Terminal Device at festivals

Since last February, when Terminal Device screened at Ottawa’s By-Towne Cinema as part of the Megaphono Festival, and subsequently at the Kingston Canadian Film Festival, the film has enjoyed some international attention. First up, as mentioned in my previous post,* was the Superfest International Disability Film Festival, a fantastic two-day event in San Fransisco. In support of the film’s appearance, I did a radio interview in Berkeley on 94.1 KPFA, and there was some web-press attention too, here, and here, as well as an interview with Superfest’s Alex Locust.

Superfest was eye-opening and exhilarating to attend. It congregates a committed and savvy, disability-oriented audience: activists, artists, academics, members of the local disability community and sympathetic (able-bodied) others. I thoroughly enjoyed my brief time chatting with the moderator of the Terminal Device post-screening q & a, Jim LaBrecht. The fest organizers and volunteers were warm and welcoming and I loved that I was folded into the event simply as someone with an interesting story to tell.

In November, the film played at the 59th edition of DOK-Leipzig, the oldest documentary festival in the world and the largest in Germany. The film was well received and at both of its screenings, I was glad to have a chance to speak with the audience.


Zimmerfrei hosts, Rebecca & Thomas

One of the best parts of my experience in Leipzig was meeting the young couple who put me up during my stay, a billet arranged by the festival under their “Zimmerfrei” (vacant room) program, and which could not have been better. We hung out, took meals together, rode bikes, went to films and generally enjoyed each other’s company for my four-day stay. I was able to see and experience the city in a way that’s not possible when staying alone in a hotel room. I’m grateful to the festival for the chance to have met Rebecca and Thomas and get to know them and their neighbourhood. Leipzig is beautiful and hospitable, and DOK-Leipzig is a large and very well run festival.

DOK-Leipzig is also business-oriented and consequently Terminal Device attracted interest from more than one international distributor. I may have more news on that soon, and am pleased that the film has caught the attention of companies that might help get it out to a broader public.

In December, Terminal Device will play the Together! 2016 Disability Film Festival in London and the Inclús Barcelona International Disability Film Festival. Obviously I’m delighted with the festival plays the film has garnered. There may well be more to come.




*And thanks once more to the Canada Council for the Arts and from Superfest itself, from which I was privileged to receive travel grants to go to San Fransisco.
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I’m delighted to have Terminal Device selected for the 30th anniversary edition of the Superfest International Disability Film Festival, in San Fransisco, October 22 and 23, 2016.

The festival ensures that all of its selected films are accessible to everyone, including deaf and blind audience members. So Terminal Device will be shown with captions that recount all of the voiced content, and an audio description–created by Michele Spitz and Audioeyes–of the picture elements narrated between other voiced content (dialogue, voiceover, etc.). I’m thrilled to have a version of the film made available in this way. It’s new in my experience and I think serves to reach an audience that will really appreciate the film’s content.

I’ll be traveling to attend Superfest thanks to sponsorship from the festival and a travel grant from the Canada Council for the Arts. I’m most grateful for the opportunity and look forward to meeting other filmmakers and audience members in attendance. I want to engender conversation with this film and forums like Superfest are the perfect way to do that.


The Film in the World

Other people writing about Terminal Device

From a review of Megaphono: “…through a pastiche of clips from mainstream movies and a Guy Maddin-esque autobiographical voiceover, probes ableism and the stereotype of “the one-armed-man” in film.”

And from the KCFF: “…a unique and often drily funny inquiry into matters of the body, difference and disability.”

The Film

TD POSTER for webAt long last we have finished Terminal Device. I took delivery of the finalized DCP* with 5:1 surround sound just last week. This is more welcome than I can describe; it is a great relief.

As I mentioned previously I found an able co-editor in our daughter-in-law, Meg Remy (she of U.S. Girls fame). We engaged a fine young sound designer, Michèle Deslauriers (still a student at York University), who worked over the summer months and in particular spent a long time cleaning up the voices. Maximilian Ross Turnbull, our firstborn, composed a wonderful score; it evinces his usual sensitivity to visual material, excellent ear and high professionalism. Orest Sushko, a highly experienced sound tech (most notably on numerous David Cronenberg films) did the excellent sound re-recording mix. LuLu Hazel Turnbull designed the gorgeous poster featured above.

The film eschews talking heads and instead emphasizes the voices of the people we interviewed. Against the weave of that sonic backdrop plays a collage of footage from the many mainstream films we critique, archival footage, re-created scenes, family photos, and documented coverage of visits to a prosthetic clinic as well as an American Civil War battle and field hospital simulation. It corresponds surprisingly closely to our original vision of what the film might be. The cut makes an obvious plea for commercial cinema to give up lazy stereotyping (I know, tilt against windmills much?). Terminal Device is playful, there’s a laugh or two and here and there, it’s a bit gory (hey, in part at least, it’s a film about amputation…). It lands in short-feature-film territory, just south of 70 minutes long.

