Concordia's Thursday Report

Vol. 30, No.1

September 15, 2005


DVD project saves film pioneers

Worldwide distribution of neglected 70s films

By Barbara Black

Canadian films from the past are finding new appreciation in film schools, thanks to a Concordia project called Pioneers in Independent Canadian Cinema.

With the help of a grant from the Audio-Visual Preservation Trust and Heritage Canada, professors David Douglas and Peter Rist are transferring Canadian films from their original 16-millimetre format to DVD. Then they distribute the films free of charge to teaching institutions across Canada and around the globe.

They started last year with the work of Larry Kent, who was a sensation in the 1960s and influenced other filmmakers, notably David Cronenberg. Kent’s The Bitter Ash (1963) and High (1967) have already gone out to roughly 170 colleges and universities in some 24 countries on six continents.

For 30 years, High was thought to have been lost. “In its initial release, it was plagued by issues of censorship,” Douglas said. “It was invited and then banned from the Montreal International Film Festival.

“In 2002, the director and I discovered a complete print in the archives of the Cinémathèque Québécois, which the National Archives kindly restored.”

This year, Peter Rist joined the project and two more Kent films were transferred, Sweet Substitute (1964) and When Tomorrow Dies (1965). They were able to include commentary, French and Spanish subtitles, a photo gallery, a guide to sources and short interviews.

This year they’re working on Clarke Mackey’s first feature, The Only Thing You Know (1971). Mackey teaches film studies at Queen’s University. His film credits include a couple of features, some documentary work and television (Degrassi High).

Douglas and Rist deliberately choose neglected independent films that from the 1960s and ’70s. “They offer a challenge to our conventional notions of what Canadian cinema looks like.

“As a lecturer who has taught Canadian cinema, I can tell you it is very difficult to gain access to a number of films from this era. Unlike Hollywood, there is no commercial interest in keeping these films in circulation. We felt that something had to be done to preserve our film heritage and bring it to the next generation.”

The grant provides between $13,000 and 15,000 a year, and they plan to apply for more funding from the AV Trust. Douglas reports that Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema chair Richard Kerr is enthusiastic.

 “Richard has been trying to push us into trying to set up a larger entity that would oversee a long-term, multi-year investment, establishing what amounts to a small press for films. The idea is worth pursuing.”

The film professors thriftily used the recent Visible Evidence XII conference at Concordia to reach more people the international film studies community. They got positive feedback from early recipients of the discs.

“People from elsewhere are amazed we have a program to fund this sort of venture,” Douglas said. “The payoff for filmmakers is recognition. Larry and Clarke have been more than happy to donate the educational use rights for their films.

“In 1995, when I first taught a Canadian cinema course at Concordia, I discovered that Larry lived in Montreal. When I phoned him out of the blue to ask where I might find a print of his first film, his first question to me was, “Where the hell did you see my film in the first place?”

“He had largely given up on filmmaking. Now he’s just had a film premiere at the Montreal World Film Fest of Hamster Cage. I’m happy to think I played a small part in bringing him back into the cinema, and bringing his unique vision to new audiences.”