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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Hollywood Definitions

The best word-reference work I own is The Compact Edition Of The Oxford English Dictionary, 20th U.S. printing, 1981, given me by my dear father-in-law. It was “Reproduced Micrographically”, which means it’s supplied with a magnifying glass, as the average font size is about 5. Apparently it has over 300,000 main entries and over 615,000 “word-forms in total”—the two volumes, compacted from 13 originals, count over 4,000 pages—which is ample evidence that English truly is an awe-inspiring, vocabulary-rich language.

I recently looked up the word, stereotype. The first OED definition says that to stereotype, a transitive verb, is a printing process that uses a stereotype plate (the (adjectival-)noun form), that is, a “solid plate of type-metal…”. The OED traces a first appearance of the word to the year 1798. When we get to the third entry, we’re closer to what we now think of as current usage: “3. fig. Something continued or constantly repeated without change; a stereotypical phrase, formula, etc.; stereotyped diction or usage.” And indeed, the first definition of stereotype from the on-line dictionary site I use is: “1. A conventional, formulaic, and oversimplified conception, opinion, or image.” This figurative or metaphoric usage of the original word is a direct derivation of the first OED entry, describing a process to print a text repeatedly, with the resulting copies presumably looking more or less the same.

Below are some representations of what just might be a cinematic stereotype, one in which I’m currently quite interested. See if you can spot the variations. And based on the behaviour of these prosthesis-wearers, wouldn’t you think that when I see you next, I’m gonna getcha?

Prosthetic menace 1 Prosthetic menace 2 Prosthetic menace 3 Prosthetic menace 4 Prosthetic menace 5 Prosthetic menace 6

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I’ve been working on Terminal Device since 2010, and started shooting about 18 months ago. I though I’d be finished by now. I’m wrong. In fact, I’m much further from completion than I thought I’d be. I have a cut, which I showed recently to my partner, Jennifer, who’s co-producing with me. She said, in so many words, that the film’s a long way from finished.

Summer editing room

Summer editing room

Watching it, one comes away uncertain what it’s about. Deliberate, methodical and episodic, the flow and connection from segment to segment has yet to be established. Were it a person, you’d think the film has very low affect, and is incapable of connecting emotionally. Needless to say, to bring it to an audience would be premature. The material is certainly interesting. Finding my way into the core of it is proving more challenging than I thought it would be. Maybe I’m naive.

Art is most certainly process and pursuing a diary-like film is a daily reminder of that. (I first heard that term, “diary”, as associated with film, when I met the understated and somewhat under-the-radar filmmaker, Philip Hoffman, in the 80’s. His fine work exemplifies the tradition of gathering and cutting footage over time to tell highly personal stories in innovative ways.) I’m also reminded that my impatience to put work out to an audience and to get on with the next project is wrong-headed. Sorry for the truism, but to cut corners is to do a disservice to the material.

Jennifer suggested as well that there’s the sense in the present cut that I’m somehow withholding myself. This is true, if ironic; after all, the film’s supposed to be (quasi-)autobiographical. How is it that I’m withholding from my own story? I’m not seeking an afternoon-talk-show-style confessional, mind you; merely honesty. As the remarkable graphic novelist, Chris Ware suggests in creating his work, he seeks emotional and visual clarity. Yup.

My friend, Hubert Sauper, made a big splash with his documentary, Darwin’s Nightmare, back in the mid-oughts. He’s been working on his new documentary, We Come as Friends, for much longer than I have on Terminal Device. I read a preliminary treatment for Hubert’s film six or seven years ago (it was then called Entente Cordiale). He has been shooting and editing it in earnest since 2010. Darwin’s Nightmare previously took several years to create. It just goes to show that some documentarists shoot for a very long time before there’s sufficient material to make their film. The great Frederick Wiseman was wont to shoot hundreds of thousands of feet of 16mm footage over months and months (he likely shoots digitally now, like the rest of us, but the principle holds). Reportedly, for some of his projects, he ended up with something over 500,000 feet, or well over 200 hours, before starting an editing process that would take more than a year of full-time work.

editing sessionSo; more speed, less haste. Less impatience and more imagination. Lose the rigidity and seek transparency.

Documentaries are hard to make.

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I Sing the Body Myoelectric

I interviewed the prosthetist, Ken Roczniak, for Terminal Device, who’s affable and articulate. We shot B-roll footage of the shop at West Park where Ken works, and where prosthetic limbs are fabricated. We saw various members of Ken’s team at their tasks. He recounted an anecdote about a patient who initially rejected Kenhis hook-fitted prosthesis, but later came around to wearing it and appreciated its usefulness. This points up that amputees must select what type of prosthesis to wear, if any (as that’s an option too; I’ve known a couple of upper body amputees who choose not to wear a prosthetic device).

