hile the classic cinema experience involves a giant screen in a dark theater, there’s plenty more to filmmaking. Brett Kashmere, who grew up on Saskatchewan’s prairies playing hockey before he went to film school and moved to Montreal, relocated to upstate New York about a year ago. With Syracuse as his new home base, he continues to makes experimental documentaries, writes about film (what filmmaker Stan Brakhage and jazz musician John Coltrane have in common, for example, is forthcoming in print), and works as a film curator, usually in galleries and other non-cineplex settings. His partner, the artist and curator Astria Suparak (whose relocation to direct the new Warehouse Gallery occasioned their move), has sometimes collaborated with Kashmere on these projects, such their program of new Canadian digital video, How to Become a Canadian, commissioned in 2004 by New York City’s center for art and technology, Eyebeam.
This spring, between festival screenings of his film Valery’s Ankle and doing his part to expand the One Take Super 8 project, Kashmere’s been busy coast to coast, connecting the dots in a vibrant network along the way of experimental regional filmmaking that becomes—by virtue of such travel and cross-pollination—cosmopolitan.
Seven years ago Kashmere’s old friend and fellow Canadian Alex Rogalski introduced One Take Super 8, a traveling and ever-morphing event that’s been from Winnipeg to Fort Lauderdale and points between. In late March Kashmere used the Syracuse event—25 locally-made shorts presented with an air of high mystery and anticipation, since their makers weren’t allowed to edit or even see their creations before the screening—to inaugurate the new cooperative Syracuse Experimental Film + Media Workshop. In April Kashmere took Syracuse’s One Take Super 8 program to Portland, Maine, where that city’s new film and video collective added their own shorts. Then Kashmere took Valery’s Ankle to Toronto’s Images Festival, stopped back in Syracuse to collect himself and headed for British Columbia’s international hockey conference in Victoria and the other Portland, which meant he’d have to miss the film’s end of April screening at Syracuse’s International Film Festival.
With its teasingly sensuous title, Valery’s Ankle is an unexpectedly resonant 33-minute film about Canadian identity’s Achilles heel—hockey violence. Kashmere’s starting point is the Cold War-era 1972 Super Summit between Canada and the Soviet Union, the first time both nations’ best players competed, because up till then international hockey was amateur-only. In the sixth game, played in Moscow, Canada was trailing badly. With a two-handed slash of his stick, then-Canadian player Bobby Clarke broke the ankle of Valery Kharlamov. With the Soviet star out of play, Canada won the tournament. Kashmere’s film contains this moment and a wealth of film clips from decades of Canadian hockey before and after. Now screening on the international festival circuit, Valery’s Ankle has been to Germany and a growing number of Canadian and US festivals (including Syracuse, Ithaca, Hartford, Saratoga and others).
Besides taking his film to Portland’s Documentary and Experimental festival (PDX)—founded in 2001 by filmmaker Matt McCormick and a major reason Portland is now a center for hybrid docs—Kashmere presented a multi-media program called “Carte Blanche du Canada” for Portland’s four-year-old collective Cinema Project, which included Kashmere’s When Canadians Attack plus work by Canadian filmmakers Richard Kerr, Arthur Lipsett, Amber Goodwin, Michael Rollo, and others. The Victoria hockey conference brought together journalists, novelists, a cross section of academics concerned with sports, at least one NHL owner (Harley Hutchins of the Calgary Flames), and filmmaker Kashmere, whose Valery’s Ankle DVDs went like hotcakes, finding their way to such niches as Notre Dame University’s class on sports and the Cold War and writer Iri Cermak’s forthcoming book on hockey-themed feature length films.
Along the way, Kashmere found time for a wide-ranging conversation with Stylus about blending art and violent sport on-screen, his documentary on the Canadian immigrant experience, Canadian filmmaker Richard Kerr, regional filmmaking outside universities, healing the split between cinema and the other visual arts, and his next film project about basketball and hip-hop.
Images is celebrating its 20th year this spring. It’s devoted to cutting edge experimental, independent media arts. It’s expanded from just films and videos to exhibiting installations and new media work. This year they also introduced a project called IF-Pod, where each day of the festival you could download five historical video art pieces from Canadian artists and five recent short videos by Canadian artists. You can download them to your portable devices. It’s a festival that’s always been important to me so I was very happy to have Valery’s Ankle included this year.
