WorkPrint — June 2022

IN THIS ISSUE

Welcome to Erica!
AFCOOP’s New Executive Director

Feature: City Surviving

by Lulu Keating

Screen Memories
with Annie Kierans

The Shot List
Calls, Grants, Opportunities

AFCOOP is thrilled to welcome Erica Meus-Saunders to the team as our new Executive Director. 

“On behalf of the board, we are excited to see where her leadership takes the co-op in this next chapter of its almost 50-year history,” said AFCOOP chairperson Jenna Murphy.

Throughout Erica’s multi-faceted career she has worked as a filmmaker, creator, and active community leader. She has worked in films in many capacities and as a programming and social media coordinator. She comes to AFCOOP from Screen Nova Scotia, where she served as membership and operations coordinator. She has served on boards of various organizations including WIFT-AT, the Canadian Independent Screen Fund for BPOC creators (CISF) and AFCOOP’s Board of Directors, and was a recent participant in the NSI—Business for Producers program.

Her documentary and fiction films have played at HIFF, FIN Atlantic International Film Festival, the Emerging Lens Film Festival, Being Black in Halifax and Devour! The Food Film Festival to name a few. Her latest short documentary, Music Resistance, premiered at HIFF 2022, and she is wrapping up production on Eua-Lander, a short scripted film via AFCOOP’s FILM 5 program.

Erica moved to Nova Scotia from the Bahamas six years ago and became an AFCOOP member that very same year.

“I vividly remember the first time I attended an AFCOOP meeting,” she said. “It’s a place that has always felt like a second home. I relax, let down my guard as it feels like I’m in the company of friends, people who want to support my vision and are just as excited about the prospect of creating and collaborating as I am.”

Erica succeeds outgoing executive director Martha Cooley, who oversaw AFCOOP for over 15 years. The Board of Directors and team are grateful for her above-and-beyond work and recognize the impact she made during her time working with the organization. AFCOOP is proud to see Martha grow in her career as the executive director of FIN Atlantic International Film Festival and wishes her all the best. We’re confident that Erica will continue the tradition of leadership, community engagement and the fostering of excellence in filmmaking here at AFCOOP.

“I feel fortunate to be in this role,” Erica said. “It’s a great opportunity to work, learn and contribute. It allows me to combine two things I love: films and community.”

FEATURE

CITY SURVIVING
PART ONE

How AFCOOP's early days of conflict and camaraderie led to Lulu Keating's City Survival

by Lulu Keating

The first time I heard about the Atlantic Filmmakers Cooperative was when I was going to Ryerson in 1977. A fellow student, Joe Viszmeg, told me about the film cooperatives that dotted the country. He took me to the Toronto co-op—this was the first co-op that soon after became defunct and was replaced by LIFT. Joe borrowed some films that were made on the East Coast and projected them for me. Some were from NIFCO—the Newfoundland Film Makers Cooperative—and some from AFCOOP. That private screening in the crowded offices of the co-op changed my life forever. It was as simple as that.

I understand now what it’s like when somebody sees an art piece or experiences a production or hears a song that validates their culture. The general public was exposed to the American movie industry predominantly, and occasionally an NFB documentary with a voice-of-God narrator. Rep-house cinemas showed foreign films, and in the trade publications our own Canadian films were lumped in with foreign. I was a young woman from a small town in Nova Scotia. I could not believe that I was seeing my people on film. I had little awareness that people like me could tell our stories on film; it hit me like a ton of bricks.

One of the films that Joe showed me was Two Brothers and a Filmmaker by John Brett. Here, on celluloid, were people from my heritage—the two old men reminded me of cousins and uncles from the Eastern Shore. They lived in shacks and earned $500 a year from fishing and other odd jobs. They were so real it astounded me. I was already determined to be a filmmaker—now I discovered that I didn’t need to be in a big city telling mundane urban stories, I could return to the East Coast and tell our stories.

My devotion to film started in Vancouver. Around 1974, I registered for the Vancouver School of Art (precursor to Emily Carr University) thinking I’d be a sculptor. The sculpture course I wanted to take was full, but there was room in a media course. One day I held a strip of exposed film in my hand, marvelling at the multiple images that varied slightly from frame to frame. Through the magic of a projector, calibrated to the same 24 frames per second of the camera, these still images would burst into life. I was smitten. I would learn how to make films and do that for a living. A camera operator visited our class and told us he’d hire someone who had made a film before he’d hire a film school graduate. In essence, his advice was to quit school and make a calling-card film. I ignored his advice. After I’d taken the few film courses the art school offered, I applied to Ryerson Polytechnical Institute (as it was called at the time). Because how else does one learn? One learns by going to school, right?

Ryerson and Toronto were difficult experiences. We had a terrible professor who seduced the females in our class until he had bedded everyone except me and one other female student. Another professor showed us his promotional film for the city of Toronto. When he asked for comments, I criticized it because it presented Toronto as always beautiful, always sunny, and full of leggy blonde-haired women sitting in sidewalk cafes. He shot me down for wanting to be an auteur filmmaker. He said that if we wanted to make a living in film, we would have to make this kind of crap too. 

