The Secret Path

You may have noticed there was a day this summer when Canada “went dark.” It was August 20th, the day the Tragically  Hip performed for the last time. Hip lead singer, front trudeau-the-hip-concert-kingstonman extraordinaire, Canadian superstar Gord Downie had recently announced that he had a brain tumour and was terminally ill. Since making music has always been his passion, he and the Hip went on a farewell tour and despite the ravages of cancer, he performed full-throttle at each and every show, somehow finding the energy and the courage to power through. Their final trudeau-downiedate was in their hometown of Kingston Ontario, just a little ways down the road from Ottawa. Our Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, was in the front row, and spoke for all of Canada when he thanked Gord and the whole band for their decades of artistic serviced to the country. It was a stirring night. The end is coming for Gord and he knew it, you could see it in his eyes, feel it every time he was overcome by emotion, but instead of making it about him, he chose to use this spotlight (and believe me, about 32 out of our 33 million strong l3z58mkrpopulation were tuned in one way or another) to speak on behalf of Canada’s indigenous population.

Since that night, as Downie inches closer to his final days, he’s still pouring his last energies into speaking up for our Aboriginal people. His latest endeavor is a tribute to Chanie Wenjack – in music, graphic novel, and animated form. 10 poems were turned into an album, which was turned into a graphic novel, which was turned into an animated film. They all tell the story of one boy, who represents the many, many more just like him, our first nations children ripped from the arms of their mothers, out of their communities, and into residential schools. Residential schools were run by church and state with the sole purpose of ‘civilizing’ the savages. gord-downie-sheila-north-wilsonProhibited from speaking their languages, practicing their spirituality, or honouring their cultures, teachers stripped them of their identity. Many children suffered terrible abuse, but all of these kids were deprived of their childhoods, and all of the families suffered terribly as I’m sure you would if your child was removed, perhaps never to be seen again, or if you were lucky enough to be reunited, we can only hope that you can find a common language in which to communicate. Communities were destroyed in what many Aboriginal people refer to as a genocide. It’s a dark part of Canadian history that wasn’t acknowledged until very recently. Today our First Nations peoples often live in poverty and other consequences of this intergenerational tragedy. Healing is not an Aboriginal problem, it’s something we need to address as an entire country. Gord Downie is doing his part.

If you are so inclined, The Secret Path can be streamed here for free (or in fact, down below). I hope you take the time to do so, and to share it with a friend. The images are haunting, but the lyrics will punch you in the gut. I was in tears by the third track.

Chanie Wenjack was only 12  years old when residential school became unbearable to him and he tried to find his way home. Not knowing where he was or where he was going, he walked until he collapsed in the snow, tired, lonely, starving, and he died. But there are dozenssecret-path and hundreds and maybe even thousands of Chanies dotting our countryside. Lonely and miserable, many children made an escape an attempt only to lose digits or limbs to frostbite, arms and legs on traintracks, or lives to exposure, or to punishment when recaputured. How many tiny bodies are still unaccounted for? The fact that we don’t even know is proof of how little white Canada cared for Aboriginal people, and this is a guilty fact we struggle to reconcile even today.

One day, likely sooner than later, Gord Downie will die and our whole country will mourn a great man, and a good man too. But Downie’s using his last work, and his last breaths to remind us that there are many others worth mourning too.




[As great and heartfelt as Gord Downie’s work is, it’s also really great to hear from Aboriginal artists themselves. Check out our coverage of the ImagineNative film fest]

Queen Mimi

Director Yaniv Rokah is a barrista\wannabe actor in Santa Monica, where he encounters the woman who lives in the laundromat across the street.

Marie ‘Mimi’ Haist was born in 1925, married young and ‘obeyed’ her domineering husband. After 29 years of marriage she was left with nothing when he preferred his mistress. She was out on the streets in her 50s, homeless, spending her days in a renee-zellweger-062313-kiss-10__optlaundromat until one cold night a kind laundromat owner didn’t kick her out at closing time. She’s been living in Fox Laundry ever since – some 25 years now.