I’m delighted with it. We screened it privately in December and were bowled over by the lengthy, interesting discussions the film generated; as a conversation-starter, it’s first-rate. More than one viewer told me it was a story they certainly had not heard before.

Thanks to the weighty music-world connections mentioned above, the film will play the Megaphono Music Festival in Ottawa in early February (presented in conjunction with The Lost Dominion Screening Collective). It will have its film festival debut at the Kingston Canadian Film Festival later that month.

*DCP stands for Digital Cinema Package, which has become the digital mastering format of choice for festival and theatrical exhibition. In practical terms, the DCP is a hard drive, the contents of which producers and distributors can choose to encrypt as a hedge against copying or unauthorized playback. In any case, as I understand it the film’s visual and audio streams are encoded in such a way that they can only be played on a DCP-enabled playback system.


Terminal Device, the film, is just about there. Here’s a trailer:

The turning point for me came last January. At Christmas I showed my cut to my nearest and dearest. We collectively sighed and agreed that “uh, uh, it ain’t arrived yet”. The editing I’d been doing in earnest for over 2 years, with great diligence but with significant breaks too, still wasn’t working. I thought it would be a good idea to bring in another editor to help out. I suggested the notion to one whose work is good and whom I know, but our scheduling didn’t coincide.

Then Meg Remy pitched me on having a go at the cut. Now Meg is my daughter-in-law. She’s also a very fine musician and collage artist, and is making her mark as U.S. Girls. We previously worked together on numerous videos, and I’ve helped her out as she’s added filmmaking to her many artistic pursuits. But Terminal Device represented a significantly larger challenge compared to her previous film work: a complex, near-feature-length, essay-style documentary, with a lot of disparate, eclectic footage and oh, some autobiography to sneak in.

Meg returned to a proposal I’d made when I was submitting arts council grant applications to finance the film; start with voice. Find the structure through audio, and let the picture follow. I’d successfully edited a couple of our short films with this method (including Letters from R), but had fallen away from the idea with my own attempts to enter into the Terminal Device material. Alas, my efforts were deeply conventional, including numerous talking head segments, a strictly chronological development, blah, blah…(it was boring, in other words). Jennifer rightly argued that I’m too close to the subject–bits of my own life refracted through a pop cultural lens–to be able to use the footage as freely as was needed. Her point was proven when Meg found her way to the structure and story within a month. By early March, I knew that finishing the film was in sight.

Meg at the editing station

Meg editing Terminal Device

The result, after a further 4 months or so of picture tweaking, sound editing, music scoring (by my beloved firstborn, Meg’s fantastically talented husband, the inimitable Slim Twig), and an impending sound mix session at Urbanpost, will be a finished film.

Collage-like, with no talking heads, an unconventional structure, and an engaging and, dare I say it, entertaining story, the film not only works as cinema, it says what I want it to say. That’s a great feeling. I can’t wait for people to see and engage with it.

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Hook (Wo)man: the Positive


Matter-of-fact amputation.

I saw Mad Max: Fury Road this week and among the pleasures of watching the film for me was the simple, casual way it treats Charlize Theron’s character, Furiosa’s amputated arm and prosthesis. It’s simply no big deal. No back story is deemed necessary to explain it, she doffs and dons the artificial arm as circumstances require, and she’s a far cry from being the bad guy. This is all to the positive, in my opinion. She happens not to have a hand; so what?

By way of minor qualification, I would say only that the film indulges in a couple of things that do attend the upper-extremity-amputee stereotype. The first is the casting of a non-amputee actor in the role, which is most commonly the case in mainstream cinema. (And indeed, I certainly recognize there’s no possible amputee replacement for a star as high-profile as Theron.) Fortunately we’re in the age of green-screen shooting and digital video graphics, which enables a more or less realistic depiction of the prosthesis, in terms of body proportion. Contrast that with any number of able-bodied actors in other films, who, to depict their character, were required to wear prosthetic devices over their hands, and which invariably results in the prosthetic arm looking disproportionately long and, usually, absurd.