Let’s talk about Valery’s Ankle a bit. Few short docs pack as much into 33 minutes and you even have a reading list as part of the credits.
Specifically it’s about this contradiction between the Canadian self-image of peacefulness, politeness, sportsmanship, and the permissive attitude that Canadians take toward hockey violence. It’s always troubled me that hockey violence—really sports violence—isn’t considered the same as social violence. I try to do a revisionist history of hockey through one particular moment in the shadow of the Cold War. Canada expected to dominate the eight-game exhibition tournament. The Soviets came over to Canada and dominated the first six games. The Canadian public was really shocked by this. People were freaking out.
When the series resumed in Moscow, Canada was behind going into Game 6, three games to one and one tie. Midway through Game 6 one of the Canadian players intentionally broke the ankle of the Soviet star player—one of the most skilled players in the world at that time—Valery Kharlimov. He couldn’t continue. Canada went on to win the last three games and win the series. The Canadian government has used that series to solidify and strengthen nationalism. At that moment Canada was trying to form a sense of identity. We had just introduced a new flag. And then the film moves backwards and forwards in time to look at other incidents of hockey violence. It’s not a series of unconnected linear events. It’s a pattern of behavior perpetuated over time.
This spring you’re going coast to coast, from one Portland to the other.
Well, I’m taking a project called the One-Take Super 8 Event to Portland, Maine. It was held in Syracuse in late March. My friend Alex Rogalsky started this project in Saskatchewan in the year 2000. He invited thirty local filmmakers to make a new piece in Super 8. The catch was that no one was allowed to see their film after they had shot it. So everything had to be shot in-camera without the possibility of editing afterwards. Everyone shot a roll of film and gave it back to Alex. He would send all the films to a lab, they’d get processed, sent back. On the night of the screening everything was projected. People would make sound-tracks. It’s fun event because there’s an air of mystery.
Discovering what you made at the same time as the audience?
Yeah! You don’t know if it’s turned out or not. A lot of people are working with old cameras that they’ve possibly never shot with, or making films for the first time. One of the great things about Super 8, it’s very user-friendly—that’s part of its history. It’s an event that’s continued and expanded to other places, as well as Syracuse. I was invited before the Syracuse Super 8 to bring the films to Portland, Maine. There’s a new collective of film and video artists in Portland also making new films for this. So we’ll show the Syracuse work and then they’ll premiere their films.
This Super 8 event was the inaugural screening for a new film and video collective that you’ve been involved in co-founding in Syracuse in the last few months.
One of the things I noticed about Syracuse when we moved here was there wasn’t a sense of a filmmaking community. There are certain pockets of film enthusiasts, and local filmmakers, and of course the university film community. But I didn’t get a sense of a community of filmmakers working outside the university. My background as a filmmaker is independent and experimental cinema. In order to sustain a practice it’s very important to have the support of colleagues and have a sense of community and sense of sharing. Now that I’m outside of the university—because I finished my MFA last spring—all of a sudden it’s dawned on me that I don’t have an equipment base to draw on and I’m not surrounded by people to give me feedback.
I felt a very acute need to develop a support system for my own selfish filmmaking needs, but also so that I can give back something. I do have certain knowledge that may be unique to Syracuse and I have equipment and energy and time. So I’m very excited about it. I’ve found that a lot of interesting students come to Syracuse University to study film and video—from New Jersey and Connecticut and Queens, for example—but they finish, they immediately go back to where they come from. Partially because there isn’t a way to keep working after school, so that was also a consideration in forming the cooperative.
Syracuse seems to be more a crossroads now than in the past. It sits in the corridor between Montreal/Quebec/Toronto—and Boston/New York/Philadelphia—and increasingly gallery shows draw from those cities and provide a meeting ground for artists from those areas who come here for the openings of their work. They get to see each other’s work and we get to see the art together.
With the kind of traveling you do and the community you pull on, you can provide the same thing for local filmmaking. For a city like Syracuse, that suggests the kind of vibrancy of smaller cities that John Villani talks about with his books rating the best small art towns in the US. Maybe a parallel development in regional filmmaking is emerging.
