McNeil Government’s Culture Action Plan – All Talk, No Action

Stephen McNeil and Minister of Communities, Culture & Heritage Tony Ince held a big event yesterday to announce their new Culture Action Plan. McNeil danced (literally, and then figuratively when he spoke), and Ince talked about his commitment to culture, a speech that stood in stark contrast to the silence that he maintained when McNeil and Diana Whalen blew up the Nova Scotia film and television industry in April 2015. The cultural bureaucrats in the private sector predictably lined up and said it was all a wonderful thing, because they never want to offend or call into question the government that provides them with much of their operating funds, and everyone went home happy.

Well, here’s the thing. We’ve heard this all before from the McNeil government. Freeman, Ivany, Broten… reports have come with great fanfare and commitment to change, and then they get circular filed. Anyone who would trust the McNeil government to follow through on any of the cultural “action plan” almost deserves the inevitable disappointment that we have seen with these reports so many times before.

Oh, sure, it sounds good, just like all of these reports do – bureaucrats and their enablers have it down to a science when it comes to writing these things. But what does it really all mean? The “value of culture” stuff is easy to write, probably because it’s been written many times before. I’ve seen this language for twenty years, both during my time in government in the late 1990s and in the years since. There’s an art to it, ironically, but it doesn’t mean anything. They’re just words, and words are a dime a dozen, especially with the McNeil government.

Where are the actual plans? You know, things like specific new budgetary provisions, or real programs, or success measurement benchmarks and matrices. Those kinds of things, which are what you’ll find in an actual plan, are missing.

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Mary Tyler Moore in Nova Scotia

The recent passing of actress and cultural pioneer Mary Tyler Moore received the usual global media interest, with emphasis on her eponymous 1970-1977 television series that had her portraying a single, career-oriented professional when, up to that point, women had been relegated to the role of married foils to working husbands.

The continued steep decline in local media was revealed again when no reports on her death mentioned that Moore filmed a movie for TV here in Halifax in the summer of 2003. Blessings was adapted from journalist and author Anna Quindlen’s 2002 novel, and told the story of an eccentric 82-year old woman played by a heavily made-up Moore, whose life is revitalized by the arrival of a baby, dropped off anonymously on her doorstep.

Local actors Cory Bowles and Laura Regan provided supporting roles, and the project was broadcast on CBS in October, 2003, right after the catastrophic landfall of Hurricane Juan in Halifax. That might be responsible for the mass amnesia in Nova Scotia concerning the project. There were, in fact, two movies filming in the South End of Halifax throughout the Juan disaster, and they distinguished themselves by providing electricity through their generators for some of their neighbours after the power went out.

Whether Blessings was one of those films remains a question that perhaps the greater public can answer. Still, to have such an important media figure in our midst doesn’t seem to faze Bluenosers much (we’ve played host to the likes of Charlton Heston and Kirk Douglas over the years ), but it is a reminder of the reach of Nova Scotia’s motion picture production scene.

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Robbie Robertson’s “Testimony” – A Review

The guitarist and chief songwriter of The Band, Robbie Robertson, released his memoir Testimony late last fall, amidst the usual media fury. The book had to compete with Bruce Springsteen’s lumbering autobiography in the rock book sweepstakes, so Testimony was a tad overshadowed, which is unfortunate, because it is by far the better read.

Robertson concentrates on the period from roughly 1958 when he joins Ronnie Hawkin’s backing ensemble to the final performance of The Band at The Last Waltz in 1976, (the film and the triple album were finally finished two years later in 1978). He charts the ups, downs and in-betweens of a dubious and difficult industry that expanded with the 1960s counterculture, only to crash back to earth in the 1970s due to an excess of a growing drug culture that took its toll on The Band and their contemporaries.

Testimony bears all the hallmarks of Robertson’s songwriting: intelligence, taste, restraint and integrity. The end result is a terrific book and an essential read for anyone interested in music and cultural history, documenting a bygone era of high hopes, shattered dreams, and beautiful music.

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“First Features” Film Series Begins at Dalhousie Art Gallery

A new film series begins at the Dalhousie Art Gallery this Wednesday evening (January 18th), curated by my good friend and colleague Ron Foley Macdonald. This time out Ron has created an eclectic program of “first features” by well known film directors. As Ron puts it in his write-up for the program:

“Some directors arrive fully formed on their debut features. Others never recover. In this survey of first features, we begin with one of the greatest motion pictures of all time,Citizen Kane, and then progress to more contemporary times where some directors—Duncan Tucker and Transamerica, for example—disappear from the scene after tackling some exceptional subject matter. Female directors and stories of gender determination dominate more modern times; Art House staple directors such as Lars von Trier (The Element of Crime) and Andrei Tarkovsky (Ivan’s Childhood) help anchor the series to the traditions of ‘serious’ cinema, while other directors’ debuts mark them for ‘serious’ Hollywood success.”

All of the screenings start at 8 pm, and are free to the public. If you’re a filmmaker, or someone who wants to become one, you should make a point of going to as many screenings as you can. It’s like a masterclass in how to make a film, enhanced each time by Ron’s introduction.

Here is the schedule, with Ron’s notes. The series begins with Citizen Kane, a film that many people consider the greatest film of all time – which makes for quite the first feature, indeed – although there is a group of Kane admirers who believe that The Magnificent Ambersons was actually Welles’ best film.

Let the debates begin!

