By Tony Schwab, Staff Writer
A new series at the Anthology Film Archives seeks to shine light on an important movement in documentary film, that of Quebec in the 1950’s and 60’s. A total of 17 programs, each consisting of several short works, will be shown from May 5th to the 17th. Based on the first program, it is a worthwhile survey of our friends up north.
“Corral,” directed by Tim Low, is the kind of lost gem that makes this type of festival necessary. Twelve minutes long, it shows an Alberta cowboy at work as soft, western guitar plays in the background. These simple images manage to capture the entire mythology of the Western. The genre is reduced to its most essential image: that of a lone man working in unison with nature. The variety of camera placement is key. We see close-ups of the horses eyes, dust in the air, the man’s lasso. We also see the man and horses from high above, their independence from the tasks of society made beautifully clear.
Roman Kroitor’s “Paul Tomkowicz: Street-Railway Switchman” is equally concerned with a loner, with somewhat less success. It is the nine-minute story of Tomkowicz, a Polish immigrant. We see him sweeping and fixing switches in the cold Winnipeg snow. He narrates, speaking about his life in Canada, his hopes for the future, and the horrific recent events in Poland. His generally optimistic, resilient character is touching, but the movie romanticizes him in a way that borders on patronization. He is viewed as a stand-in for all immigrants. This impulse towards symbolization, always a risk for documentarians, is relatively unobtrusive and does not get in the way of an interesting little story.
“The Days Before Christmas,” a television film, is much more interesting as an historical document than as a work of art. Through a panoramic view of Montreal, we see churches, department stores, schools and restaurants prepare for the holiday. The film is fascinating for the glimpse it offers of Canada in the 50’s. The city has a look very much like that of New York at that time; there is the same abundance of advertising and large crowds. Some people leave Canada to go to the U.S., France or England. This film, like “Paul Tomkowicz,” shows that Canada is much like America in the way it attracts a wide range of immigrants.
Terence Macartney-Filgate’s “The Back Breaking Leaf” details the life of workers on a tobacco farm in Ontario. Like “The Day Before Christmas,” it is of historical but not artistic interest. In it we see the workers, mostly European immigrants, out on the fields. They work twelve hours a day, seven days a week, harvesting tobacco leaves one by one. Although the movie tends to tell, not show, the difficulties of the job, one scene sticks out. A farmer, looking through a large crop that has been completely destroyed by hail, is asked if he feels unhappy. He smiles and says that you just have to take things in stride.
The Quebec Direct Cinema feature will be going on at the Anthology Film Archives at 32 Second Ave from May 5th to the 17th.