The second, somewhat stereotypical element is the attribution of greater-than-normal strength to the prosthesis*, as if losing a hand and wearing what I took to be a mechanical, body-powered prosthesis (that is, it has to be suspended from and operated by the body) would result in enhanced, rather than diminished, strength and capacity. Hate to break it to you folks, but that ain’t on, although in context it’s admittedly a minor strike against prosthetic realism.
*The scene I’m thinking of is when Furiosa is hanging on to Max’s leg with her prosthetic arm as he dangles helplessly outside the speeding war-truck.

The most telling (and obvious) element to challenge the stereotype of the one-armed cinema monster is that Furiosa is a woman. Clearly, the storyteller’s gifting her with an amputation was not accidental. Her traumatic back story–obscure though it is–her ‘fury’, her stated need for redemption (presumably for her complicity in helping to shore up Immortan Joe’s slave-empire), her ability to overcome serious obstacles to achieve what she wants in her world-context; these are all encapsulated and symbolized by her amputation. In a sense, and as is usual for the use of body difference in such narratives, the amputation/ prosthesis signals some kind of moral deformity (hence the need for redemption) but in this instance, Furiosa turns to good rather than pursuing the more normal route toward villainy for the cinematically one-armed. I found this refreshing.

Mostly though, I liked that Furiosa’s one-armed body and prosthesis are treated the way I think amputation and prothesis-wearing should be treated; as part of the normal course of human affairs, not really worthy of comment or even much regard. As Aki Kaurismaki has one of his characters say, in an entirely different film: “Small potatoes.”

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The Candyman Franchise

As the handful of readers of this blog may have ascertained, I’ve taken a lengthy hiatus from posting to the site. The break roughly corresponds to one I took from production on Terminal Device itself. Other demands in my life, combined with dissatisfaction with the cut of the film I had, compelled me to set it aside for a while, and pursue a couple of short projects in the interim.

Premiere screen grabAs of August I’ve taken up re-editing the film. I started more or less from scratch, and even switched editing software (FCP to Premiere) to ensure I wouldn’t simply crib from the last cut. The current iteration feels much closer to what I am after; it’s more cinematic, less plodding and methodical, and simply more fun to watch. Hey, I’m looking to entertain people with this peculiar story, as otherwise who’ll want to stick with it?

Part of the work of re-thinking the film involved further research, which for me has included an examination of mainstream films featuring upper-extremity amputees. And that brought me back to the Candyman horror franchise from the 90’s. I wrote about the first film in my previous post. I have to report that the second, Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh, and third, Candyman: Day of the Dead, are neither of them quite as interesting as the first. They reiterate much of what is in Bernard Rose’s film without the same layered complexity or the fluid sense of dreamspace that the first Candyman film achieves. Neither of the female leads are up to the standard set by Virginia Madsen in Candyman, although Tony Todd as the anti-hero is consistent, and I was pleased to see that he was given credit as a co-producer on the third film.

That said, there are a couple of noteworthy ideas the two films explore. In Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh, the Candyman character is situated as he was in the first film, a murder-victim of 19th-century racist violence.

Candyman 2

Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh

His physical pain–anaesthetic-free amputation, deliberately-induced bee attack–and the consequent evil and injustice this represents are suggested to be so immense that he has returned to haunt succeeding generations. He deathlessly embodies the ill he was served, in other words. While none of this is new information, the second film explicitly shows the amputation in flashback. The gruesome scene depicts a measure of horror with the cutting off of a hand that is neither supernatural nor necessarily confined to the realm of cinematic fancy.

Whether it encourages more sympathy than revulsion for the Candyman character is perhaps an open question (as in the first film, we’re obviously meant at some level to empathize with him, and to think of him as more than a cartoonish slasher-monster). What I liked was that the flashback accurately shows what it is to lose a hand: life altering, terrible. I liked too that the sequence returns to the present and has Candyman vary his demand to “Be my victim…” with the plea to “Be my witness.” This call to testimony transcends the simple, physical detail of amputation to say, in effect, that it is a stand-in for the larger, true injustice of racist vigilantism.

Candyman 3

Candyman: Day of the Dead

The third film further varies Candyman’s backstory by suggesting that he was a great if underrated painter (pursuing a rather staid, academic style, if you ask me). We already know that as a black man, he had the temerity to fall in love with his rich, white, female subject. The resolution of the story in Candyman: Day of the Dead, turns on the female protagonist having to kill the ‘good’, as only with its existence can the evil in turn exist, as represented by Candyman. Well, the good is embodied in Candyman-the-artist’s paintings, which miraculously still exist in the film’s present-day timeline. (By the way, there are nice bits of art-world exaggeration and ridiculousness going on, including showing a couple of patrons wearing very dark sunglasses at an opening…) Kill the good, i.e. destroy the man’s art, and the evil dies too, or so we’re encouraged to believe. It’s a reductionist view of things one might say (and obviously I disagree that art should be destroyed), but for the sake of a simple narrative, I suppose it holds up as well as anything.