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View 902 Podcast Episode 3 – Silver Donald Cameron

In this episode of the View 902 podcast I am joined by author, journalist and activist Silver Donald Cameron to talk about his most recent book, Warrior Lawyers – From Manilla to Manhattan: lawyers for the earth, which contains a series of interviews that Don conducted with people around the world who have used the law as a tool to achieve environmental justice. We discuss the concept of natural law, and our duty of care as human beings to the planet and to the creatures with which we share it, and talk about a couple of examples from the book of lawyers and others who have engaged in citizen activism and used the law to combat corporate wrongdoing and change government policy on the environment.

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Dan Dare Takes Off Once More!

The iconic British Sci-Fi character Dan Dare has returned to the airwaves in a new audio series produced by B7 Media for Big Finish. The hero’s new incarnation takes off sonically with a reassuring swoosh of jet sounds in the first seconds of the opening episide, Dan Dare: Voyage To Venus, written by Richard Kurti and Bev Doyle. The listener is dropped directly into the breathless action of a cocky, confident test pilot who is recruited for the latest British space program. The rest of the show is pure audio adrenaline.

If it all comes through in a rush, it’s supposed to. Dan Dare began as a comic book in 1950, and quickly morphed into a radio series that gets called back at least once a generation. Referred to as the “British Buck Rogers,” the fast-paced series relies on hard Sci-Fi settings (spaceships, antagonistic aliens) wedded to furious plotting in order to deliver maximum entertainment. He has become almost as much a touchstone of British Sci-Fi culture as Doctor Who, being referenced, for example, in songs by pop-rock icons Pink Floyd, David Bowie, Art of Noise and Elton John. A punk bank, the Mekons, took their name from the primary villains in the Dare mythos.

As audio drama, it’s not Shakespeare, but then again, it’s not meant to be. The series is not afraid of entertaining its audience. Despite its decline in Canada (the CBC stopped producing audio drama in 2012, for example), the medium remains wildly popular in Britain and countless other territories around the globe. Indeed, audio drama is still a vital art form, one that pauses to re-invigorate itself every few years.

Dan Dare is one of those periodic revivals, full of energy and insight on why a non-visual medium would become so imaginative. The comic book narrative transferred to the air makes for an ideal listening situation, allowing its audience to fill in the images for themselves. The delivery mechanism has changed (podcasts, direct downloads), but the wonder remains.

With expertly executed direction by Mark Andrew Sewell of B7 Media, a top-notch cast (Ed Stoppard as Dare, Geoff McGivern as Digby, Heida Reed as Peabody, and Raad Rawi as The Mekon), and fabulous music by Imram Ahmad, the cast and crew of Dan Dare: Voyage To Venus deliver a blast of pure audio excitement that sets the stage for an exciting series of Sci-Fi adventure.

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View 902 Podcast Episode 2 – Dillon Garland

In this episode of the View 902 podcast, Paul Kimball is joined by his good friend and fellow director Dillon Garland for a discussion about the state of independent filmmaking in Nova Scotia, particularly for a young filmmaker like Dillon, as well as his first feature film Afraid to Speak, which debuted this past fall at the Parrsboro Film Festival after being snubbed by the Atlantic Film Festival (which they discuss). Along the way, Dillon talks about his upbringing in the Shelburne region, what inspired him to get into filmmaking in the first place, and where he wants to go from here. Paul and Dillon also get into an in-depth conversation about what it’s like working with actors, and how trust between actors and a director is fundamental to being a successful filmmaker. Finally, they manage to find time to chat about pro wrestling, telepathic space otters, and their experiences at the old Shelburne Sound Stage.

Dillon Garland is an award-winning filmmaker based in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Originally from Barrington, Nova Scotia. Dillon graduated from the Centre for Arts and Technology in 2012 with a Diploma in Digital Filmmaking. He has since directed over thirty music videos, for artists including The Stanfields, The Town Heroes, Like A Motorcycle, Jon Mullane, and Gloryhound. He has won two East Coast Music Awards, two Hollywood Music in Media Awards, an IMEA Music Award, a Los Angeles Music Award, and a Music Nova Scotia Award. His short films include St. Rick, Last Day of Fall, and Ageless, which won the Best Short Film Award at the 2013 CAT Film Festival. He produced, wrote and directed the web series Leon, has worked on the television series Big Brother Canada, Amazing Race Canada, and The Bachelor Canada, and served as the Assistant Director on the feature films Roundabout and Exit Thread. In 2016 Dillon’s first feature film, Afraid to Speak, debuted at the Parrsboro Film Festival.

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View 902 Podcast Episode 1 – Aaron John Gulyas

In the debut episode of the View 902 Podcast, I chat with my good friend Aaron John Gulyas. We cover an eclectic range of subjects, including the strange life and times of Albert K. Bender and his role in creating the Men In Black mythos (the subject of Aaron’s great presentation at the 2016 East Coast Paraconference in Liverpool, Nova Scotia back in early August), why people gravitate towards the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis as the go-to explanation for UFOs, and some 19th century American history, including a debate over who really won the War of 1812. We conclude with a shocking revelation about President-elect Donald J. Trump.

Aaron is an historian, author, lecturer, and sci-fi nerd. He is an associate professor of history at Mott Community College in Flint, Michigan, and also serves as a faculty technology consultant for the college’s Center for Teaching and Learning. His books include The Chaos Conundrum: Essays on UFOs, Ghosts, and other High Strangeness in our Nonrational and Atemporal World, The Paranormal and the Paranoid: Conspiratorial Science Fiction Television, Extraterrestrials and the American Zeitgeist: Alien Contact Tales Since the 1950, and Conspiracy Theories: The Roots, Themes and Propagation of Paranoid Political and Cultural Narratives.