Yes, and I also draw for inspiration on the history of media art and arts cooperatives in upstate New York. Buffalo has a very strong tradition in particular and a media arts co-op there called Squeaky Wheel. They have a long lineage of great experimental film and video artists that have come through Buffalo and taught there. Many experimental television collectives were formed in upstate New York in the ‘70s. So there is a possibility of these kinds of things. It’s just getting the right mix of people.
The sense of separation between film and traditional visual arts like painting and sculpture has always bothered me. Film is just hard to exhibit because of the medium’s fragility and its technical apparatus. When I studied in Saskatchewan, four of us started up a gallery and cinematheque we called the Ante Chamber. Coincidentally enough—since he’s in Syracuse now—it was named after an essay by filmmaker Tom Sherman, “Thoughts from the Ante Chamber.” He proposed that we’re in this small room, a series of small rooms—disciplines—and we’re waiting to get into a larger, interdisciplinary room and that is the future of art.
We wanted to create a space with a more fluid boundary—maybe no boundary—between the visual arts and film. We handcrafted a storefront space that contained a black box theater and a screening space and an installation space. You had to pass through one room to get to the other. That was in the late 90s. Over the last five or ten years we’ve seen an increased movement toward exhibiting film and video in galleries. Videos always fit in a little easier to the gallery space. But there’s a breaking down of that boundary. That’s good because you bring different audiences together—people interested in films that wouldn’t necessarily go into a gallery might, if they’re going to see a film or video screenings.
Could you talk about your previous documentary? Let’s get a sense of the work that you’ve been involved in.
Unfinished Passages is an experimental documentary about my great-grandfather’s immigrant experience at the turn of the 20th century. When he was ten years old he was sent over to Canada from the UK under a program initiated by a philanthropist named Dr. Bernardo. He sent thousands of British orphans to Canada for better lives, so my great-grandfather was adopted by a family in Saskatchewan. He was separated from his sister, which was unusual. He was basically treated like a slave by this family for a period of eight to ten years. They would intercept mail from his sister and steal money that she sent. Eventually he saved money and bought his own homestead.
In the early 1900s there was almost no settlement on the prairies, so these were original homesteaders—a very harsh time to live there. Since he was an orphan I feel like my own personal consciousness only goes back as far as him. He lived to be 99 years old, so I got to know him and his story first-hand. I always wanted to make a film in homage to him and what he endured. The film doesn’t quite work as a documentary—it’s more abstracted. I tell his story through the developing language of cinema, which has a parallel historical trajectory to that of Saskatchewan. Both were born in the late 1800s and early 1900s. His story is told through developments in film history. Each of the five parts is shot or re-photographed using different bits of early cinema.
There’s a parallel history of sending orphans from eastern US cities into the Great Plains and essentially treating them like slaves or migrant labor gangs. Terence Malick’s Days of Heaven draws some on this history. In terms of Canadian identity do people acknowledge this history?
I don't think so. I think it’s one of those histories that falls through the cracks. I call it minor history or neglected history. It’s something that comes up in the hockey film too—the history that we choose to forget. Those are the stories I’m interested in bringing to light. One thing that always amazed me about my great-grandfather’s stories—he left behind a set of memoirs which I draw on in the film—was his positive attitude. He called it Canada Adopted Me. I’m sure he ended up having a better life in Canada than he would’ve had in Britain, but it’s very disappointing to think that a country like Canada, which does have progressive values, would have these kinds of things happen.
The Canadian filmmaker Richard Kerr was your teacher to begin with. There’s a DVD-formatted catalogue for an exhibition you curated in 2003 called Industry, with his recent experimental work.
I have described Richard Kerr as my first and last teacher. He was a professor of mine in Regina. He moved out to Montreal a couple years before I did and I moved there in 2000. I started working with him. He first hired me to edit a film for him using a box of fifty 35-mm Hollywood trailers that someone gave him. We had a studio and decided we should do something with this box of trailers—everything from Mr. Magoo to Adam Sandler movies, all this bad Hollywood stuff that we both disliked. We went through each one and identified all the interesting visual materials—like, any car crash or explosion or chase.