I dropped out of Ryerson after that one year. Although I wanted to move back to Nova Scotia, it took me another year and a half, during which I worked in Kitchener-Waterloo and London, Ontario. Finally in late 1978 I packed nine boxes from five years of living in various locations across the country and took the train to Halifax. My objective was to become a member of the Atlantic Filmmakers Cooperative and finally begin making films. 

I remember vividly the first day I walked into the cooperative. It was at 1571 Argyle Street, above the Seahorse Tavern. There was a long stairway up to the second level, which was a storage space for Cleeve’s Sporting Goods. And then on the third floor, the Atlantic Filmmakers Cooperative. The office and where people hung out overlooked Argyle Street. There was a small edit room off to the side. In the other direction was a small screening room, then the Photographers’ Co-op darkroom on the left. At the far end was a large open space, and the animation studio called Doomsday Studio, owned by Ramona MacDonald. 

I was very nervous walking in there. So much was at stake. The only thing I wanted to do was to make films, and the film co-op was exactly what I needed. I didn’t want to screw up. At Ryerson, when I asked another student a question about a camera, he told me I should have been paying attention in class. He saw me as a competitor. I believed in co-operatives—this would be a supportive environment, where like-minded people would help each other. Film equipment was expensive so sharing it, and ideas, and working together sounded ideal. I looked forward to teaming up with my fellow film enthusiasts. That first day I met Gordon Parsons, the administrator. He told me that I would have to come to a general meeting and apply for membership. I would have to state why I wanted to become a member. Piece of cake.

I have a distinct memory of what I witnessed the second time I came to AFCOOP. Two men were standing outside the screening room. I was unable to pass because they blocked the way to the front office. They were yelling at each other. Later I learned that one was a founding member and cinematographer, the other a filmmaker from Cape Breton. The issue was that the Caper had received a first (and perhaps a second) grant for the same film. He had been told that if he came back a third time, he would not be given any more money. He did come back a third time. When he was denied the grant, he became angry and resigned from AFCOOP. I watched the cinematographer grab him by the front of his shirt and shove him up against the wall. Someone who was no longer a member of the co-op could not use the screening room!

The night of the general meeting, after a lot of other business there was finally the voting in of new members. There were several of us people applying for membership that night. Stridently, I made my case. I had been at Ryerson and before that I had been at an art school where we had worked with Super 8 film. I had my own 16mm camera, a Kodak Cine Special. I had a reel-to-reel Uher sound recorder. I was there to make films. I don’t know how my plea for membership went over. I think in retrospect that I probably sounded like some fanatical, driven opportunist. But nobody objected and I was voted in with the others.

After the meeting, one of the members told me they were all going down to the Seahorse Tavern for a drink. Did I want to join them? Absolutely! This simple invitation from Cordell Wynne meant the world to me. I was on the road to becoming part of this group of filmmakers. It was a community of big dreams—and huge egos. A sound recordist told me all about his accomplishments with the NFB; a camera operator boasted about his work with the  CBC. There were several female members at that time: Ramona MacDonald, Pat Kipping, Julie Hutchings, Claire Henry, Dominique Gusset and a few others. They welcomed me without needing to prove their superiority and without a hint of competitiveness.

Two AFCOOP members were driven to dismantle the establishment. They were passionate about using film as a tool for social change. Their anarchist tendencies extended to the co-op and they challenged just about everything. When I joined, there had already been many struggles. They were working on a film about the fisheries, or they had just finished it. They received a grant, but there was some disagreement about how they were to get the balance since they were accused of misusing the funds. They jumped to their feet, yelling. Other male members rose too. Gordon, who had been such a gentle guy until then, shoved them to the top of the stairs and they were forced to leave. Later, when a reconciliation was discussed, they insisted on meeting in a tavern. But it couldn’t be just any tavern. It had to be a working-class tavern way down Gottingen Street. I don’t think that meeting ever happened.

AFCOOP members had passionate personalities and we continued to clash with each other. We were mostly in our late 20s or early 30s. We were university educated, though several were drop-outs like me. We were anti-establishment and we had causes like equality, the environment. Yet despite our diverse personalities, as a collective we fought against anything that represented authority. Our favourite target was the National Film Board. They were just down the street in the next block. The relationship between AFCOOP and the NFB was like a frayed rope that extended between the two buildings. They didn’t like us, we didn’t like them, and yet we worked together all the time. They supported us. We more or less supported them by justifying their presence in the region. They made services available to us, like their postage machine that we took full advantage of. For example, you could postmark your envelope on the date a Canada Council application was due. Then you had days or weeks to complete your application. Ottawa was miffed that our applications took so long to travel from Halifax, but what could they do?

The NFB often provided us with film processing at their lab in Montreal. They would make free work prints. We were given sound effects. I remember getting sound tapes—5 inch reels—and asking how much I owed. I was told it would cost the NFB more to process the invoice than the value of the tapes, so they were free.