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Following the Money of Film Funding in Nova Scotia

When the McNeil government got rid of the old film financing system in April 2015, it eventually replaced the tax credits and equity investments that had formed the foundation of that system for almost twenty years with the Nova Scotia Film and Television Production Incentive Fund (NSFPIF). The NSFPIF, which is administered by NSBI, was capped at $10 million per fiscal year (although the government stated more than once that if demand was greater than the $10 million in any given year that it would consider putting in more money); it was based on an “all spend” model of Nova Scotia costs, and it was designed to be allocated on a first-come, first-served basis.

Through all of the controversy, one of the things that the McNeil government stressed repeatedly was that the new funding system would be more transparent than the old one. That was always a red herring, because the former system was as transparent as any government funding program (a look at any annual report from Film and Creative Industries Nova Scotia, or its predecessor agencies, would tell you exactly who was getting funding). Nevertheless, the NSFPIF is indeed transparent, in that NSBI reports on a regular basis which productions have been funded, and for what companies.

The problem with the film and television industry, however, is that even transparency can appear opaque to the general public. Almost all funding is still given to single-purpose production companies, because that’s how the industry functions. That can make it hard for people who don’t have a scorecard to know who really has care and control of the money.

I was curious to see which companies (and which individuals) were doing the best under the new funding regime, as well as which types of production, so I did a bit of digging at the Registry of Joint Stocks. Had the veteran players been replaced by newer ones, or had the new system more or less worked to the benefit of the same folks as the old system had?

The answer is that the same people who were successful under the old system have been the same people who have generally been successful under the new system.

But is that good enough in 2016?

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Viola Desmond’s Story on Film

The announcement that Viola Desmond will grace Canada’s ten-dollar bill has brought her story to the attention of a new generation of Canadians. It is a story of profound courage and resolve that Iain MacLeod and Brian Murray, two Nova Scotian filmmakers, have told in different but equally compelling ways.

MacLeod’s film was a drama shot in black and white back in 1996, whereas Murray’s film is a documentary made in 2012 for his employer, Communications Nova Scotia, to commemorate Canada Post issuing a stamp in Desmond’s honour. Both films run about 45 minutes.

MacLeod took an oblique approach “November 1946,” never showing the actual incident itself but rather letting the word “spread around the town.” Ultimately he used Desmond’s narrative to set up the tension in order to portray an inter-racial romance. The film was an ambitious costume drama that played to a packed house at the 1996 Atlantic Film Festival. Its unusual length and rough language made further distribution a challenge, and sadly it is mostly unseen today. I remember it vividly, however, as it marked MacLeod as a filmmaker of vision and substance.

For Murray, the story of Viola Desmond was one that needed to be simply and directly retold using modern-day documentary techniques. Because there is little to no footage of Desmond herself, Murray used a blend of dramatic re-creations, punctuated by expert ‘talking head’ testimony and period stock footage.

Perhaps most importantly, Murray’s “Long Road To Justice” provides more depth and insight to a story that continues to gain resonance and momentum. As national audiences now catch up to speed with the narrative, we can all consider the extraordinary contribution Viola Desmond has made to Canada’s cultural fabric.

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Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run”

Bruce Springsteen’s new memoir, “Born to Run,” tells the tale of a man consumed by ambition and tough clawing towards the goal of making a living in music. There are plenty of hard lessons, as band-mates get tossed, nameless girlfriends appear as pit-stops along the way, and friends are measured by how they can be used to build up a career, but what dominates is a drive to succeed, rather than any particular insight.

While the book disappoints in one way, it does cruise onward with an unstoppable sense of forward motion. There’s a powerful therapeutic reasoning behind Springsteen’s writing, as he tries to understand his father’s inarticulateness that rode the edge between the repression of the 1950s and the growing counterculture of the 1960s.

In between various levels of success, the book details a battle with late-onset depression. It seems something of a sideshow to the main narrative of the music, but the tension involved does provide for a sense of ongoing drama.

At times, like in his artistic career, Springsteen strains for significance. I always preferred his throwaway pop material, like the stuff he wrote for the Pointer Sisters (“Fire”) and the two albums for old-school rocker Gary ‘US’ Bonds, where music is fun, disposable and untethered to stories about lost dreams and crummy economies. But Springsteen himself clearly wants to be taken seriously, hence the epic reach of the tome.

Still, Bruce Springsteen’s “Born To Run” is a gripping page-turner that rates as essential reading for any and all of his fans. Those interested in popular culture and autobiographies in general should find it both satisfying and illuminating.

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Leonard Cohen’s Nova Scotia Collaborators

The passing of Leonard Cohen last week at age 82 got me to thinking of his connections to Nova Scotia, particularly two important people who worked with him on signature projects. Filmmaker Don Owen, a resident of Halifax in the 1980s and 1990s, co-directed the major 1965 National Film Board of Canada portrait of the then poet and novelist entitled Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Leonard Cohen. Jumping forward to the mid-2000s, the composer Philip Glass, a longtime Cape Breton resident, collaborated with Cohen on a musical setting of the singer / songwriter’s first book of poetry in 22 years, Book Of Longing.

The massive response to Leonard Cohen’s passing reveals just how much his work and worldview affected all of us. These two collaborations by Nova Scotian residents broaden and deepen our understanding of one of Canada’s most beloved artistic figures, and are essential viewing and listening as a result.

