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Posted in Downtown, Film
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11/5 2010

Unlocking Chinatown’s Secrets

ReelAsian Artistic Director Heather KeungOne of the special screenings at this year’s Reel Asian International Film Festival (November 9 – 15) is Suite Suite Chinatown, a program of short films by local filmmakers examining the rich and layered significance of Chinatown(s). To discuss the program and the festival generally, I invited Reel Asian Artistic Director Heather Keung, left, to walk me through the Chinatown she knows best, the one centred around Spadina Avenue and Dundas Street West.

A second-generation Chinese Canadian, Keung studied at nearby OCAD beginning in 2000 and she’s worked in the 401 Richmond arts hub since 2003, so this stretch of Spadina is truly her ‘hood. Walking north, as we cross Grange Avenue the tenor of the streetscape changes immediately, the sidewalk suddenly swells with shoppers, buggies, men loading and unloading trucks – at one point we’re nearly bowled over by a man with a whole pig slung over his shoulder.

The genesis of Suite Suite Chinatown came from Toronto-based filmmaker Aram Siu Wai Collier who was born in San Francisco, site of an even more famous Chinatown. “Aram has a really interesting perspective on the constructed idea of Chinatown as a ghettoized neighbourhood,” observes Keung. “I think second-generation Chinese in particular have a very different experience of Chinatown, a bit of a love/hate relationship with it. It’s nostalgic and it’s our heritage but it’s not our heritage.”

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Posted in Downtown, Film
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11/2 2010

Pets on Prozac

Documentary filmmaker Patrick Reed at a Toronto Animal Services shelterToronto-based filmmaker Patrick Reed, left, is probably not the guy you want to be seated next to at a dinner party; ask him what he’s working on and you’ll find yourself discussing rape in the Congo or famine in Somalia — not everybody’s idea of a nice night out.

Reed’s latest effort, Pet Pharm, has given the doc maker a respite from the heaviness if not from the controversy; the film, which airs on CBC  TV Thursday at 9 pm and on CBC News Network Friday at 10 pm, examines the provocative practice of treating animal behavioral problems with anti-anxiety drugs and mood stabilizers. “Being able to talk about the pet film has been a nice change of pace,” says the affable Reed. “I’ve discovered that a lot of people really enjoy talking about pets and there’s nothing wrong with that.”

Although Reed likes to approach his subjects from a neutral position, he admits that he was initially somewhat judgmental of the idea of putting pets on Prozac. “My knee-jerk reaction was that this is a sign of the apocalypse,” he says, “an example of our overly indulgent society.”

But as Reed started digging and meeting pet owners struggling with severe behavioral issues his own opinions began to shift. “I found it fascinating,” he confirms. “I was looking at a different world, a kind of sub-culture. And both of our experts — Nicholas Dodman and Dr. Ian Dunbar — were diametrically opposed in their positions yet I liked them both, they were equally engaging. Their hearts are in the right place and while I might disagree with their position, I certainly didn’t want to make a film that misrepresented what they say or make them into simplistic versions of themselves just to fit into the story.” READ MORE

Posted in Downtown, Film
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10/22 2010

Who’s Got Time For Cancer?

Sylvia Soo at Toronto City HallI agreed to interview Sylvia Soo, left, because I thought it would be a nice change of pace to speak with the subject of a documentary rather than the filmmakers. Turns out not even Soo had seen I Don’t Have Time For This, which debuted at Toronto’s Regent Cinema on Wednesday before screening on W network tomorrow at noon (October 23). I Don’t Have Time For This follows five young women in their 20s and 30s and documents their struggles with breast cancer diagnosis and treatment.

Sitting with the vibrant, seemingly tireless Soo, it’s hard to imagine the ringer she’s been through during the three years since she discovered a lump in her breast while taking off her bra one night. She was working in Korea at the time and decided to wait until she was back in Canada before pursuing a biopsy. The news wasn’t good.

But neither the surgeries or chemotherapy could truly slow Soo down; she became a cancer activist working with the “spunky” Re-Think Breast Cancer organization; she blogged about her journey back to health and is now working on a resource book for other young women affected by the disease.

“Sharing my story has been therapeutic,” says Soo. “I found myself telling my story over and over to my family and friends so I thought, well, why don’t I just do a blog and capture my reactions on video. From there it wasn’t such a stretch to agree to be filmed for the documentary.”

Although she’s got a slew of successful TV credits under her belt, Toronto-based executive producer Maria Armstrong says, “This is one of the most important projects we’ve ever undertaken. If it gets one woman, of any age, to get a mammogram, then we have accomplished what we set out to do.”

October is breast cancer awareness month; if you can’t see the doc on W tomorrow, click through and watch the moving trailer here.

Photo by Christopher Jones

Posted in Downtown, Festivals, Film
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10/18 2010

imagineNATIVE: A World of Indigenous Expression

ImagiNATIVE programmer Michelle LatimerActress, filmmaker and programmer Michelle Latimer is a perfect spokesperson for the imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival, opening Wednesday. She’s articulate and enthusiastic and as the photo at left confirms, she’s also a whole lot of fun. Latimer and I met at A Space Gallery to chat about the festival and take in RE:counting coup, a group show curated by Cheryl L’Hirondelle for imagineNATIVE. Latimer posed for me beneath one of artist Lisa Reihana’s hairdryers, part of an installation called Colour of Sin: Headcase Version, 2005.

“We think that including contemporary art is important,” says Latimer, “because those are the artists who, in my opinion, are really pushing the boundaries for indigenous artists in this country.”

Now in its 11th year, imagineNATIVE is the world’s largest showcase of indigenous film and video work and the festival draws entries from First Nations communities around the world. Did you know that Nepal has more indigenous groups per capita than any other country? Or that Taiwan has a significant indigenous population, which also happens to be the subject of this year’s imagineNATIVE spotlight? READ MORE

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10/12 2010

Water Fight in Focus

Filmmaker Liz MarshallLocal filmmaker Liz Marshall, left, intentionally held back the cinematic debut of her documentary, Water on the Table, in the hope that it would be selected for Toronto’s annual Planet in Focus film festival, starting tomorrow. Better to be a big fish in a smaller pond, reasoned Marshall, than to get lost in the crowd at TIFF, Hot Docs or another major festival.

Given the high quality of her doc and its controversial subject – activist Maude Barlow’s fight to make water a human right – Marshall made a good strategic bet. Water on the Table is one of the marquee films showing at this year’s Planet in Focus, an 11-year old festival focused on videos and films about the environment.

Water has been on the table of Canadian public awareness since the trade of this natural resource surfaced as an issue in the 1988 Free Trade Agreement and again in the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement. So contentious was the issue that Canada, Mexico and the United States signed a joint position statement clarifying that “Unless water, in any form, has entered into commerce and become a good or product, it is not covered by the provisions of any trade agreement, including the NAFTA. And nothing in the NAFTA would oblige any NAFTA Party to either exploit its water for commercial use, or to begin exporting water in any form.”

A number of provinces would love nothing more than to start profiting from the export of their seemingly abundant water resources, which would trigger NAFTA clauses and truly put water on the trade table. Enter “water warrior” Maude Barlow, head of the Council of Canadians and chair of Washington-based Food and Water Watch. READ MORE