I was living in Ottawa in the early days of Facebook, and primarily used the nascent social media network to teleport myself back to Peterborough and visit my friends. I was homesick, a sojourner in a strange, ambitious land, and I lived for any sign of my old scene and its doings, for any small reassurance that there was still a place for me to return to.
One such melancholy day, my quest was rewarded by someone posting a cute music video called “Everyday.” Set in Catalina’s hair salon, the video featured the filmmaker, Sarah DeCarlo singing and playing guitar, backed by a cast of about a dozen scenesters: Em Glasspool, Sean Conway, Amanda Mackey, and John Mather on various instruments, and a few others singing back-up vocals while styling hair. The song and the setting were casually and unconvincingly retro in a way that summed up the Hunter Street aesthetic of that time.
Needless to say, I loved “Everyday,” because it showed me a myth of place that spoke precisely to my longing: Peterborough as a utopia of easy-going style, in which art—songs and films—burst forth from people spontaneously while they go about their days.
“Everyday” was not great art, either as a song or a video, as Sarah is quick to point out when I tell her how much I liked it: she’s made other films and written other songs that are more worthy of discussing. “It was just a fun thing I did in response to instant videos that Lester [Alfonso] and Tammy [Foreman] were doing.” Point taken.
But it’s important to note that part of the appeal of “Everyday,” in contrast to a more ambitious love letter to ourselves like Peterborough Time (2007), is precisely its modesty, its whatever-ness, its status as minor work, as a lark between friends. That’s precisely how and why I enjoyed it.
Peterborough has a rich and storied history of film. Film festivals in particular, starting in the late 1970s and early 80s with Canadian Images, extending then to International Images in the 90s and Optic Nerve in the 2000s, and finally to ReFrame Film Festival, which runs this month, have built a solid audience of dedicated and knowledgeable film watchers.
Although filmmaking has been a slower development than film screening, local filmmakers have taken on a wide range of big projects: documentaries on social issues rooted in personal experiences, like Lester Alfonso’s Twelve (2008) and Michael Johnson’s My Student Loan (2003); reckonings with the destructive afterlife of industrial society, like Tim Wilson’s Maximum Marmora Phenomenon (2005) and Rob Viscardis and Natasha Luckhardt’s Widows of Asbestos (forthcoming); and celebrations of the local music scene like Ryan Lalonde and Michael Hurcomb’s The Radius Project (forthcoming).
It would be foolish, given this breadth, to try to cover the whole scene and what everyone is doing. Instead I’m going to focus on two very different upstart filmmakers—Sarah DeCarlo, whose film River Song and album Bubble Rapture are both premiering at ReFrame Film Festival, and Matthew Hayes, whose film Pushback will hit festivals in the spring—and how their work, and especially their current project, fits into their relationship to Peterborough.
Sarah DeCarlo grew up in Peterborough, in a very religious family in which secular music was all but unknown. Her mum was a member of the Rama First Nation, but grew up off-reserve in Cobourg, and moved to Peterborough when she met Sarah’s dad, who grew up here.
Her mother went to university when Sarah was young, and it “opened her up.” Ojibway and white, she was raised without status because her grandfather had been enfranchised as a soldier (her status was reinstated under Bill C-31 in 1985), and “had to learn how to be a native person from an institution.”
Prejudice was a big part of her parents’ experience of growing up, and of hers. “Her dad was hurt by all that stuff. He was a boxer, grew up in Cobourg, very discriminated against—Italians were very discriminated against—it’s passed down,” she says. “I’m part of that experience also.”
When she was 16, Sarah dropped out of high school. She went into an Ontario government program for youth called Futures, and did her placement at Cogeco in the community television department, where she first caught the filmmaking bug.
Music developed a little slower, and was always about writing more than performing, which terrified her. Although she had little exposure to secular music and limited skills as a guitarist, Sarah would write tunes. “I just always had to write songs and they were always very folky, grassroots music,” she says. “It just kind of came out of me.”