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Afraid to Speak – A Review

Dillon Garland’s feature film debut, Afraid To Speak, announces the arrival of a natural-born filmmaker.

The 24-year-old Halifax-based, award-winning music video director, “v-logger” and social media maven has been turning out motion pictures since before he graduated from high school. Currently onscreen with a web series entitled Leon, Garland garnered more than one hundred thousand hits for his filmed reaction to a recent Star Wars trailer.

Clearly, this is a young image-maker on his way up. A viewing of his long-form first feature, Afraid To Speak, mostly shot in 2014 but finally finished in 2016, confirms that a major new voice in Atlantic Canadian filmmaking has burst out on the scene.

Afraid To Speak is a small-scale drama that tackles the subject of depression. Its timely subject matter is matched by the sincerity and effectiveness of its delivery, from the finely-tuned acting to the astonishing surety of framing and camerawork. Taking a strikingly original view of a difficult matter, the film sets a very high standard from the beginning, and then consistently surpasses it.

It is a remarkably mature, compelling and effective piece of movie-making. As a first feature film from such a young writer and director, it marks Dillon Garland as a major new player on Atlantic Canada’s ever-changing cinema scene. Having recently played the Parrsboro Film Festival, watch for it on small and big screens in your locality.

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Fact, Fiction and Flying Saucers – A Review

Fredericton may be best known as New Brunswick’s capital city, but it is also the home to one of the world’s best-known UFO researchers, Stanton T. Friedman.

Friedman’s lifelong pursuit of the truth has lead to a stream of fascinating books, of which Fact, Fiction and Flying Saucers, written with Kathleen Marden (they previously co-authored Captured! The Betty and Barney Hill UFO Experience and Science Was Wrong), is the latest entry.

Even for the most hardened and knowledgeable UFO buff, Fact Fiction and Flying Saucers should be essential reading. Both Friedman and Marden have built their reputations on solid research rather than rampant speculation. The result is a storytelling style that is both informative and rigorous. Fascinatingly, the book, in its final third, takes on portions of the pro-UFO community itself to expose fakers, frauds and dodgy claims.

Fact, Fiction and Flying Saucers is a provocative and powerful entry in a controversial field. Whether you are a true believer or not, it’s a great reminder that there are still many more questions than answers to the UFO mystery.

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Remembering Jack Craig

John Robert (Jack) Craig, a key figure for many years in Halifax’s arts community, passed away on October 11th. Along with his wife Joan, Jack Craig formed the Craig Foundation to support the visual and performing arts. He also served on the boards of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia and Neptune Theatre, and put time and money into countless arts activities throughout the province. Jack and Joan Craig also endowed a chair at Dalhousie University for research into Autism.

For my part, I remember Jack Craig as the firm, quiet, wonderful and almost quite average father of one of my childhood friends, his son Michael. I met Jack again years later at a Board meeting of the Atlantic Film Festival (he had been invited to join) when I was making a presentation on the upcoming year’s programming aims and objectives. Jack was gentlemanly, and genuinely interested in what was going on at the Film Festival. I asked how Michael was doing and Jack said he was doing fine. Sadly, the agenda of the meeting, held in the evening at the National Film Board on Spring Garden Road, precluded much more social chatting, as there was a long list of items to go over.

By then the Craigs had gone on to a have almost a legendary status in the arts community of Halifax. I knew countless artists, actors and writers who received a grant from their foundation; it seemed I reviewed numerous theatre productions for the Daily News that listed the Craigs as benefactors.

Jack Craig was without question a very successful businessman. I knew him better as a father and a family man, and also as a man who put a great deal back into his community, for which we all should be thankful. Halifax is, by far, a better place because of Jack and Joan Craig.

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Lance Woolaver Launches Full-Length Maud Lewis Biography

Friday, October 14th, 2016 witnessed the official launch at Zwicker’s Gallery in Halifax of Lance Woolaver’s full-length biography of Nova Scotian folk artist Maud Lewis, published by Spencer Books.

Woolaver’s book is the culmination of a lifetime’s work on the subject. More than two decades of research went into this landmark 450 page tome. He grew up near Maud Lewis’s house, and his father, Judge Philip Woolaver, was one of the legendary folk artist’s two patrons (the other was her physician).

With the release of the Newfoundland / Irish feature film co-production Maudie this year, interest in the life and work of Maud Lewis is cresting again. Fifteen years ago, a national tour of her paintings, along with the publication of the best-selling coffee-table book The Illuminated Life of Maud Lewis by Woolaver and Bob Brooks, and sellout performances of Woolaver’s play on the same subject, brought the iconic folk artist’s work to national and international audiences. The new feature film and Woolaver’s indicate a further revival is underway.

While the film sugar-coats many aspects of Maud Lewis’s difficult life (no doubt a necessity for a commercial release), Woolaver’s book dives in and brings available light to the painter’s true lifelong sufferings. That she managed to concoct such bright and cheerful paintings under such dire social and personal conditions is something of a miracle.

While the film works hard to humanize her husband Everett, portrayed by the great actor Ethan Hawke in a vivid performance, the facts of the story, laid out in Woolaver’s book, are simply horrifying.

Woolaver, in his introductory remarks at the book launch, was unflinching. He calls it a ‘very dark book’ – and it is, as befits the true story of its subject.

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Did D. W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” Play in Halifax?

In the Saturday, October 1st edition of the Halifax Examiner writer and activist El Jones quotes an academic paper by Greg Marquis on whether D. W. Griffith’s epic motion picture The Birth Of A Nation ever played in Nova Scotia.