Despite how helpful the NFB was to us, from our point of view as independent filmmakers they weren’t good enough. The NFB was government sanctioned and overly bureaucratic. For example, there were many years when they increased their operating budgets by making government films—Armed Forces training films, for example—contracts that should have gone to the private sector. We saw them as an established, publicly financed institution that was paid to dabble in art. We saw ourselves as the true independent voice in film, struggling in the underfunded filmmakers’ cooperatives that were in most major cities. 

We also disdained the CBC. At least the NFB was approachable; the CBC was an ivory tower on the hill. They had virtually nothing to do with assisting us or even recognizing us. They certainly didn’t do anything, in those early years, to support our voices. In the late 1970s and most of the 1980s, the CBC wasn’t interested in considering proposals from the independent community. They could have been doing a lot more, a lot sooner. But for some reason, we were more critical of the National Film Board than we were the CBC, perhaps because the NFB was within firing range just down the street and we did a lot of work with them. 

Unlike many other provinces in Canada, Nova Scotia did not have an arts council in the early 1980s. There were few agencies providing film funding other than the Canada Council for the Arts. You applied for a grant and waited four months for a decision. The chances of success were then, and I think now, approximately one in 12. When I applied for a film grant at that point I had under my belt a two-minute completed film, Lulu’s Back in Town. I had two works in progress, The Jabberwock and Funny Things People Can Do to Themselves. I sent in a videotape of those works in progress as well as my finished film as proof of what I was capable of. I remember my application was partly typed (I used a terrible typewriter at the film co-op) and partly handwritten. There were segments that I typed up separately and glued to the form. Because I was such a novice, I asked Shelagh Mackenzie at the National Film Board if she could write me a letter of recommendation, and she did. My reaction to what she wrote—which basically suggested that I might become a good filmmaker—felt patronizing to me. The old animosity between us and them was reflected in my reaction. This didn’t prevent me from using the letter. Now I wonder if the reason I was so hard on Shelagh was because she was a woman. Did I disdain her because, like me, she had to fight against the same oppressive patriarchy?

I was absolutely blown out of the water when I got the grant. I remember opening the letter in 1981—I knew as soon as I read “Congratulations” that this was a game changer. The grant was to make a 25-minute drama about a young woman leaving a small town in Nova Scotia and adjusting to life in the big city, and it became City Survival.

City Survival will be available to view on the AFCOOP Archives on August 1. Stay tuned for part two of City Surviving in the July edition of WorkPrint.

SCREEN MEMORIES

with Annie Kierans

Every month, we ask AFCOOP members and staff to share a few memorable discoveries that have come across their screens.

One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk (Canada, 2019, dir. Zacharias Kunuk) 
Out on the sea ice near north Baffin Island in 1961, a group heads by dogsled to hunt for seals. A crisp immediacy is aurally palpable: squeaks of hide on snow, jabs of knives on frozen fish, streams of hot water from kettle’s spout. When a government emissary and his translator arrive on the scene, Noah tellingly mutters, “A white man—I wonder what he wants.” The improvised dialogue that ensues straddles heartbreak and humour to reveal the glaring cruelty and absurdity of settler demands. As with Kunuk’s other films, the production champions oral histories, language revitalization and educational initiatives. These generative elements shine through in the naturalism between cast-mates, captured in vérité style. An exposition of a critical juncture from Inuit perspectives, One Day is refreshing as tea made with iceberg water—sweeter without sugar. Currently streaming on CBC Gem.

Where Is the Friend’s House? (Iran, 1987, dir. Abbas Kiarostami)
Between garments hung on the line, the churning of domestic duties unfold within a muted palette of eggshell, sand, dust, rust, sage, periwinkle, and flushes of rose. The first film of a trilogy set in the region of Koker follows the odyssey of an eight-year-old boy simply trying to do the right thing—return his friend’s notebook—in a world governed by repressive and arguably superfluous adult rules. Whomst among us could not be wholly endeared by this earnest child bounding through the hills and woods at a steady clip in his wool sweater vest? Currently streaming on Criterion Channel.

Sink or Swim (USA, 1990, dir. Su Friedrich)
This assemblage of 26 vignettes in reverse-alphabetical order make for a deeply emotive and cerebral dive into a fraught father-daughter relationship, without lingering too long in its murky depths—its tightly wound, rhythmic cuts assuage any risk of steeping in sentimentality. As the narrator wafts between memory and mythology, her tone is tender and enchanting as a bedtime story. Fantastical and terrestrial, the visuals conjure a lustre of magic realism across the found footage, home video, and original cinematography. Gazing upon her childhood wounds, Friedrich strikes notes both subversive and transcendent. Currently streaming on Kanopy.

 

Annie Kierans is a filmmaker, visual artist, and educator based between Kjipuktuk/Halifax, Nova Scotia, and the traditional territory of the Tr’ondek Hwetch’in/Dawson City, Yukon, who served as Technical Assistant on the HIFF 2022 team. Some highlights of her work thus far include community-led projects with the Tr’ondek Hwetch’in Government, the Klondike Institute of Art and Culture, Jimmy’s Place Studio Collective, the League of Lady Wrestlers, and Rock the North. Most recently, she participated in the Yukon School of Visual Arts’ Expanded Field program and just wrapped another season in the booth at the Dawson City International Short Film Festival.