The documentary is pretty low-key about how the laundromat guy, Stan Fox, was really her saviour. Not just for letting her stay, but for knowing her story, and for putting up with her. She’s not exactly a picnic; if she doesn’t like you, you’ll know it. But if you show her kindness, she’s a blast. She doesn’t work for Stan Fox but she does work in the laundromat, undercutting his business and often making more money than the actual employees. She likes nothing better than putting on some tunes and dancing her head off.

She’s 88 years young in the film and dresses like she’s 12. Her face is one of years hard-lived. Her teeth are nonexistent. Her back hunched, perhaps a side effect of sleeping scrunched up in a lawn chair in a laundromat for so long.

You kind of have to watch this film. Queen Mimi is a character, one you’d hardly credit in a movie, and one you have to see in a documentary to believe. She’s got her philosophies, screen-shot-2013-09-24-at-2-05-59-pmher hard-won wisdom, and an outlook that’s totally unique. She’s cantankerous and whimsical and totally intolerant of homeless people (she doesn’t see the irony). And she has a knack for making famous friends: Zach Galifianakis has taken her to movie premieres (he met her while doing his laundry some 18 years ago), Renee Zellweger takes her shopping, and if you promise to keep a secret, Zach’s about to put her up in an apartment all her own. She hasn’t had a home since 1976.



What a fascinating portrait of a complex human being. We step over homeless people all the time, but everybody has a story, and this is Mimi’s. It’s heartening to see so many people rally around her, wonderful to see that people care. I kind of wish the same for all those lining the sidewalks.


Wiener Dog

I love dogs. I have 4 dogs and I like them more than I like most people. They’re just more genuine, you know? You always know where you stand with a dog. I have 2 shih-tzus, 1 yorkie, and 1 beautiful little mutt. No wiener dogs, but not because I don’t like them. It’s because Sean thinks it’s cruel to breed a dog to be disabled. And he’s right; the short legs and long back of a Dachshund causes them to suffer from ruptured vertebral discs on top of bowed legs and elbow dislocation. Seeing my dogs joyfully running around outside, I would be heartbroken to have one little dog who just couldn’t join in.

Wiener-Dog is a movie ostensibly about a super cute Dachshund who gets homepage_wiener-dog-2016-2passed from one weird owner to another. The film is more like 4 shorts that only have a dog in common. I didn’t even believe that it was the same wiener dog in all 4 vignettes. The first two are clearly linked, the last 2 not so much. The shorts also become increasingly non-entertaining. I thought the first one was the strongest: a father picks up a puppy for his young son, who has recently survived cancer. The dog sparks many serious conversations between mother (Julie Delpy) and son – motherhood, personality, free will, death. But all of the conversations are straight out of a what-not-to-say handbook, with Delpy literally telling her son that her childhood dog Croissant was raped by a dog with AIDS named Mohammed. The satire is delicious. There’s an explosion of joy on the screen as a boy and his dog play together, but this outburst of happiness is quickly punished, and the dog changes hands.

This is how it is with director Todd Solondz. He doesn’t care about your wiener-dog-film-trailer-stillcomfort, he’s not here to cushion the blow. And he’s sure as hell not here to give you a happy ending, so keep that in mind. Next up for Wiener Dog, she gets adopted by a character from another Todd Solondz movie, Welcome to the Dollhouse. Dawn is all grown up now, and played with Greta Gerwig. She runs into childhood…acquaintance (?) Brandon (Kieran Culkin) in a 7-11, and suddenly Wiener Dog’s on a road trip through some really heavy issues. She also meets disgruntled professor Danny DeVito and bitter old hag Ellen Burstyn. Through it all, Solondz’s camera is unflinching, perversely lingering over the gross and unbearable.

Solondz’s rage is evident in spades, from the meta film school vignette to the open mocking of the audience’s queasiness with a tongue-in-cheek intermission (and a great song – The Ballad of the Wiener-Dog). Solondz is all about finding humour in the darkness, and Wiener-Dog is an innocent bystander to all kinds of human stupidity. The film drips with cynicism. It was too much for Sean. And while I can’t really profess to enjoying it, I deeply appreciated the fuckedupness of it.