Later at Trent University, where, at the turn of the millennium, she studied Political Studies and Native Studies, she found a community. “I played basketball, and the people I played with—Wanda Nanibush, Nicky Gibeault, Patti Shaughnessy, Sarah Roque—those people became my community. That opened my eyes.”
After university, she started working at the Peterborough Arts Umbrella (PAU), as the media co-ordinator, running programs for members and organizing workshops for the community. She also did a production internship at the Liaison of Independent Filmmakers of Toronto (LIFT), and recorded her first few songs—enough to populate her Myspace musician site—there.
While working at PAU, she started combining “light and music” for the first time, projecting images on stage to accompany her original songs. “I took a Super 8 and shot a lot of footage,” she says. “I like that, I think the visuals allowed people to connect. There are so many good musicians around. It’s a good way to stand out.”
Now Sarah works in northern First Nation communities, helping young people “express their reality” through film. She’s made a number of short films with youth, anything from pop culture parodies to films about the residential schools and suicide awareness. “The production quality isn’t stellar, but the message is there,” she says. “It’s youth talking about something that’s often not acknowledged, and how that has affected them.”
The program, which is called Waazahzaa (which means Bright Shimmering Light in Ojibway), is a collaboration between Sarah, her mother, and her sister, who started visiting Cree communities along the coast of James Bay in Quebec almost 20 years ago. It’s work that means a lot to Sarah—“Sometimes all people need is someone to notice the greatness in them and they can believe it too,” she says—and it has defined the themes of much of her film work.
Sarah’s new film River Song, made in collaboration with Amro Khito, is also about youth and community. It features two young women, one Anishnaabe and the other Syrian, who paddle a canoe and discuss their identities and how they experience the world.
The film, which was produced by ReFrame originally as part of Artsweek last fall, is inspired by another film called The Island of All Together, set on Lesvos island in Greece, a transit site for Syrian refugees. In the film, people ask each other a series of revealing questions designed to overcome differences.
That was the original vision for River Song. “The idea was that these two [young women] would meet each other for the first time and get to know each other” and talk about their communities’ experiences, but “it seems like that’s not what they wanted to talk about. We included some of those things but very little.”
Because the trauma stories were “the undercurrents, not upfront,” Sarah had the idea of attaching the camera to a paddle and filming underwater, a sequence that serves as a disorienting prologue to the discussion, almost like a baptism. “In the end the message seems more powerful that way,” she says.
“It’s a human connection. If you hear somebody’s story you can relate to it,” she continues. “When you see a young Syrian girl in hijab you think she’s so different, but you meet her and get to know her she could be your sister or your daughter.”
River Song will premiere this month at ReFrame, where Sarah will also release her new album Bubble Rapture. Funded by an Ontario Arts Council, it was recorded in a couple of days with some friends over a year ago by James McKenty. “It’s kind of raw,” she says, and shows a different side of her songwriting.
“Sometimes the songs I was writing weren’t from deep within me; some songs were just a way to express problems in a relationship in a funny way,” she says. “As you get older and mature the material you work with is different.” She feels her career is atypical. “I’m just not a typical Peterborough musician. I don’t play as many shows. I don’t make as many albums.
“Sometimes the things you make connect to other people in ways that make it valuable,” she says. “Without that I probably wouldn’t share my work—I’d still make it, but I wouldn’t share it.”
Matthew Hayes also positions himself as atypical, but in a very different way. “I’m not one of the vets of Peterborough,” he says. “There’s an identifiable old guard,” and sometimes that can be a problem, especially when it comes to people being honest in their criticisms of each other’s work—an issue that extends far beyond the filmmaking scene.
“Sometimes Peterborough is a giant circlejerk,” Matthew says. “It’s like, ‘How dare you criticize?’” People love things they see because they’re about Peterborough and they’re from Peterborough; that love of place is great, but it can be deadly to an artist’s development.