Marquis “suggests” that through researching Nova Scotian newspapers of the time (1916 and 1917) he discovered that The Birth Of A Nation didn’t play in the province in those years. An interesting assertion indeed. Having taught a film history course at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in association with the National Film Board of Canada for a decade and a half, I had access to information that positively disproves Marquis’ “suggestion”.

According to my sources, which mostly are gleaned from oral history, Griffith’s notoriously racist film played at the Neptune Theatre site, then called the Strand Theatre. Admission was an extraordinary two dollars, when regular admission to film shows in Halifax was regularly only a nickle. Special trains were run up from Yarmouth for showings of the film in Halifax.

All of this controversy comes exactly on the North American release of the 2016 film Birth Of A Nation. Co-written, directed and starring Nate Parker, an African-American who has had his own share of controversy over a past rape allegation, this new film chronicles the slave rebellion of Nat Turner. It is one of the most hotly anticipated films of the season, having made a splashy debut at the Sundance Festival last January, gaining a $17 million distribution deal and a great deal of publicity.

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“Shakespeare 400” at the Dalhousie Art Gallery

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare.

As Film Curator at the Dalhousie Art Gallery, I thought it was a good idea to revisit some of the cinematic versions of the Bard’s plays.

There is certainly no shortage to choose from. I did have a couple of guidelines. One was the 140 minute mark. The seats at the gallery are hard plastic, and most people are used to feature films being around two hours long. Shakespeare’s plays, however, generally run longer in their theatrical form. In film, some of the more famous ones – Roman Polanski’s Macbeth from 1971 for example – run 140 minutes or more. Alas, out went Roman’s well-known and well-loved film.

I’ve also found that people’s attention spans have shrunk a bit in the age of electronic devices and premium episodic television. Longer films will almost always lose audiences. I’ve actually seen this happen at the gallery.

Still, the films I’ve chosen for the series are all worth seeing for one reason or another. They run from the 1930s to the modern era, and include great productions from Orson Welles, Max Reinhardt, Julie Taymor, Ralph Fiennes, and others.

“Shakespeare 400” screens Wednesday evenings at 8:00 pm at the Dalhousie Art Gallery. Admission is free but donations are gratefully accepted; seating is limited so come early to guarantee admission. The series is supported by the Canada Council and Arts Nova Scotia.

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Inside “Head Space” with Nicole Steeves & Struan Sutherland

I first met Nicole Steeves in 2012 when my friend John Rosborough recommended her for a leading role in a low budget feature film I was directing called The Cuckoo in the Clock. We wound up casting her, and she did such a good job that I cast her again the following year when I made my next feature film, Roundabout, and she turned in another fine performance.

As talented as she is in front of the camera, however, Nicole also has a passion for working behind the camera, particularly for writing and directing, so I was pleased to hear in April that she had been selected as one of the five recipients for the 1K WAVE Atlantic program. The initiative, which is sponsored by Women in Film and Television Atlantic (WIFT-AT) and pUNK Films, provides an opportunity for five female filmmakers the opportunity to make a feature film under the guidance of industry mentors. Projects can be any genre, from narrative fiction to documentary to experimental. The budget? $1,000.

That’s right. $1,000.

Let me just say that the prospect of making a quality feature film for $1,000 is… well, the polite word would be “daunting.” Even most independent films will spend that much just on catering and food for cast and crew alone. To shoot an entire film with just a grand? I’m not sure most filmmakers I know could pull that off – including me!

But Nicole has done just that with her debut feature film Head Space. She was kind enough to let me have an advance look at the film, which premieres at the 2016 Atlantic Film Festival. Displaying the same commitment, creativity and resilience that I saw in her work on both The Cuckoo in the Clock and Roundabout, she has crafted a strange, off-kilter and utterly affecting low-fi film that punches well above its budgetary weight. Yes, there are some rough edges, but that’s part of its charm.

It’s a comedy, but it definitely inhabits the darker corners of the room, sliding and shifting just outside the warm and fuzzy laugh-track light of more mainstream fare. The film is anchored by a convincing performance from Struan Sutherland as Floyd, an agoraphobic with no intention of ever leaving his basement. His past as a comedian and TV pitch-man has left him broken and unable to face the outside world. Sutherland spends much of the film either alone or acting with a headless mannequin as his scene partner, and he brings a real sense of understated pathos to a role that could have easily been overplayed. When they consider who should win the best actor award at the Atlantic Film Festival this year, he merits strong consideration.

After watching Head Space, I asked Nicole if she would be willing to sit down and talk about the film for View 902. She readily agreed, and brought Struan along as well, which made perfect sense – as you’ll see, they are very much a creative team.

Here is my interview with Nicole and Struan, conducted at the Humani-T Cafe in the North End of Halifax on Tuesday, August 30th.

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Bruce McDonald’s “Weirdos” is a Wonderful Paean to Can-Con Identity

A couple of weeks ago I was lucky to see a sneak preview of the new Bruce McDonald film Weirdos courtesy of my cousin Mark Almon, who was one of the producers of the film.

While there are many fascinating angles to talk about in what is a wonderful film overall, the one that stood out to me perhaps the most is the theme of English Canadian nationalism, which is expressed visually through constant background coverage of the US Bicentennial celebrations (the story is set over the July 1st to July 4th weekend of 1976) and then contrasted by the constant audio of early and mid-1970s “Can-Con” pop radio that pours joyously out of the various cars that transport the young characters from place to place in the film.

