One of the things I like about film festivals is that, in addition to feature films or short films, I can see documentaries that I would otherwise not have encountered and seeing them in a theatre, rather than on a small screen from the couch at home, is much more engaging.
At the first full day of the Kingston Canadian Film Festival I included two documentaries on my schedule of four films for the day.
Both of these related to events of the 1960’s and to some these may have been historical documentaries but for me and others my generation they were reminiscences of times we lived through and remember well.
Expo 67: Mission Impossible was a behind the scenes look at the seemingly unachievable task of putting together a World’s Fair on two yet-to-be-constructed man made islands in the St. Lawrence River in the heart of Montreal. It was indeed an Herculean task to build this site from the ground up at an escalating cost and with the skepticism of much of Canada outside of the province of Quebec, that it could be completed on time. Even the computer estimates suggested a probably completion date of mid 1969… two years too late.
I enjoyed being reminded about how things were in the mid 60’s and seeing the clothing, the masses of paper in the offices, the large machines for typing computer punch cards to enter data into the grand computers run with tape input, the ubiquitous cigarettes and cigars and pipes with smoke billowing up in meetings or at public events. And, of course, I remember, along with 55,000,000 other attendees at Expo 67 – Man and his World – gawking in awe at the 90 pavilions , the centrepiece being the geodesic dome designed by Brockminster Fuller that was the U.S. pavilion with that “modernistic” monorail running right through it and a real space capsule at the top.
The film, however, was just an historical rehash, interesting to document the events leading up to Expo and a great summary with archival footage. It could be something that makes a 2 hour CBC special on TV.
The documentary, Ninth Floor, that I saw this morning, however, was something special. This film told a story of the crisis at Sir George Williams University in Montreal in 1969 when students protested lack of action by the University on charges of racism. Now, I was a university student at UWO at that time so it was people my age making a statement and demonstrating to correct a wrong that they perceived. Canadian filmmaker Mina Shum is a great story-teller with diverse talent as evidenced by her film Meditation Park that was shown last night as the opening film of the festival. Ninth Hour, although a documentary, was also a very adeptly-crafted story combining present day interviews with now much older protesting students who were involved in 1969 (one of whom is now a Canadian Senator), archival montages of news coverage and film shot while the crisis was unfolding, and very cleverly-integrated film shot recently that fleshes out the story and seeming timeless. Shum was very careful not to include elements in the recent film that would date it in any way. Some of the images are quite beautiful and even arty but every one contributes to the story.
The elders being interviewed (all protesters during the crisis) are wise and eloquent and intelligent and have the benefit of years of living and a unique and personal perspective on racism in Canada. I particularly liked the one fellow commenting with a smile, “Canadians are racist but they apologize for it.”
I watched this film with a friend who just turned 20 and it struck me that I was his age when all of this was taking place. I wonder if Dylan will be watching a movie (or whatever medium tells stories in 2068) that will be historically documenting how young people who are determined to fight for a cause like the students in Florida today advocating for gun-law legislation in the U. S. or the current Black Lives Matter movement, can be the pivotal influence to make political change. I wonder what the youth of 2068 will be having to lobby for in order to get the older generation to act on some other outrage. Or whether racism will still be an issue. A film like this one, looking back, causes one to think about what is happening today and wonder about the future. Does anything really change?
I also wondered if my friend Stephen Moiko, a Kenyan who did post-graduate training at McGill experienced racism in any overt or subtle ways in Montreal five years ago. Although Stephen and I have talked for hours about many things, we have not touched on racism in Canada. I plan to visit Stephen and his Maasai family in April and I am going to bring this up. Get ready, Stephen.
Now, you may not be lucky enough to see Ninth Floor in a theater but you are able to see the film on the National Film Board web site – free and downloadable. I recommend it highly and if you are a certain age it will give you pause to think about how things were unfolding in Canada in 1969 and how oblivious we all were to it in many ways. Here is the link to the entire film, available free on the NFB site. https://www.nfb.ca/film/ninth_floor/
Shum’s film, Meditation Park, opened the KCFF last night and was well-received. Shot in Vancouver, it also has a theme that explores mixed cultures and race in a Canadian neighborhood. I found it to feel a bit disjointed and contrived but the overarching story was engaging and felt very “Canadian” even though the protagonist couple were Chinese and conversed much of the time in sub-titled Cantonese. And who doesn’t like Don McKellar who plays their neighbor?