IN THIS ISSUE
by Martha Cooley
Short: Self Portrait
by Sylvia Mok
Feature: An Oral History of Wormwood’s Cinema
by Evan Bower
with Samira Eblaghi
The Shot List
Calls, Grants, Opportunities
A STRANGE ANNIVERSARY
As we draw closer to the anniversary of the COVID-19 global shut down, many of us, AFCOOP included, are reflecting on what this year has brought us and what it has changed in us. On March 16, 2020, our last day in the office, as we were beginning to realize the seriousness of the situation, Josh offered to clean out the fridge, a prescient move given the length of the closure that was to follow. In doing so, he accidentally threw out Iain’s lunch and, in a mood characterized by fear and something close to excitement, we ordered a pizza and shared it cautiously from across our large main-space table. We didn’t know at the time, as we sat there eating Yeah Yeahs and watching Trudeau’s national address (projected festively on the wall), that it was the beginning of what would prove to be a long, difficult, paradigm-shifting year. And of course, it’s far from over.
Still, anniversaries being what they are, I wanted to share a few reflections from AFCOOP’s experience of this time. The energy at the beginning of the closure was, as I said, something between anxiety and excitement. Like a giant global snow day, there were elements of working from home that initially seemed tantalizingly appealing. Roll out of bed and work in your PJs! Make elaborate multi-course lunches! Happy hour in the backyard! In our staff meetings, which now took place daily on this new program called Zoom, we strategized about how to continue serving the membership now that programs like FILM 5 were on pause and rentals were closed. In their place we quickly dreamed up new projects to keep busy. It was liberating to free ourselves from the programmatic calendar and try a whole new set of initiatives with clever (at least to us) names.
We interviewed members on Skype for a series we called Quarantine Filmmaker Dispatches, started a virtual Sequestered Screenwriters group (which is ongoing!), and held a number of stay-at-home filmmaking challenges called Balcony Diaries (roughly based on the idea of a 48hr film challenge but looser on the time limit). Summer was not typically a time when we held a lot of workshops, but since folks were at loose ends we organized a series of non-hierarchical online conversations called Coop Chats.
Meanwhile, there was of course very real fear and dread underlying our days. A large amount of my time was spent on national conference calls with other AFCOOP-like organizations voicing challenges and sharing strategies. There was a whole new set of ever-shifting government assistance funds to keep track of, there was the work of postponing projects and events, dealing with funding programs which had been put on hold, and monitoring AFCOOP’s budget, which was suddenly entirely different from previous years in terms of self-generated revenue.
Then in June, with the resurgence of Black Lives Matter protests spurred by horrific police brutality, AFCOOP began another more serious and urgent process of understanding what it means to be an ally and how to make meaningful contributions to the work of anti-racism and anti-oppression.
AFCOOP initially published a statement of solidarity with Black and Indigenous peoples, which, while well intentioned and useful as a launching point for action, is ultimately performative and harmful if that action does not follow. The work then has become about living up to that statement of solidarity and making good on our promises.
Before this summer’s call to action, AFCOOP had been making piecemeal attempts at various initiatives and policies related to diversity and inclusion. What marked these previous iterations was the lack of a systems-wide strategy and shared understanding of the overall goal. We were not immune to creating policies to check a box or designing programs in response to a particular funding call, rather than being thoughtful and intentional in our work in this area.
There were a few initiatives that staff felt we could implement right away and we used the momentum and heightened awareness that characterized the summer of 2020 to make some of those changes. I look forward to sharing more about this work in the April issue of WorkPrint.
As difficult as this year has been, the continued engagement of you, the membership, whether through participation in our programs, attending the virtual GMs or dropping off soup and homemade masks (thank you Dawn!) has made all this so much more possible and worthwhile. Thank you for turning on your video!
SELF PORTRAIT: SYLVIA MOK
In episode one of WorkPrint’s new shorts series, AFCOOP member Sylvia Mok invites us into her filmmaking world and shows us what inspires her to keep creating.
