Feature Length Filmmaking in Saskatchewan.
Gerald Saul, July/1997
One cannot read a history of the Saskatchewan Filmpool without finding a note about how the original members first came together and honed their filmmaking skills on the set of Who Has Seen the Wind (Directed by Allan King). This feature film was produced by Don Haig of Toronto and shot in Arcola, Saskatchewan in 1976. Feature films have always attracted more attention than shorts. Many years after such films as Who Has Seen the Wind and The Hounds of Notre Dame (produced by Eda Lishman and Fil Fraser) have faded from our memories, Kevin Dewalt and Maureen McDonald's production of The Dukes takes its turn in the limelight (directed by Rob King and written by Peter Bryant). I hope that we do not forget all of the other Saskatchewan filmmakers who have also tried their hand at this form in the past.
Tv movies such as CBC's Love and Hate, the Colin Thatcher Story, (1989) The Greening of Ian Elliot (1990) were shot here with some support staff hired locally. Other direct-to-tv-or-video films made more extensive use of Saskatchewan people and resources such as last year's Crisis by Tony Togesta, Family Blessings with the magic lasso twirling Linda Carter and the Mind's Eye co-productions Decoy (1994) and Lyddie (1995). While these films may have been a boon to the welfare of our struggling film community, giving dozens of jobs to many skilled people, there were no opportunities for any of Saskatchewan's highly talented writers or directors.
Before Stephen Onda produced Prairie Doves (with Kelly McGillis and a British director) he put his faith in Saskatchewan's own Will Dixon to write and direct the 1994 movie-of-the-week, Guitarman. Dixon began his film career at the University of Regina where (along with early Filmpool member Angelos Hatzitolios) he created the award winning short film Heartline (1987). As a Filmpool member in the late eighties, Dixon finished Heartline and made another short, For Whom The Bell Rings (1989).
Guitarman is one of the only direct-to-tv features to have a Saskatchewan director, but was not the first. Most Regina cable subscribers have forgotten the two video features made solely with local talent, money and locations. In 1980, armed with a video camera and $200, Don Campbell created a fascinatingly minimalistic version of Frankenstein. With so few resources, Campbell improvised his effects with peculiar little tricks such as shooting day-for-night by simply switching to black-and-white video. Two years later Campbell repeated this ambitious venture with a cable version of 1984. A few years of film school cured him of his need to direct. He later turned his attentions to acting and is now a Regina based novelist.
Another notable self-motivated video-feature producer is Mike Politis of Lone Rider Productions in Saskatoon. Politis's prolific videography includes the 72 minute drama Kefi's Garage (1992) about the spiritual versus the economic value of the land in Saskatchewan. In 1996 Politis also released American Dream #137, a 90 minute black comedy about an admirable terrorist. Other video features have also been made in Saskatoon such as Michel Derbas's Eye For Eye through CFQC Tv in 1990 (ironically also about terrorists).
Although Saskatchewan directors' opportunities in tv movies have been few and far between, there is a different tune being whistled when we look at local for-the-screen features. In 1986 then University of Regina film professor Chris Gallagher completed a 117 minute experimental feature Undivided Attention. With the university being the only local institution to have assisted in this production, and with Gallagher leaving the university and the province shortly after its creation, it is largely overlooked in discussion of Saskatchewan film. However, this enchanting structural film featured many Saskatchewan locations and personalities.
With a combination of private, Saskatchewan Arts Board and Saskatchewan Filmpool monies, Gerald Saul and Brian Stockton produced and directed what is usually considered this provinces first locally made dramatic feature film, Wheat Soup. However, it is only recently that I have come to know of another which predated my own. Johnny Giesbrecht, a writer who lived, and still lives, in the town of Rosthern, created as his first film a 16mm dramatic feature. Begun in 1978, he was the producer, director, cinematographer as well as lead actor of The Hero. The completion of the film was delayed many years until its release in the early 80's. Even then, it did not see distribution until a few years later.
The production of Wheat Soup was done in contrary to most advice from the senior filmmakers at the time (1985-87). It was felt that novice filmmakers should work in short form and only progress to features once they have achieved some kind of recognition of their abilities. While this seems like a valid approach, the reality is that most filmmakers are remembered for their feature length work while the short films are much too quickly forgotten (which is not to say that our features are well remembered either). Following Wheat Soup, Stockton climbed right back onto the saddle of feature filmmaking, releasing The 24 Store in 1990. Other feature films slowly but surely followed.
Petros Danabassis's Private Dance (1995) is a testament to low-budget filmmaking. Shot quickly with a small cast, this black-and-white drama was made in Saskatoon on a shoe-string budget. Danabassis wore the producer and writer as well as the director's hat. Begun as a self-financed venture around 1992, he was able to shoot the film but not process the stock until support through the Filmpool and NFB finally arrived. The film is raw, shot in long takes reminiscent of Jim Jarmusch's Stranger Than Paradise (1985) but unfortunately without as cunning a script. Lost between camp and guerrilla-style realism, this film succeeds in neither direction so its destiny will unfortunately contain more black than white.
Richard Kerr's The Willing Voyeur... (1995) was about a young man who is faced with an old, unsolved mystery and, although supplied with an array of clues, finds no truth, only ghosts. Armed with a full sized crew, a 35mm camera and funding from multiple agencies including the Filmpool and SaskFilm, Kerr took his first step outside the realm of the avant-garde and into commercial-style filmmaking.
After directing an hour long film Jenny (super-8 version in 1998, 16mm version in 1990) Ray Ramayya emerged from LaRonge, traded "up" to 35mm and turned the lens to India with his feature drama Gungapor (1996).
With Moscow Summer (1996), Robin Schlaht maintained his experimental conventions developed during the production of his short films The People in Black (1993) and Sons and Daughters (1994) and turned them to the creation of this fascinating documentary, shot with a minimal crew in Moscow. The overwhelming response to this film has won Schlaht national recognition. It is certain that Schlaht's future lies in this province which has offered him such strong support.
If one was to poll Filmpool members about their dream projects, I suspect that a large portion of them would include an idea for a feature film. Some even have completed scripts drifting around. It is therefore curious to me how few of these plans grow to fruition. Perhaps it is the expense, but with the amount of support available through institutions such as SaskFilm, this cannot be the only reason. The long-form film carries with it a responsibility that is extremely intimidating. If it is an attribute of Canadians to be lacking in self-confidence, then the people of Saskatchewan must be terrific Canadians. Even when we manage to complete something, we often seem unable to promote our work. The problems seem endless. It is easy to lay blame on our shortage of visionary producers, on our lack of good contacts with distributers, on our insolation, on our economy, on our noisy NPR's, on anything but our courage. I know from experience, as I plod one step at a time towards completing my new feature, Life Is Like Lint (maybe 1997), that the only thing more frightening than starting a project is finishing it. I congratulate all those who have succeeded. I also wish to challenge all Saskatchewan filmmakers who have a dream of seeing their name at the end of a big long piece of celluloid to drag those scripts out of the drawer and get shooting. It's not easy, it's not fun, it's not gratifying, but it's better than not trying.
My apologies to any filmmakers out there who have made feature length works which I have overlooked here. I would very much appreciate hearing about any omissions I have made. Please write to me via the Filmpool office.
© Gerald Saul 2005