My Old Lady

Mathias (Kevin Kline) is a middle-aged with almost nothing to his name after several unhappy marriages and a serious problem with alcohol. He inherits no cash at all when his father dies, but does get willed an apartment in Paris, so he scrapes together his last pennies for a ticket to France, and off he goes to solve all his problems.

Except there’s an old lady living in his apartment – Mathilde (Maggie Smith). myoldlady1And her daughter Chloe too, as it turns out (Kristin Scott Thomas). His father purchased the apartment some 40 years ago, but bought it en viager, which means he got a pretty good deal on the price, but he had to agree that not only could the current owner keep living in it until she died, he’d have to pay her for the privilege. So for 40 years the father has been paying this old lady to keep living in a home that he technically owns, and now Mathias has inherited a property he can’t sell, and which is actually a debt, with a monthly reverse-rent that must be paid or he forfeits ownership altogether.

It sounds like something that could only happen in a movie but the life lease is a real thing in the cuckoo real estate market of Paris. It’s a crazy gamble, and it doesn’t always pay off. One man who made such an investment paid and paid on a property until the day he died, and then his widow took over the payments for another 32 years because the original owner, Mme Jeanne Calment, lived to be 122! You can’t predict how long someone will live, and you’re effectively betting on their death when you strike such a deal. In the film we learn that Mathias’s father may have been otherwise motivated, but Mathias is in a tight spot, and Mathilde is looking surprisingly robust for a 90 year old.

My Old Lady is interesting for more than just its quirky real estate. It’s a tale of family strife, narcissism, childhood trauma, intergenerational sin, and forgiveness. Kline reveals his character’s damage and distress in small doses, and the 3 leads together have great chemistry, although it’s a bit difficult to watch Smith be the bad guy. Nobody looks good beating up on a nonagenarian. Director Israel Horovitz puts forth a straight-forward film that plods along a little slowly to its inevitable conclusion, but I was nevertheless charmed by 3 actors doing solid work in the beautiful city of light.





equity-is-such-a-good-wall-street-movie-you-almost-forget-that-all-the-characters-are-womenEquity is a cold, unblinking look at Wall Street’s backrooms, through the eyes of a female dealmaker who’s trying to recover from a failed transaction. Her client’s shares traded too low during the initial public offering, and now she’s got a target on her back. Equity throws us into the immediate aftermath and we watch her as she tries to save her career by putting together a bigger, better deal.

Anna Gunn (Breaking Bad) is well cast as the investment banker protagonist. She is cold, smart, and driven, a shark among fish. She never backs down from anyone, and gets us to root for her character without being particularly endearing or warm. That is Equity’s strongest trait: it gets us to respect both Gunn’s character and her antagonist, federal prosecutor Alysia Reiner, without resorting to familiar gender stereotypes for wither character.

equity-2If you have at least a passing interest in finance, Equity’s story will draw you in and keep your attention until the end, avoiding most cliches throughout, at least when it comes to the main females. The male supportung characters fare less well, as they are all thinly sketched stereotypes (e.g., sexist boss, backstabbing boyfriend, and frat boy internet sensation). It is refreshing, though, for women to be the most compelling and realistic characters for a change.

Equity is no more or less than a Wall Street drama. It is a well-done addition to the genre, but feels somewhat constrained by its chosen niche. With that said, I appreciated that Equity unapologetically shows that women can be just as ruthless as men and shouldn’t be held to a higher standard based on outdated conceptions of femininity or motherhood. I also liked that the writers did not force a tidy resolution on the audience (which may be tied to the fact that a spun-off TV show is in development).

In the end Equity intentionally leaves the audience cold, but the challenge to gender stereotypes sticks even as the story beats start to fade from memory. I’d count Equity as a success thematically, and it’s entertaining to boot. In financial terms, it’s not a career defining deal but it’s still one that deserves handshakes and high fives all around on closing.


Without knowing much of his back story, or any plans for his future, we experience the day-to-day existence of home care nurse, David (Tim Roth). Extremely compassionate toward his terminally ill patients, he devotes himself to their care and comfort, forming a special kind of intimacy that’s hard to understand from the outside.