I liked that art is posited as the opposite of evil. That’s a simple but effective truth, in my book.

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The Horror, the Horror

Part of my goal with Terminal Device, as I suggested in this earlier post and others, is to consider mainstream film images of upper-body amputees. Some of these images derive from horror films; the hook-wearing monster is arguably iconographic in the genre. I’m operating on a few assumptions in my critique, based on viewing as many films as I can that feature one-armed characters, from Howard Hawks’s Tiger Shark (1932), to The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013 ).*

The Best Years of Our Lives

The Best Years of Our Lives

My basic assumptions are: with some important exceptions (like William Wyler’s intricate, humane, The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)), upper-extremity amputees are generally portrayed as villains; many of these characters’ terminal devices are hooks; often these hooks are more or less impractical for anything other than impaling people; the villains are cartoon-like in their simplicity, flatness and narrative role, even if the film is live-action.

Some of these basic assumptions are confirmed in Bernard Rose‘s horror film, Candyman (1992). Amputee as bad guy: check. Amputee as homicidal maniac: check. Impractically large, unwieldy, non-opening—and therefore no good for clasping things—hook: check. Add in this fact; like Tee Hee in To Live and Let Die, theCandyman villain in Candyman is black. In the world of stereotypical cinema villains, that constitutes double jeopardy!

So yes, the makers of Candyman are guilty of indulging in cliché. But while confirming these assumptions of stereotype, the film also ‘troubles’ them, to put it academically. Indeed the film and Candyman, the character, trouble them in complex, highly intriguing ways. As a whole, and among other things, the film adds up to a meditation on the persistence of racial injustice, the ‘horror’ of miscegenation, sex and its paradoxical linkage of pleasure with pain/ death (“Be my victim…” as an invitation both to congress and to immortality), and the hook as explicit stand-in for the phallus. This, dear reader, is one weird, wild and wooly film that operates with a dream-logic to create its own, very particular world.

Oh, it also involves bees. I think this is a thematic element that isn’t necessarily completely worked out or successful, but it does underpin an amazingly frightening, deeply repulsive yet fascinating lovemaking scene; a unique, truly and utterly nightmare-like tour de force. As a New York Times critic said of the actors in this scene, the wonderful lead, Virginia Madsen, and her nemesis/ lover, Tony Todd, “whatever they were paid, it wasn’t enough.”

I was honestly, pleasantly surprised by Candyman. I count it among the best works in the oft dismal, one-armed-guy film canon (I can readily name the ones at the low end of my scale too, possibly starting with Spielberg’s execrable Hook). Candyman is a film grounded in sometimes strange, wonderful performances. Its look is at times classic cinema-worthy; there are close-ups of Madsen lit with a Virginia Madsensoft-focus intensity that evoked memories of von Sternberg‘s work with Marlene Dietrich. And Candyman sounds fantastic; score by Philip Glass, anyone? If you can stomach a bit of the violently gory in your cinematic diet, I highly recommend it.

Coda: Apparently there are a couple of sequels that create what became a Candyman franchise. I haven’t seen them. Neither of the two follow-up films was directed by Bernard Rose, nor were they shot by Candyman director of photography, Anthony B. Richmond. The second film, Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh, features a score by Philip Glass, however. I wonder whether the sequels succeed in troubling the hook-wearing-villain stereotype as the first film in the franchise does?

*I could certainly program a One-Armed-Guy Film Festival that would last at least a week or three, but I’m open to suggestions about any titles that I might have missed.

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Body Decoration

ripped carbon fibre socketMy arm is dying. This is a poor picture but you still might be able to see the tears in the black carbon fibre. Maybe they’re reparable, although I think the structural integrity of the forearm is compromised. Parts if it are soft and mushy. Something’s rattling inside. Other things are going wrong too; the wrist unit/ terminal device base is stripped, so the hook won’t properly lock. My kind prosthetist had a go at fixing that but clearly replacement is now called for. I and my mates played our first hockey game of the season last week, and my hook fell off while I was on the ice. Needless to say, that wasn’t helpful for my game.

As the one I have is at least a dozen years old, I’m thinking of getting a new arm. I’d like it to be a little bit fancy—listen, if the thing’s going to draw attention, i might as well make it worth talking about. There are decorative things one can ask for, like having synthetic fabric woven into the carbon fibre to create a sort of tattoo. This is a change from my youth; when I asked for a solid black prosthesis years and years ago, it was considered an unusual request. Until that point in my life, my prosthetic arms had always been a pinky, denatured beige (presumably (white-person-)”flesh-coloured”, except not really). If there’s an uglier, less life-like colour, I’m not sure what it is, which is why I started asking to have mine made in plain black.

