The Canadian Experimental Scene as it looks to this filmmaker from Toronto


Experimental filmmaking proliferated in Canada in the 70's. (In the 60's, Joyce Wieland, Michael Snow in Toronto via New York, Jack Chambers in London  and David Rimmer in Vancouver worked variously within a visionary, structural, materialist matrix.) Today, all types of practice co-exist, with certain developments shaping shifts or directions not only in the making of films but in the make-up of audiences: the influence of video and other new technologies in image and sound production; feminist film practice and criticism; Super 8 as a specialized medium within experimental film; filmmaking on issues of sexuality especially from the gay and lesbian communities; and interaction between video and film, between documentary and experimental, between narrative and experimental all function around and about the 'core' experimental practice.


Interest in the formal, materialist aspects of film, prevalent in the 70's, continues; for example, Michael Snow's Seated Figures presents perceptual experiences produced by camera movement, in this case, tracking and See You Later/Au Revoir was recorded on high- speed 1" video, slowed down and transferred to film for a seeing only possible by these means. John Porter adds to his 200 plus collection of short Super 8 man-with-a-camera dances. Carl Brown is working with dyeing, toning and tinting footage thereby manipulating the colour and texture of the surface and  the image embedded within it. Optical printing or some form of rephotography to alter and combine images is in evidence in many filmmakers' work—in this programme, for example, films by Barbara Sternberg, Anne-Marie Fleming, Annette Mangaard. In this area, also, some exploration of video, laser, and computer technology figures in work by Al Razutis and recent films by Bruce Elder and David Rimmer. Commentary on the media and re-presentation of media imagery or other selected found footage which figured strongly in both Rimmer's and Razutis' work finds new expression in the work of Montreal's Jean-Claude Bustros, for example.


The trend by many younger filmmakers towards working in smaller formats to escape high film production costs has encouraged a lot of energetic activity. A strong direction in this filmmaking practice is an examination of sexuality and sexual behaviour. Often these films are of the 'rough and ready' Super 8 mode (Buce La Bruce and Gwendolyn, for examples) and a lot of this work, by gays and lesbians, is well-supported by large audiences from these communities. Besides work done in the 'rough and ready' style that attempts to undermine traditional avant-garde aesthetics, other smaller format films work in the intersection of the instinctual and the formal approaches—they use the 'low brow' formats to their advantage to create complex , carefully constructed, yet playful, works. 


Despite feminism, or, perhaps, because of it, there are still fewer women experimental filmmakers than men (though the small-format work may prove this wrong). This may be accounted for since the rise in experimental film in Canada happened in the 70's, a time that saw both the expanded use of video both in art schools and feminist organizations and the entry of more women into the field of media arts. Also, some women move back and forth between narrative or documentary and experimental film, perhaps from the need not to be doubly marginalized—for women's voices to be heard in the broad arena (for instance, Patricia Gruben, Anette Mangaard). There is also, as mentioned earlier, movement back and forth between video and film in production and in exhibition. (Paula Fairfield, Marion McMahon, b.h.Yael are examples.)


The majority of experimental work of the late 70-80's can be seen as a move from an interest in the medium itself or from commentary on or critique of its uses to a concern with film as a means of exploring self, identity, memory, place and differing perceptions of reality. Finding ways to tell our stories, express our perspectives/perceptions - telling 'stories' that are densely layered or disjunctive and which question the fictions of the reality we call our lives; story-telling via repetition and through interruptions; filmmaking that combines formal or filmic interests with subject and social and political concerns; presentations whereby the audience position is open, undetermined by authorial direction/camera. I see also, in recent years, a shift in this work, or amongst some of it, towards something of the spirititual—an evocation of or a search for spirit, a hinting at, a brief glimpse or remembrance of spirit—perhaps a return to light , to the 'perceptual reality' of Jack Chambers, to vision or the visionary.


So, experimental film is alive in Canada in 1991—and still very much in the margins, a margin, it would seem, without national boundaries. When Yann Beauvais was in Toronto in February 1991, he described the situation in France which was almost identical with that in Canada. Here, unlike in France, we do have government production grants available for experimental film, but we are still waiting for the day that our National Gallery or the Art Gallery of Ontario will screen experimental film five days a week, like the Pompidou Centre does!  To that future—may it finally come. 


(Written for the catalogue, "The Visual Aspect: Recent Canadn Experimental Films" 1991, edited by Rose Lowder)