At present, there are two available systems: body- or myoelectrically-powered. I’ve always worn the former. Body-powered means that the thing works when I push my residual arm (my “stump”) in the socket of the prosthesis, which action draws back a cable attached to the ‘thumb” of the terminal device and opens it up. This is called a voluntary-opening hook. There are voluntary-closing ones too; unlike mine, the default position of these devices is open. The base of my hook is wrapped with strong elastics. These force it closed when I release pressure. The prosthesis is simple and foolproof and this is part of the appeal of body-powered prosthetics; there’s not a whole lot that can go wrong with them.

Myoelectric arms are battery-powered and work with a system of sensors embedded in the socket. One learns to feather these sensors with the various muscles in one’s stump. The trick is to contract muscles separately, as the sensors instruct the arm to do different tasks, say, to open rather than to close the terminal device (which can be a hook but is more often a device designed to look like a hand). I once used a borrowed myo- for a short trial period to see if I was able to work its sensors and found it fairly straightforward.

myo testingThere are certainly interesting developments in upper body prosthetics, with technologists creating fully articulable fingers, naturalistic wrist motion, neurally-instructed prostheses, more reliable power systems, etc. The dream of marrying (wo)man and machine, a rather hoary sci-fi cliché, lives on. The problems with these limbs are myriad however, including their extraordinarily high cost (Ken showed me a fairly basic myo-electric arm they were working on that’s projected to cost the patient $80,000), their proclivity to break down, their weight, the noise they make, etc. (Here’s one writer’s thoughtful take on the current state of research and development in so-called bionic arms.)

You can watch on-line videos about many of these devices. Caution: much of what you’ll find is promotional. A big push for new technological solutions to prosthetics was made in the U.S., for example, as the Iraq war was unfolding (DARPA-inspired research). A myo fingersnumber of commercial companies (Touch Bionics, Bebionics, Otto Bock) are working in the prosthetic field and pushing the myoelectric solution.

In any case, you can count me among the skeptical. The reality is that the body-powered prosthesis is available to more people, cost-wise, more reliable, at least as if not more functional, and certainly more robust than myoelectrics. Ken suggests that amputees ideally should have one of each, that the two systems are appropriate for different tasks. This is probably true (I can’t properly grasp and manipulate a computer mouse with my hook, for example, but have seen demonstrations of that with a myoelectric hand). My question is; who’s going to pony up close to $100g to buy me one?

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Amputee Athletics

Ross, hockeyI’m sure readers of this blog who know me will understand that Terminal Device, as a roughly autobiographical film, wouldn’t be complete without including some sports content. So: the year I turned 40, I started playing hockey with a group of fully-able-bodied people (we still play, the group’s composition having changed blessedly little in the dozen years since). That put me in a position a couple of years later to try out for a national team made up of leg and arm amputees. At one point aspiring to paralympic status, this team is distinct from the better-known sledge hockey team. One must have at least one major joint missing or permanently incapacitated to qualify, and yet unlike the sledge hockey team, be able to stand on skates to play (so most of the ‘leg’ participants, for example, are below-the-knee amputees). When I tried out, the coach of the national stand-up amputee team was Paul Rosen, winner of paralympic gold in 2006 as the goalie for the sledge hockey team.

Team Canada photo by Mike Pochwat Photo By Mike Pochwat/2010I didn’t make the stand-up team—my inexperience told against me—but I had a fantastic time trying out and playing with a group of highly talented athletes. It opened my eyes to the manifold ways in which people can adapt equipment and technique for their particular body difference. Plus, who among my rec hockey-mates (this one guy aside, who joined us for a month or so and graced us with his still unbelievable skating prowess, the best I’ve ever witnessed) could boast they’d tried out for a Team Canada destined for world championship competition? Believe me, the guys who made the stand-up team were good. One of the top players earned a try-out with a major Junior A squad, despite his amputation. Indeed, at the time I skated with them, the captain of the team had played major Junior A hockey, prior to losing his leg in a motorcycle accident. You could barely tell he was missing a foot, so well did he skate.

That was my first sustained contact with fellow amputees, and it was an impressive and accomplished group to be among. I’ve kept in touch with Donnie Wade, Donnie - photo by Mike Pochwatthe chairman of the Canadian Amputee Hockey Committee. And I’ve recently had a chat with Marc Martel, a fellow arm amputee whose traumatic amputation 20 years ago hasn’t stopped him from becoming a regular participant in Ironman competitions. That’s a remarkable feat; sure, I can sort of imagine biking and running for distances that would flatten most of us, but swimming 4 k, at speed, with only one arm? Thanks, but I’d be sure to drown.

biking GerrardBiking and hockey are my preferred, go-to physical activities. I use my bike as my main mode of transportation and I consciously try to push my pace beyond that of most commuters, as otherwise my exercise regime would be sorely lacking. Hockey is what it is for many of us; love-hate. That is, it is a great, demanding, exhilarating, supremely fun, often frustrating sport to play, which gives rise to a priceless camaraderie and sense of community. As a player, I count myself as one of the weaker links in the chain of my fully-bodied mates, but that doesn’t stop me from wholeheartedly giving it my all.