Bespoke Innovations imageNow, one can even have words imprinted in the carbon fibre; one arm I’ve recently seen has “Livestrong” embedded. I think I’d rather stick with a plain black socket (as with fashion, black’s understated, classic) with an option. The option I’d like to pursue is a so-called fairing, one that’s removable. Here are images of leg fairings, elegant prosthetic decorations made (at considerable cost) by a U.S. company. They don’t undertake commissions for upper-extremity prostheses; I asked. But the idea’s an interesting one and perhaps I can find a jeweler or metalworker to make something for me.

Bespoke Innovations image

Bespoke Innovations image

Bespoke Innovations image

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Unjustly Held

John GreysonI’m interrupting my normal posts, all more or less related to my film project, to acknowledge and support the on-going efforts to have a colleague and friend, John Greyson, and his friend, Dr. Tarek Loubani, released from a Cairo prison. They’ve been held there since August 16 without charge. Reportedly they were in transit to Gaza and simply ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time (and there is no evidence to suggest otherwise). They ventured into a police station to get directions and were summarily detained. Last week, which marked more than 30 days in jail for them, John and Tarek started a hunger strike. I can only imagine the anguish that has brought them to this terrible choice. I join with all those calling upon the Egyptian authorities to immediately release the two men.

I’ve known John since the 80’s through our mutual participation in the independent film and video (media) art community in Toronto. John’s work has been screened, fêted and awarded at festivals here in Canada and internationally. He’s a longtime board member at V Tape, one of the key non-profits in Toronto providing services to media artists. John’s taught at York University for several years and is a highly respected and experienced educator, well-liked by both students and colleagues. He’s an activist for human rights.

One thing that has dismayed me in the past few weeks of following the efforts to free John and Tarek (led by John’s sister, Cecilia, and friend, Justin Podur) is the unkind, oft-vicious and remarkably ignorant commentary that follows many of the mainstream news articles about their incarceration. Most of these comments are groundless and to dignify them with a response is to give them too much credit; they simply make me feel ashamed of some of my fellow citizens, who strike me as cynical and cowardly.

One assertion I’ve seen does need answering however, and that is the absurd belief that the Canadian government shouldn’t exert effort or spend public dollars to help free the two men. This is amazingly obtuse, to say the least. We live in a society that publicly espouses certain values, and ostensibly places at its constitutional heart a Charter of Rights and Freedoms. If we honestly believe in those rights—including freedom of speech and association and the requirement to follow due process—than we are morally obliged to assist our fellow Canadians when those rights are summarily abridged, as has happened with John and Tarek, even when the abridgement occurs elsewhere than Canada. It’s no longer about their choice, and having to live with the consequences. It’s about our obligation as their fellow citizens to ensure that they are treated as we feel all Canadians (indeed ideally all people, whether Canadian or not) should be treated. If they have breached a law, cite the charge, and present their accusers, and show the evidence in a timely fashion; otherwise release them. That is how humanely-run authority works. It is the only way we can trust to enter into a compact with authority. I want that as a Canadian, and I argue for your right to it as a fellow Canadian, even if I vehemently disagree with you. John and Tarek may be beyond our borders and subject to other laws, but that doesn’t stop our mutual moral obligation.

I’m not sure if the ugly commentary is evidence that a backlash was inevitable, given the great support John and Tarek’s plight has generated from some high-profile artists, entertainers and academics. There may also be something to the idea that if we’re agitating for the release of John and Tarek, why aren’t we also agitating for others held without charge (who knows how many?), in all kinds of conditions, by a variety of authorities, and including Guantanamo detainees (“terrorists” by definition, mind) held by Canada’s closest ally, the U.S.A.?

I say to this: John and Tarek are innocent (I believe this, full stop. But they are also innocent by their own assertion; and without evidence or charge to say otherwise, they must be given every benefit of the doubt). They deserve nothing less than full community support and governmental efforts to free them. Any one of us might be caught up in a similarly horrific, Kafka-esque situation, and Canadian activity and support on our behalf is the least we should expect. As to the countless, anonymous others held without due process, yes, we should rightly bear them in mind too, and make efforts to agitate for their release, where we know of to do so. Support Amnesty International. Write letters to MPs and congressional representatives and senators. Wear buttons calling for freedom and factually- and law-based procedure. Agitate and demonstrate. Do what you do best to support the unjustly held.

But merely because John and Tarek’s may be one case among many, we certainly should not do less for them.

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