But for all of David’s efficiency and dedication with his clients, his personal life is a wreck. He’s healing from some sort of trauma, isolated and depressed, secretly needing his clients as much as they need him.

chronicI found this film to be deeply moving, not least of all because of Tim Roth’s strong performance. He brings dignity but also humanity to the role. We slip easily into the shoes of both care giver and the cared for, and both are unsettling experiences.

Director Michel Franco keeps us grounded in each moment by omitting a musical score. There are no distractions to be found in Chronic.

Franco’s camera, conservative in movement and breadth, penetrates to the fragile core of life, and stays beyond the last breath. The stillness of the picture forces us to feel each second ticking by, life slipping slowly between the fingers, blood pumping toward its finale. Franco’s tone matches Roth’s reserved performance, the colours subdued, the sound restrained. This proximity to death and the realism of what’s on screen is uncomfortable. You might even wonder if it’s worth going through this hardship, but that’s exactly how you should be feeling: to be the nurse in a palliative situation is much worse; to be the patient, unthinkable. Until it isn’t. Until one day it’s you, or your mother, or your spouse. And that’s what’s most disquieting. Michel Franco is voyeuristic as a director, and we sense the detachment, and its necessity.

Chronic is cold, bold, and a stark reminder that in the end, death comes for us all.



Anthony Weiner and Huma Abedin at the press conference announcing his intention to stay in New York’s mayoral race despite new revelations about his explicit text messages to women sent after a similar scandal in 2011 that had forced him to resign from Congress, New York City, July 23, 2013


“Good to see a bunch of political junkies like me,” quipped a beaming NHFF programmer as he introduced last week’s screening of Weiner. “You’d think most people have had enough of political scandals at this point. But not you”. The packed Music Hall Loft cheered in agreement.

I’ve been so busy feverishly reading everything I can find about the American election lately that I couldn’t help seeking out anything the festival had to offer on elections and the issues facing voters this year.

There’s nothing quite like a public meltdown. I’ve caught myself snickering out loud all morning just thinking about some of Trump’s most quotable sulking from last night’s debate. I didn’t know nearly as much about Anthony Weiner’s crash and burn so was looking forward to learning more with Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg’s documentary Weiner.

Directors Kriegman and Steinberg were given seemingly unlimited behind the scenes access to Weiner’s 2013 campaign for Mayor of New York City, just two years after his resignation from Congress after his first sexting scandal. Amazingly, everything seems to be going just fine with the campaign until another embarrassing photo resurfaces. Kriegman and Steinberg’s cameras are there from day one to capture his staff’s attempts at damage control and some seriously uncomfortable moments between Weiner and wife Huma Abedin.

“So, yes, I did the thing,” Weiner admits at the very start of the film. “But I did a lot of other things too”. His self-destructive habits, of which his fits of public anger are as damaging as his possible sex addiction, make it hard to find anyone but himself to blame for his downfall. But as tempting as it is to laugh at him (the festival audience laughed, cheered, and jeered at he screen so much you’d think you were at a midnight genre screening), a nagging feeling  of weird sympathy for him may give you pause. There’s something almost unjust about seeing a charismatic politician fighting so passionately for his constituents brought down by such an embarrassing scandal. Sure, the story plays well on late night comedy shows and his last name- hilariously appropriate to the fourteen year-old boy in all of us- makes his mistakes impossible to forget. But he did other things too. And this documentary makes a strong case that his wiener isn’t the only thing he should be remembered for.

Holy crap. Never mind. I literally just read an article about him carrying on texting a 15 year-old girl. Fuck that guy.

So…. still. It’s worth watching for the voyeuristic pleasure of watching an ambitious and prideful man dig a hole for himself. And it might just make you ask some important questions about what really matters when deciding who to vote for and about the media’s obsession with scandal.





A Woman, A Part

Maggie Siff (Sons of Anarchy) plays Anna, a woman who wanted nothing more than to become an actress all of her life, and left her friends in the lurch in order to pursue her dreams. Now a successful TV actress, she hates her life. She’s disillusioned with her career. She wants out. But her contract says 5 more years. Burned out, she retreats to the last place she really felt engaged: New York City, where her friends have moved on and her famous face isn’t quite welcome.