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Sticks ‘n Stones

Sometimes I wonder if I’m too sensitive to the name-calling thing. It has admittedly been a long while since someone called me ‘Captain Hook’ (although believe me, it’s happened many times in the past, and it’s that very experience that sparked this project). I was struck by the notion that perhaps (child) culture has changed. When I recently walked by a small group of youngsters—3 kids who were between 6 and 8 years old–I got the usual stares that are s.o.p.* when I’m out and about, but instead of voicing the CH nickname, one of them said “Cool…!” To spell it out; he was referring to my appearance, and specifically to my prosthetic arm.

name 3 c-revolutionary

This wasn’t the first time I’ve experienced what I call the misplaced-envy response. 20-somethings, if they’re strangers to me and say anything at all in reaction, as often as not may respond in like-manner. It’s as if a sort of steam-punk-like cachet has attached itself to wearing an indiscreet prosthetic device.

I’m not under any illusion that sometime in the future people will blithely ignore prosthetic hooks as a matter of course. (Most do now, thankfully, but only after they’ve gotten the double-take thing out of the way.) But maybe a new generation is slowly developing, one that readily accepts body difference along with ethnicity, gender identification, etc., as just part of that great thing we name ‘diversity’. And so, ‘blasé’ might become the new normal.

name 1 subversive

For the moment, it’s sticks and stones ‘n all that, the Christian origins of which phrase teaching that cheek-turning is a virtue. On the other hand, the obvious thing with naming someone as other than who they are, or identifying them with particular epithets, is that it is a form of categorization. And the placement of our fellow beings into reductive categories has a long, sobering and frankly violent history in human culture. Name-calling, in other words, is far from necessarily being harmless.

name 2 Captain Hook

While there’s a basis in common law for distinguishing name-calling from actual harm-threatening, the former giving insufficient cause to respond and the latter being illegal, it’s also not hard to see that serious social problems like bullying start with name-calling. Radically escalating from there, we know that being named “counter-revolutionary” or “Jew” or “homosexual” in totalitarian political cultures like Soviet Russia or Hitler’s Germany likely meant incarceration, torture and death. A label was a sufficient crime. And we needn’t go back in history; there are plenty of regimes alive and well in our world right now, alas including Russia, where oppression starts with simply labeling someone to identify them as an enemy of the state. Or not even labeling; in China, just typing Ai Weiwei’s name itself (no epithet or nickname or euphemism required!) apparently will invoke search-engine censorship.

I am by no means equating the names I’ve been called—even once or twice with some serious nastiness attendant–to these politically-motivated and frequently murderous instances, but they do share one thing in common with my experience; such naming situates one as ‘other’. And it’s from this objectifying act that the slope starts to get slippery.

*standard operating procedure

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Art & Family II

In addition to on-going help on Terminal Device from my wife, my daughter, my son, and his wife, I also brought in immediate family members with whom I grew up, namely my surviving brothers and our mother. This was a different type of collaboration than the family art-making enterprise I described earlier. Interviewing my siblings and mother about me and our early family life was…tricky, not that I’m by any means the first filmmaker to interview his family members. (Sarah Polley, for example, interviewed her siblings and father(s) in Stories We Tell for quite different purposes than I was after with my family interviews.)

By tricky, I mean a couple of things; there’s a variety of terrain to negotiate. With my mom, whose health isn’t great, and who doesn’t hear very well, I decided that an audio interview was the best way to draw her out, and the least obtrusive method to record our talk. Pointing a camera at her would have been too uncomfortable for both of us, leading to an awkwardness that would most likely convey to the audience. I did shoot footage of her, sitting her in a stagey and deliberately dramatic frame, but the interview was done otherwise.

Kim talks about Tee Lake house
My brothers told good stories in different settings. My eldest brother, Kim and I travelled north together to visit the place where we lived when I was born. To interview my other two brothers, who are closest to me in age (only three years separate the three of us), Jennifer had the brilliant suggestion to talk to them simultaneously. That session has resulted in what I think is the funniest part of the film. The trickiness here wasn’t logistical, nor was it emotionally fraught, as the session with my mom could have been; rather it was ‘steering’ the conversation in a way that would paradoxically leave it open, and relatively fresh. I’m conscious that talking about me had the potential to be self-serving, or might possibly come off as boring or sentimental. I don’t think the resulting sequence reads as either. There’s a sufficient measure of sibling deprecation (as a Brit might say, they’re ‘taking the piss out of me’) to avoid sentimentality, and enough hi-jinks to prevent it being dull. My brothers read as the interesting characters they are.

Mark & Mike

We play roles in our families. It’s at times difficult to re-set these roles, and often they endure into adulthood. Reflecting back on childhood with one’s siblings can put us right back where we were as children, however many years ago that might be. This can be simultaneously disconcerting and comforting, perhaps depending on how one’s childhood went. For me, in these interview sessions, it was neither; it was merely informative, and hopefully points to something approaching the universal.

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