While there has always been a unique vitality to French Canadian nationalism, the response from the English side of the equation has often been marginalized in the broader transatlantic imperial Anglo-Saxon monoculture. As a result, it was for many years reduced to a small but important stream: the Confederation Poets, the Group of Seven, and the CBC and the National Film Board in the ‘50s and ‘60s. In 1970, the iconoclastic Don Shebib film Goin’ Down the Road added to the mix.

English Canadian nationalism’s ground zero in the 1960s was marked by the Halifax philosopher George Parkin Grant’s 1965 book Lament For A Nation. It set forth the argument that English Canada was doomed to vanish into the great mush of the endless dynamic of America’s dominant culture.

The book, posted on the Literary Review of Canada’s 2005 “Most Important 100 Canadian Books Ever” list, challenged a generation of nascent nationalists to prove Grant wrong. Inspiring the likes of Margaret Atwood and James Laxer, a new English Canadian nationalism did eventually arise, but it was rarely expressed in the broader popular culture.

Except in pop music.

Eclectic. Distinct. Glorious. Catchy. Irresistible.

It was, culturally, the only thing that seemed to be ours.

It’s all there, raging in the background of Weirdos, a quintessentially Canadian film in the very best sense, and that you positively have to see… and hear!

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Artists and the Chronicle Herald

The unionized reporters and editors of the Chronicle Herald have been on strike since January 23rd, and there is no end in sight. The Herald has consistently refused to bargain in good faith, rejecting every proposal put forward by the union. Instead, publisher Mark Lever has stated that the paper needs to “move on,” which is barely-disguised code for the employer’s desire to break the union.

Sure, the newspaper industry is changing, but the Chronicle Herald is attempting to place all of the burden for meeting those challenges (and answering for the mistakes management have made) upon the workers. That’s just not right.

The unionized reporters have since created their own free, on-line news outlet called Local XPress. The reportage and commentary that you’ll find there is thoughtful and professional, which stands in marked contrast to what you’ll find from the scab staff now being employed by the Chronicle Herald.

This dispute puts artists in particular in a difficult place.

On the one hand, we need to find an audience for their work, and the Chronicle Herald still has the biggest print media reach in the province.

On the other hand, the real arts reporters on strike – Stephen Cooke, Andrea Nemetz, Elissa Barnard – are good, hard-working people whom most of us have come to know and respect over the years. At one time or another, almost all artists in Nova Scotia have benefited from their hard work and good reportage, whether directly or indirectly.

Finally, there’s the longstanding tradition of artists standing together, and standing with others who are fighting against bullies. The Chronicle Herald is the clear bully here, trying to bust a legally constituted union (and employing some pretty heavy-handed tactics to achieve that aim).

As artists, we have a moral responsibility when a dispute like this happens to stand with the folks in the trenches.

At the end of the day, that means sacrificing our own interests for the greater good.

It means standing with the real reporters, who have for years stood with us.

It means not talking to the Chronicle Herald.

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It’s Time to Abolish the Maritime Film Classification Board

Last month’s announcement that the beloved and long-running Quinpool Road film rental store Video Difference, along with its Bedford satellite site, will shut down August 20th and sell off its stock of films brought a range of emotions from its customers.

The store was acclaimed as classy and well-run with a reputation for service and selection. A victim of changing times – like the blacksmith shops of a hundred years ago – the closing of Video Difference marks the end of an age.

With any luck, a bit of long-overdue collateral damage should be the Maritime Film Classification Board. The agency of the provincial government that issues ratings for theatrically played films and video store selections, the MFCB has lost about half of its rather thin reason to exist with the closure of last major video rental store in Halifax.

The system is a dinosaur – a relic from a bygone era. If we really need ratings (a debatable point in the era of free-flowing online information), they can come from either Ontario, or the MPAA in the United States. Nobody needs Nova Scotian film ratings anymore. The old saw of “Community Standards” has been eclipsed by the flood of material on the Internet. Besides, “Community Standards” always brought up the question of “whose community, whose standards?”

So with only three hundred or so films to be classified from now on, it’s time for the Maritime Film Classification Board to be put to bed.


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The 2016 East Coast Paraconference

The second annual East Coast Paraconference took place last weekend (August 5th, 6th and 7th) in Liverpool, Nova Scotia, and I was fortunate to attend as a speaker. In the Internet era where fewer events like these are held – and those that do take place have seen declining attendance for years – I’m happy to report that here in Nova Scotia the Paraconference saw a marked increase in attendance from the first event held in August, 2015. The organizers in Queen’s County worked tirelessly to put on a first-class show for the people who made their way to the Liverpool Best Western over the weekend, and it paid off as attendees were treated to an eclectic group of knowledgeable, thought-provoking and entertaining speakers (and me) who covered a wide range of esoteric subjects, including crop circles, UFOs, Men-in-Black, ghosts, Oak Island, and psychic phenomena.

Speakers included author / radio host Greg Bishop, historian Aaron John Gulyas, UFO researcher Chris Styles, Oak Island historian Danny Hennigar, ghost investigators from New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, psychic – medium Shawn Leonard, author and folklorist Steve Vernon, and yours truly.

Kudos to the organizing team for putting on a world class show. I’ve been to many paranormal conferences in the United States and the United Kingdom over the years, often whilst filming documentaries, and the East Coast Paraconference is the best event of its sort that I’ve attended. It combines down-home Maritime hospitality with an eclectic array of guest speakers who challenge the audience to expand their horizons all while spinning some entertaining yarns that just may be true, much in line with the tradition of great Maritime storytellers and folklorists such as Helen Creighton.