We began compiling all these shots onto different reels. It starts in outer space and then comes down to earth and then to inner space. We also started manipulating the actual emulsion, by either boiling the film in hot water until it would soften and we could stretch it and repaint the emulsion, or by using the household cleaner Fantastic. It softens the emulsion so you can repaint it and move it from one frame to another and overlap frames. Out of that work two films were made. One was Collage du Hollywood, a very intense über-trailer, like eight minutes of Hollywood trailers mixed together. It’s a very dense collage. The misogyny of Hollywood cinema really comes out. It was unintentional but hard to avoid when that’s the material you have to work with.
Right before Portland’s PDX Festival you’re in Victoria, British Columbia at a hockey conference?
Yes, with academics, hockey scholars and historians, hockey writers and journalists and novelists. Some of the NHL owners may be there.
I was hoping it would be like getting punched at a certain point.
In the film you ask, “Do we need this? Is it time to give this up?” That is, this violent self-image of identity, of masculinity. When you think about it, that montage is not all that different from someone accessing their own memory if they’ve followed the sport for years.
Hockey is by its nature a very violent game—because of the speed, players carry weapons and dress in armor, and they’re allowed to bump into each other. From the very beginning in the early 1900s, there were injuries and violent attacks—even deaths. I think it’s going to be part of the game. Why is hockey the only professional sport that allows fighting? Even in boxing, you’re wearing gloves, you’re not allowed to hit someone with your fist. And I’ve always seen it as part of the National Hockey League’s marketing.
In order to sell the game in certain non-traditional hockey markets—like California, like Nashville, Tennessee, or Carolina—they underline the rough aspects to attract fans that otherwise have no relationship to a game played on ice. In Canada, a lot of the landscape is covered in ice for half the year. Hockey comes out of the Canadian landscape. The problem arises when the game becomes too structured and competitive at too early an age. Those are the stories I hate, hockey parents getting in fights, attacking referees, creating an example that leads to aggressive behavior by their kids.
You’ve seen the film Murderball of course.
Wheelchair hockey comes from Canada too.
What do you think about sport as such a rich place to make film?
Interesting—I’ve always felt there’s actually a real lack of really good sports films. It’s very popular as a topic for narrative feature films. I think because people are so enthralled, so in love with sports, it becomes a vehicle for ideology. About ten years ago the film scholar Vivian Sobchack wrote a great essay* about American baseball films and how their production related to periods of war in the US. You’d have increased numbers of baseball films because that was a way to promote Americanism.
There’s always been narrative film, but there hasn’t been strong experimental film dealing with sports—one of the shaping factors for me was that I’ve always been interested in hockey and in art, two things that are very difficult to reconcile, right? Most artists I know aren’t really interested in sports and vice versa. It was a way to bring these two dialogues together. It was something I could talk about that was more than just sports—it was also identity and masculinity and the writing of history.
It’s a very robust discussion. It allows people who have a negative opinion of the arts to talk about things that the arts provide a vocabulary for—almost a kind of stealth discussion. Because it’s about hockey, it lets people have the discussion without being embarrassed.
Yes, it’s a good way to bring people in. It’s an expanded notion of what documentary is, and that’s what I’m most interested in.
What’s next for you?
I recently started collecting materials for a new film on basketball and American identity and masculinity and racial identity and Hip Hop. I said this in Toronto at the Images festival after Valery’s Ankle screened, and afterward about ten people came up and they were, like, they didn’t believe I was working on a film about basketball. They somehow found that too hard to imagine. But I did play basketball in high school and I did actually coach girls basketball for a couple years.
I’m very interested in how all the issues around American identity seem to surface in basketball. And it seems to be going through this period—the NBA seems to be trying to de-urbanize its image. You know, I live in downtown Syracuse in the inner city, so I’m interested in this.
Is there anything else you want to say about operating as an international filmmaker from a city the size of Syracuse?
The one thing that’s lacking is a venue devoted to showing alternative cinema on a regular basis. Maybe the cooperative can address that.
*"Baseball in the Post American Cinema,” in Baker & Boyd’s Out of Bounds: Sports, Media and the Politics of Identity (1997).
Find Brett Kashmere online at brettkashmere.com.