It turns out that things are a little more complicated than she imagined: Oscar a_woman_a_part_john_ortiz_maggie_siff_cara_seymour_photo_by_chris_dapkins(John Ortiz), an ex lover, is married with a kid, though his relationship isn’t rock solid. He’s excited to have Anna around again, but you wonder if it’s real friendship he’s after, or the attention she can bring to his flagging career. A play wright, he’s got one ace in the whole: a new script he’s developed that revolves around a character that very closely (and unflatteringly) resembles Anna. Kate (Cara Seymour) is more reluctant to see her old friend. Is it because of the betrayal, or something else?

These three make a very complex and compelling little story that unfolds around more general themes of addiction, gentrification, sexism, burnout, and friendship.

Director Elisabeth Subrin’s appropriately looks at women in the entertainment industry, and the demands and expectations that constrain them. As the title suggests, Anna is not merely the part she plays, but seems to have trouble extricating herself from that notion. Who is she outside of Hollywood? A simple change in geography is clearly not the answer.

A Woman, A Part works best as a critique of the film industry, a theme that resonates all the more when you factor in Siff’s own most famous role (as the a-woman-a-partgirlfriend on Sons of Anarchy), which registers a double impact for every blow the film lands. Literally seen swimming amid a sea of scripts containing empty female parts, Siff is every female actress of a certain age searching for meaningful work. Anna’s opposite, Nadia (Dagmara Dominczyk), has given up her own work to be the rock of her family; her husband, Oscar, depends on her to be the stable one at home. But Nadia doesn’t want to be the rock anymore – “the rock is boring” she says, a line many of you will want to high-five because women are more than just someone else’s support (note to Jax!).

There are no big dramatics here, but a respect for the characters and their flaws, and the space for some talented actors to showcase those nuances. It’s a small film that explores not just Gender as a general theme but on an intimate scale as one woman tests her own self-perception.



Shorts: ImagineNative Film Festival

God’s Acre

You hear the squelching of his boots before you register much else. An older godsacre_02Aboriginal man is paying his respects at a rustic grave. The mud takes hold of his boots, lets go only reluctantly. He plods back to his humble shack, and sets to work counting stores. His traps are empty. Nothing grows. A way of life very likely already threatened is now near extinction with floods inching ever closer.

Two Mounties shows up to serve him a final evacuation notice; he’s the last hold out. “Even the animals knew enough to get out of here,” they tell him, and though he knows this to be true, he is unable to leave. With less than 15 minutes running time, we can only guess at this man’s bond to the land, why it means so much to him, why he feels so tied to his home that he puts himself in peril just to stay. Likewise we can only guess at what life in the city would be like for him, a man who still finds dinner in a trap he laid in woods he knows like the back of his hand; a man who signs his name with an X.

With very little dialogue, Lorne Cardinal masters the character and gives him dignity as he wrestles with a life-changing decision, with only hinted-at spiritual repercussions. First-time director Kelton Stepanowich shot God’s Acre in Fort Chipewyan, Alberta, and manages some striking imagery within his limited budget. The sound mixing is perhaps not what it should be but this is clearly a film maker with something to say about Aboriginal identity, and his is one of many voices that needs to be heard.

Dig It If You Can

This film by Kyle Bell serves as an introductory piece to Native American artist, Steven Paul Judd. Judd is a mostly self-taught man, whether it be film, Photoshop, even writing for television. The need to create drives him but his Native (Kiowa-Choctaw) ancestry is what inspires him.

spj3Growing up on a reservation, Judd had limited exposure to outside influences like film and television, and what little he did see never reflected his own image. Today he creates the kind of images that would have comforted his younger self in a style blending pop culture and Native art that’s all his own. Banksy-esque, even Warhol-esque, his art is at once familiar and thought-provoking. His bold, “indigenized” pieces, overtly or covertly political, give people pause. But more than that, they offer his people representation, a chance to see their own culture and identity as a direct influence on the popular culture of today.

Director Kyle Bell (himself Thlopthlocco/Creek) takes a cool approach to the film’s subject, never quite achieving intimacy, unafraid to use up 2 of the film’s economic 20 minutes keeping Judd at a remove. But he accomplishes what he sets out to do: he gives voice to a subversive Indian artist, and thus gives voice to an entire people.