Planning is apparently already underway for the third annual Paraconference in August, 2017, and I heartily recommend that anyone interested in the paranormal mark the dates of August 11th, 12th and 13th of next year off on their calendar, because the East Coast Paraconference is one of those quintessentially Nova Scotian events that you don’t want to miss.

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Jack Kerouac’s Maritime Connections

Jack Kerouac, along with Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs, formed the triumvirate of literary and cultural giants at the center of the Beat Generation universe. They set the stage for the 1960s Counterculture, and a general questioning of all Western values that has lingered on into contemporary times.

Kerouac made several references to Nova Scotia in his works. There’s one, in Tristessa, a novel set in Mexico City. There are two others that describe the same incidents when Kerouac, then a merchant mariner in the midst of World War II, landed in Sydney for a raucous shore leave that ended up in some nice working family’s living room after a wild all-night party.

That incident is recounted in Kerouac’s first published book, The Town and the City, from 1950. He and his editors misspelled Sydney as ‘Sidney’, but otherwise the descriptions ring true. The Beat novelist revisited the story again in his 1967 book, Vanity of Dulouz, where, this time, he got the spelling right.

Kerouac had joined the merchant marine after quitting Columbia University, where he had been on a football scholarship, once his career as a university sportsman was done due to an injury. Feeling like he had to contribute somehow to the war effort, he chose one of the most dangerous occupations, travelling the North Atlantic on a merchant ship.

The visit to Cape Breton was on the way to and from assignments to supply the new American air base in Thule, Greenland. After Kerouac had finished his trips to Thule and had safely returned to land, his ship was torpedoed and sunk.

Kerouac’s references to ‘the endless pine forests of Nova Scotia’ are of particular interest to me, not because we’re related, although that helps, but rather because of the particular strain of Tibetan Buddhism tha eventually found its way to the Bluenose Province. That strain, known locally as Shambhala, came to Nova Scotia when its leader, Chögyam Trungpa, ‘felt something’ when flying over the East Coast.

Trungpa was a legendary figure who left Tibet as a young man in the midst of the 1959 Chinese Invasion. He founded Buddhist Centres in Scotland, Spain and finally Boulder, Colorado, attracting attention and devotees as a powerful, if unorthodox, spiritual leader. His version of Buddhism seemed to include a meeting of the West and the East where spiritual quests seemed to include an unexpectedly hedonistic edge.

Meanwhile, Nova Scotia, and particularly Cape Breton, had begun to fill up with Beat and post-Beat figures such as Robert Frank, Richard Serra and Rudy Wurlitzer. Marshall McLuhan once famously said that artists where the antennae of civilization, foretelling the future. If that’s the case, then perhaps Kerouac did foretell of Nova Scotia’s possible role as some kind of promised land.

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West In East: Sam Shepard In Nova Scotia

From the late 1960s to 1984, the playwright and actor Sam Shepard lived in Nova Scotia, in a place called Hilltop Farms between Advocate and Parrsboro.

It’s not a widely known fact. A few “connect-the-dots” references float around the internet; there’s a couple of pictures of Shepard with a rifle, hunting; there’s a thin thread of mentions by other writers. And some years ago in the musical biography book Girls Like Us, the author figured out that Shepard was the “Coyote” of Joni Mitchell’s 1976 song, pursuing her even though he was, in Mitchell’s words, “Too far from the Bay of Fundy.”

Poet / musician Patti Smith stated in her National Book-Award-Winning memoir Just Kids that she and Shepard performed their play Cowboy Mouth in New York City in 1971. She goes on to say that Shepard then left the production abruptly to go to Nova Scotia.

Of course, Sam Shepard didn’t spend all of those fifteen years or so in the Bluenose province. According to a recent feature documentary, Shepard and Dark, the playwright and actor kept a busy schedule writing and filming while mostly living in San Francisco and New York City. In 1984 he left his wife and son to live with the actress Jessica Lange, which may have precipitated his departure from Nova Scotia. He sold Hilltop Farm to the Canadian actor Megan Follows, best known for her starring roles in the 1980s versions of Anne of Green Gables.

Sam Shepard was hardly an anomaly in landing in Nova Scotia. A raft of world class American artists started showing up in the province in the late 1960s. The East Coast of Canada beckoned to the likes of composer Philip Glass, filmmaker / photographer Robert Frank, screenwriter / novelist Rudy Wurlitzer, and artist / sculptor Richard Serra.

Many of these artists interacted with Nova Scotia’s culture. Glass, for example, was the featured composer and performer for the Scotia Festival of Music, and he also lectured on writing music for motion pictures for the Dalhousie Art Gallery, where I had the pleasure of meeting and introducing him to the audience. Frank taught at NSCAD in 1972 and presented his work at Dalhousie in 1997. Frank hosted an exhibition of his work at the Art College as recently as 2014. Serra accepted an honourary doctorate from the Art College and delivered a fascinating commencement speech which revealed some of his work habits. Wurlitzer has given extensive interviews about his affection for Nova Scotia, detailing some of his connections to Cape Breton’s Buddhist community. He even named one of his characters in his novels ‘Halifax’.

Sam Shepard, on the other hand, seems to have come to the province to get away from everywhere and everything else.

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Barbara Hannigan Awarded the Order of Canada

Barbara Hannigan has been awarded the Order of Canada for her achievements in singing and conducting classical music in some of the world’s most important venues.

