan Filmpool may seem like an island, but perhaps it is really a peninsula off the continent of contemporary art and film.

Gerald Saul 2005