7 Minutes

Marie’s walk home from her campus library is almost exactly 7 minutes. After being aggressively harassed one night, she can no longer help noticing just how vulnerable a young Native woman in Saskatoon can be. Her experience of reporting the incident, to the seemingly uninterested local police, only makes her feel less safe.

7 Minutes, the 7-minute documentary short from Tasha Hubbard, recreates 7min.pngMarie’s experience through a re-enactment narrated using Marie’s own words.

I’m not always a fan of re-enactments in documentaries. Like most people, for example, I was captivated by 2008’s Oscar-winner Man on Wire, but could have done without the fake footage. The recreation of Marie’s walk home, however, serves 7 Minutes quite nicely. First, it spares its subject, who is already brave enough to tell her story, from having to appear onscreen. Second, it is artfully shot, edited and, though I would have rather they tone down the spooky music, does an excellent job building tension. Lastly, it gives us the chance to imagine what it must have been like for her on that very scary night.

As a film, 7 Minutes turns out not to be long enough; Hubbard is very effective at covering the night in question in great and harrowing detail. Marie’s summary in the film’s final minutes about her experience with the police and her conclusions about violence towards First Nations women feel rushed. As a result the film feels like a short segment of an important and thought-provoking feature-length documentary.


Films like Mannahatta are always tough to watch as a white male. They serve as a reminder that what’s mine has come at someone else’s expense. Manhattan is the classic example of that, a chunk of land “bought” for nothing where the tiniest square of land is now worth millions of dollars, from high-end department stores to small neighbourhood pizzerias.

mannahatta_fb6a8815_movMannahatta focuses on one of those Manhattan pizzerias. The film maintains a tight focus in order to convey its message, and that is a wise choice. Mannahatta is a small story of a new employee at the pizzeria who is haunted by a man that no one else sees. At first he is confused and annoyed by this ghost but eventually he listens to and understands him. It’s a cooperative awakening and we see that a joint effort is required to truly bury the horrors of the past.

The biggest problems are best dealt with by breaking them down into smaller, manageable bits. Mannahatta takes that approach and it succeeds in its endeavour. It is thought-provoking without being preachy, and its message is both obvious and worthy of repetition. We are all in this together, and while we cannot change the past, we can move forward together if we are guided by compassion and empathy. One step at a time.



Check out Cinema Axis for more coverage from the ImagineNative film festival.



A Stray

Adan, a young Muslim refugee in Minneapolis, is temporarily homeless and forever between jobs. This film is cross section of his every day experience. On this particular day, he’s cut off from home, wandering around with nowhere to go: a stray. But then he crosses paths with a fellow stray, a scruffy mutt that, being Muslim, Adan can’t even bring himself to touch. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t get attached…

Adan (Barkhad Abdirahman) is a little immature, and finds the outside world to be all-too tempting. He’s not equipped to care for himself, much less a dog that his religion rules unclean. But perhaps he sees a bit of himself in the mutt he calls Layla.

Writer-director Musa Syeed shows us a side of Minneapolis rarely seen – the mosques, alleys, businesses, and social services accessed by its influx of Somalian refugees (the largest population outside of Africa). The film is mv5bzmrlnzzlmjutnge5ys00ytnhltk4odqtngzmztm5mdi3ztk3xkeyxkfqcgdeqxvyntqxnjm5ndc__v1_sy1000_sx1000_al_meandering but not as aimless as it first seems. Adan has a lot of room for self-actualization and self-improvement, but Syeed doesn’t insult us with a quick fix. Instead, the dog is a catalyst for Adan’s adopting a gentler perspective to the unknown. The result is a realistic testament to the immigrant experience. Both Adan and the stray dog are unwanted but the film resists a too on-the-nose metaphor. Instead it chooses to see possibility and understanding, which is a beautiful thing to see in theatres, especially at this particular time when the question of refugees is so urgent, and some people’s response so full of hate and ignorance.

Barkhad Abdirahman gives a strong performance, thankfully since he’s the anchor in this minimalist story. He and Ayla (yes, the dog gets second billing!) have excellent chemistry, and his care for her pulls our heart strings gently in the right direction.