Click the image below to view the video.
AN ORAL HISTORY OF WORMWOOD’S CINEMA
by EVAN BOWER
(PHOTO BY JAMIE HUTT: From left, Peter Gaskin and Gordon Parsons in the projection booth of Wormwood’s Cinema on Gottingen Street.)
For over 20 years, Wormwood’s Dog and Monkey Cinema was Halifax’s beloved home for arthouse film — a gathering place for the city’s artists, eccentrics, and aesthetes. Created by Gordon Parsons and a group of like-minded cinephiles in the mid-‘70s, the theatre cultivated and catered to a burgeoning film culture in our city, and provided a year-round hub for specialty cinema that we’re missing to this day.
Since 2010, Carbon Arc Cinema has carried on the arthouse tradition in Halifax, and festivals like FIN and HIFF provide annual refuge for films outside of the multiplex system.
Still, there was something about Wormwood’s. Since the cinema closed its doors for good in 1998, its devotees are still finding each other online to swap stories, photos, and scans of the theatre’s iconic cinema guides.
THE EARLY DAYS
Peter Gaskin (co-owner): OK, the very beginning, 1974-75, something like that, AFCOOP had some members in it, let’s see, who was there — Lulu Keating, Gordon Parsons, Ken Pittman — they decided to get together and start a little film society. It started in March of 1976, and it screened once a week maybe, infrequently, at the National Film Board theatre on Barrington Street.
Lia Rinaldo (programmer/co-manager): I have a funny history with Wormwood’s in that I used to get taken there as a child, when they first started, back when they were in the NFB building. So from a very, very early age, I was an attendee and sitting on cushions in the aisles as a kid. When I started working there it was the mid-to-late ‘80s, and I started at 16 just kind of slinging popcorn, and then eventually became a licensed projectionist, and I think the youngest at the time there.
Ron Foley MacDonald (programmer/writer): I was 17, in high school, and I went to a screening of A Report on the Party and the Guests by Jan Němec, the Czech filmmaker, and that was the first time I went to [Wormwood’s] … I grew up in Halifax and was involved in the usual things that 17-year-olds would be, so this was my first connection with the real downtown art scene.
Peter: [Gordon Parsons] wanted to make the theatre less of a haphazard, volunteer-based organization and something that would be there to let people watch movies on a regular basis … so he started the commercial venture that is Wormwood’s, although Wormwood’s existed as a film society before that. That’s when he decided to expand outside the film board and build a little theatre at the top of the Turret building.
Ron: It was an interesting adventure. I think of Gordon Parsons as someone who created something out of nothing.
(PHOTO BY JOHN WAMBOLDT: Wormwood’s had four locations over the course of its lifetime. Here’s the third venue, on Gottingen Street, before a screening of High Lonesome: The Story of Bluegrass Music.)
“LOTS OF LAUGHING” AND “SHEER TERROR”
Peter: We had a two-projector system, they were very old Century C projectors found in a barn in Annapolis Royal, and they were pretty darn good. They were hearty, and man, they lasted the test of time, that’s for sure … I ran my thumb through one of the projectors one day — that hurt.
Ron: After they had the 35mm installed … I was a relief projectionist, but only in 16mm, because I found the 35mm to be terrifying. You had to move these two carbon rods together, and this spark flies between them. You have nuclear fission happening in front of you.
Peter: Another time we were screening two different films, and Tim Roth was in both of them, and the projectionist grabbed the wrong reel from the wrong can, and it took some convincing before he believed that he was actually screening a roll of film from the wrong film. He said, “Look, look, there’s Tim Roth!” I said, “Yeah, because he’s in both films!”
Lia: I was ravenous, I watched everything that came through there. Even on nights off I would go back and watch films, so it was a neat education without ever having gone to film school.