A Trent alumnus, Matthew got into filmmaking during a year abroad in Oxford, in the UK, where he was studying anthropology. His ambition at the time was to be an ethnographer of South Asia, so he took a class on South Asian ethnography. The course had “a ton of documentaries,” he says, and “I was the only one who watched them. I couldn’t believe no one was watching this stuff.”
He became captivated and decided, “I’m going to try this.” He bought a Sony camcorder, filmed his friends, picked up little projects, made a couple of shorts a year (“some are decent”), and started to build his skills. “I learned to make films by making them and watching them,” he says.
Matthew returned to Peterborough in 2013 with his family, and started a PhD at Trent the next year.
On his return to Peterborough, Matthew has became a very Peterborough-themed filmmaker, first with Tilco Striker (2015), a historical film about a strike in a textile factory that divided the city in the 1960s, then with Masjid (2015), a documentary about the arson attack on Peterborough’s mosque, and the community response to it.
His current project, made in collaboration with Jon Hedderwick, is a feature-length documentary called Pushback, about Peterborough’s unique homeless shelter the Warming Room (see news feature).
The film came out of conversations between Matthew and Jon about working on a project together. Originally they wanted to do a film about the Sex Worker Action Project (SWAP), but it had ended by the time they were actively looking for a subject. After a few other ideas and quite a few nos, they decided to do a film about the Warming Room.
It was a great fit. “They take a more relational approach,” Matthew says, and they were interested in building a deeper connection with them on the project. “We became volunteers and then, at the end of the season, we felt we’d built enough relationship and trust” to start shooting.
Initially they had only a few residents on board but, in a small, close knit-community that’s clustered around the downtown, they would film one person and be approached immediately by others about being in the film. “It kind of snowballed,” Matthew says.
The film has no voice-over, but is searingly blunt in its portrayal of people who are clearly struggling to hold on to housing, to keep drugs from overwhelming their lives, or to keep families together. The people in the film are profoundly stigmatized and at risk of violence, and they don’t always do themselves any favours when they explain themselves.
Early on, the filmmakers decided on what they believe is a novel approach for documentarians: they would pay everyone who appeared in the film an hourly wage. Although it was expensive, Matthew believes that it was essential to getting the film made. “A couple of subjects might not have participated otherwise.”
A lot of people show the footage or a rough cut to the people who are in the film, to make sure they’re ok with how they’re represented before the film is finished. Alanis Obomsawin, who has made films about struggles over fishing rights and housing conditions in northern First Nations, for example, is known for this kind of practice.
But paying people and showing them the footage is a unique approach—partly because financing a film is hard enough and “it’s tough to pay people on shoestring budgets.” Paying the people in the film meant a bigger fundraising challenge.
“I don’t even try for Canada Council or Ontario Arts Council funding,” Matthew says, noting that the Warming Room film would be ineligible anyway, given that they don’t fund feature films by emerging artists.
Because traditional funding avenues weren’t viable, they needed a non-traditional financing model. They did “a ton of research” on crowd-funding before launching their Indiegogo campaign, so they weren’t surprised when it was successful, raising over $10,000 of the $13,000 they’ve raised in total.
It helps that it’s a local issue—a story a self-aware community wants to see told about itself. Peterborough’s passion for itself, which when malignant becomes narcissistic, was crucial to the success of the campaign, and therefore of Pushback. “We couldn’t have done the film without it,” Matthew says. “People wouldn’t have participated.”
It’s a model, he says, “that’s becoming more common, especially in documentary. Funds are disappearing, you have to get more creative.”
Just as the Warming Room takes a “relational approach” to working with its guests, Pushback takes a relational approach to its subjects and to its audience—who are also its financiers. That homology is a testament to the transformative power of filmmaking as community activism.
Sarah DeCarlo releases Bubble Rapture on January 26 at Catalina’s. River Song debuts at ReFrame Film Festival on January 27.
Cover illustration by B Mroz. All film images courtesy the filmmakers.