Hannigan was born in Nova Scotia in 1971 and raised in Waverley, at the time a small village just outside of Dartmouth. I first came across her name a few years ago while checking out recent post-modernist releases on the web. In 2013, she recorded the premiere of French composer Henri Dutilleux’s massive piece Correspondances. It won the Gramophone ‘Recording of the Year Award’.

To think that the East Coast’s classical music scene produced one of the world’s great contemporary music talents provides one of those sobering moments in the arts out here. Hannigan may be less well known to casual listeners than Waverley’s other great musical export, April Wine’s Myles Goodwyn, but there is no question about her monumental achievements.

Hannigan studied in Nova Scotia until she was 17. She moved on to the University of Toronto before plying her trade mostly in Europe. Still, this should prove something of a rallying point for Halifax’s under-reported classical music scene, as well as the often neglected cause of teaching music in the school system.

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Blue Mountain / Birch Cove Lakes Supporters Fight Back

Following a calamitous HRM presentation meeting concerning the proposed Blue Mountain/Birch Coves last week, the Ecology Action Centre organized a response gathering at Dalhousie University on Wednesday Night, June 29th.

Smoothly run with flashes of passion and humour, and bursting with precise information, the meeting was the antithesis of the previous disaster where no-one was allowed to ask questions and the 300-plus crowd tried to cram into the 85-seater hotel conference room.

The Dalhousie Lecture Hall, with a capacity of 700, was about half full, an astonishing number concerning it was a week full of graduations and looming vacations. EAC Wilderness coordinator Ray Plourde acted as master of ceremonies, blending a talent for disgorging facts and figures with some old-time revivalist oratory that had the audience delivering several standing ovations.

With a table full of allies including The Halifax Field Naturalists, The Halifax North West Trails Society, and Fusion Halifax, Plourde implored the crowd to become ‘Blue Mountain/Birch Cove Lake Park Rangers’ in order to save the imperiled Wilderness Zone from a private sector development that may be looming in the near future.

A July 4th deadline for comments to the City will be followed by a mid-month council meeting that could approve the dismemberment of the park. Time is still of the essence and yet opposition to development is still being rallied.

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Karma hits Stephen McNeil as Halifax filmmakers get involved in politics

It was inevitable after Stephen McNeil’s Liberal government decimated the Nova Scotia film industry in April 2015 that politically-conscious film industry professionals would fight back. In the year and two months since that disastrous decision – one of many mistakes made by the McNeil Liberals, who have pinballed from self-made crisis to self-made crisis during their three years in office – we have seen a massive protest at Province House, the rise of Screen Nova Scotia as a politically active and savvy lobbying group, and a non-stop barrage of letters to the editor, radio interviews, and articles from film industry workers determined to defeat the government at the first possible turn (a factor that probably led to the election of NDP MLA Marian Mancini in a Dartmouth by-election last year by a tight margin).

Now two veteran and award-winning Halifax-based filmmakers, both of whom were instrumental in crafting the old film funding system during their time as Program Administrators at the Nova Scotia Film Development Corporation in the 1990s, have decided to take the fight against the Liberal government one step further. John Wesley Chisholm and my friend and colleague Paul Kimball have decided to seek the nomination for the progressive Conservative Party in the ridings of Halifax Chebucto and Halifax Needham, respectively.

Both Chisholm and Kimball are highly educated, very articulate, and very media savvy.

In other words, they may just be Stephen McNeil’s worst nightmare.

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The Ghosts of Icon Bay

I stopped by Icon Bay, the “can’t miss it” giant blue skyscraper at 50 Bedford Highway, on Sunday, June 26th, at 1:00 pm for their advertised open house. Unfortunately, there was no-one there.

Not a sign.

Not a banner.

Nary a real estate agent.


It was fitting, however. The ediface occupies a ghostly spot on the Bedford Basin waterfront, overlooking the railway shunting yards and the Bedford Highway.

Looking a bit like a Borg spaceship, of Star Trek: The Next Generation fame, attracted to Earth by the Fairview container terminal’s endless supply of delicious-looking boxy rectangles, Icon Bay might just have slipped past Halifax’s planners in the height department. Now that it’s built, however, there’s no turning back. Hence my interest in a tour.

Since that didn’t quite turn out as advertised, I can at least examine Icon Bay’s strange site history. It’s a history that is haunted by the ghosts of two dark episodes from Halifax’s past.

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Howard Epstein’s “Rise Again: Nova Scotia’s NDP on the Rocks” – A Review

Howard Epstein’s Rise Again: Nova Scotia’s NDP on the Rocks is part idiosyncratic political memoir and part bitter philippic from someone who was both in the Nova Scotia government from 2009 until 2013, in the sense that he was an MLA of the governing party, but also never really part of the government during the Dexter years due to his exclusion from cabinet – something that clearly still rankles Mr. Epstein, despite his frequent assertions to the contrary.

The book does contain information and perspectives that historians will find useful, and for that reason alone it merits a spot on the shelf of anyone interested in Nova Scotian political history, but when it comes to his central thesis Mr. Epstein singularly fails to make the case that he prosecutes against the 2009 – 2013 NDP government as a sell-out of progressive values. Furthermore, the vision that he offers for rebuilding the party is one rooted in the ideological battles of the 20th century, and not the realities and the very exciting possibilities of the 21st. In a no doubt unintended irony, this self-defined champion of “true” progressive values actually emerges from Rise Again as the most reactionary of all the former members of the NDP government. He is looking backward with a mixture of bitterness and self-righteousness, as opposed to forward with the hope and optimism and spirit of true cooperation that Nova Scotians need now more than ever.

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