Ron: I remember, for example, Andrzej Wajda’s very famous film Danton … and I remember the people lined up all the way down the stairwell of the Khyber building. I went down to see how long the lineup was and to count how many, because we had 92 seats, and every prominent figure in Halifax was in that lineup … This was a film that everybody went to see and everybody talked about. And yet, of course, it was not a film that was going to play at either of the two commercial chains, because they just weren’t going to show a Polish/French film.
Lia: When you’re in between the ebb and flow of a natural evening, with people coming in for the first and second or third shows, I’d spend my time in the booth leaning over watching from inside the projection booth, which was right behind the concession stand. You eventually ended up rewinding film for the projectionist and doing other things, so you kind of get pulled in … and I eventually ended up programming and managing. It was mostly Peter and I in the later days, so I was probably there almost 10 years.
Ron: We were building a genuine Canadian cinema, and it’s actually all fallen apart now, it’s kind of shocking how far backwards we’ve slid in this. Through the ‘80s and ‘90s we were building a real sense of cinematic sovereignty, along with a really steady diet of questing and adventurous cinema, which lasted until Wormwood’s unfortunately kind of failed.
(PHOTO BY JOHN WAMBOLDT: Inside Wormwood’s Cinema’s Carpenter’s Guild Hall location.)
THE FINAL YEARS
Lia: There’s something to be said for a space that is a permanent home, with a permanent cast of characters and films all the time. We definitely miss that.
Ron: It sounds kind of banal in some ways, but it was the furnace. When they bought the Vogue cinema [in 1995], it came with this notion that the furnace worked, and the furnace gave out after about two and a half years. And an industrial furnace was going to be about $40-$50,000, and there just wasn’t any capital … I remember watching Robert Altman’s Kansas City in March with no heat, and that was the first time I realized if you sit that long without moving in the cold, it’s not good!
Peter: Unfortunately Gordon died in 1993 in June, and uh, I tried to maintain my enthusiasm but it was not possible. Gordon made it fun to do the job, and you could say, “but the films, but the films!” And yes … but doing the job with Gordon was fun, and that went away, and no one made a lot of money doing it, so you know, if you weren’t doing it for enjoyment and fun then why bother?
Lia: In Asia there are now all these pop up cinemas happening all the time, because the idea is people just want to be with their own groups or bubbles, so it’s actually bringing back a little bit of this. Theatres being constructed with 10-20 seats that people rent on their own. Would that actually bring it all back?
Peter: I would say that yes, this city is ready for another kick at the can. Ten years ago it was pretty clear that the time had come and gone for the independent arthouse, but I think everything now is about independent art everything, from cafés to restaurants to cinemas to you name it. If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it’s that we should embrace our fierce independence from the rest of the universe.
Evan Bower is AFCOOP’s Online Projects Coordinator. He’s also a writer, reporter and film programmer living in Halifax, N.S.
with Samira Eblaghi
With cinemas closed (again) and new film releases more-or-less halted, what’s left to do but dig into the archives? Every month, we’re asking AFCOOP members and staff to share a few memorable discoveries that have come across their screens.
Where do we go now? (Lebanon, 2011, dir. Nadine Labaki)
If you haven’t watched any films by Nadine Labaki, then you’re seriously missing out. In this feature film, a small village in Lebanon continues to face conflict and division after the civil war, particularly among its men. The women decide they must band together in order to reunite their village and keep the peace.
I Still Hide to Smoke (Algeria, 2016, dir. Rayhana Obermeyer)
In this French-Algerian film directed by Rayhana Obermeyer, a fiery hammam patron, Fatima, facilitates the comings and goings of women who use the space to let go and talk about their lives.
Good Time (USA, 2017, dir. Safdie Brothers)
Good Time runs the risk of being cliché, an overdone story about the archetypal criminal running from the law. However, unlike the other films of its likeness, which rely heavily on plot and dialogue, this film is ALL about the mise-en-scene. The cinematography and the use of sound in it adds an extra level of adrenaline and urgency.
Samira Eblaghi is a local musician and do-it-all amateur filmmaker. She enjoys writing about herself just as much as she enjoys being pushed into a pool on a cold autumn day.
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