A very special edition of this year’s Cinematic Cities programme, Christie Pits Film Festival is celebrating Canada Day with three films that highlight our hometown of Toronto! Local writer-director Sarah Goodman’s headlining feature film Porch Stories is set in and around Toronto’s Little Portugal, and depicts love in all its different stages unfolding on neighbouring porches over the course of a summer’s day. This film will be accompanied by Sonya Reynolds and Lauren Hortie’s Whatever Happened to Jackie Shane?, a gorgeously animated portrait of a Black, queer, soul-singing, flamboyant, Nashville-born, Toronto-based musician who made waves in our local 1960s music scene. This evening’s film programme will also include the short film Bickford Park, which takes place across the street from Christie Pits Park (find our interview with directors Linsey Stewart and Dane Clark here).
Christie Pits Film Festival is the signature project of Toronto Outdoor Picture Show (TOPS), which presents its Cinematic Cities programme all summer long at parks across the city.
TOPS: This year's film programme is titled Cinematic Cities, a theme that draws bridges between vibrant and complex cities around the world while highlighting the people who make each of these cities unique. Do you have a favourite movie that captures the spirit of a city?
Sarah Goodman: Well many of the films in your series, for starters! Cléo from 5 to 7 by Agnès Varda, City of God directed by Fernando Meirelles and co-directed by Kátia Lund, and Wings of Desire by Wim Wenders.
Sonya Reynolds/Lauren Hortie: A film that springs to mind for both of us is the 2012 documentary Tchoupitoulas. Directed by Bill and Turner Ross it's a dreamy, rambling film that follows three young siblings as they wander through New Orleans at night. Even though the documentary is about the three kids, the city is a main character. You feel the kids’ joy in discovering their city, happening upon drag performances, buskers, empty lots, and abandoned boats. It gives you a feeling for the culture and community of New Orleans without relying on the easy cliches of an iconic city.
TOPS: We also really love Tchoupitoulas! We wanted so badly to include it in our Cinematic Cities programme, but there are many more great films than we have space for. It's a gorgeous and unique portrayal of New Orleans. Is there a city that you dream of capturing on camera?
SR/LH: Our films are about the hidden histories and subcultures of cities. We once went to a tiny unmarked lesbian bar in Istanbul, hidden down a twisting pedestrian street up three flights of creaky stairs in a slanted old building. We would love to know the history of that spot. We were only there as tourists so it's not our place to try and capture that story but we hope a local makes it and we'll definitely buy tickets.
SG: In terms of a city I would like to explore in another film, my next movie will be set in a science facility in the north, so I’ve gone away from an urban theme for now. But I could imagine coming back to another microcosm of Toronto one day in a film. Or New York, or Montreal, the two other cities in which I’ve lived, which seems to make a difference for me, in terms of sparking an idea.
TOPS: Sonya and Lauren, where did you first hear about Jackie Shane? When did you know you wanted to document their story?
SR/LH: We first heard of Jackie Shane when Lauren (who is also a DJ) bought a copy of her record on a whim at a record show. The vendor's handwritten sticker on the sleeve advertised "Toronto drag queen singer!". On listening to the record we were struck by her talent and energy beyond the sensational sticker. We were lucky to find the CBC radio documentary I Got Mine by Elaine Banks, which thoroughly investigates Jackie's music, but we were left wondering about Jackie the person. We were especially intrigued by the question of what happened to Jackie after she left the city - it was a mystery even to her local friends and musicians. It was a few years after making the film that we found out that she is in fact alive and well, living in Nashville as a trans woman and finally receiving recognition for her talent. Sonya has a background in filmmaking and Lauren works as an artist and we were inspired by artists like Shari Boyle, Daniel Barrow and the Shadow of a Doubt Collective to use shadow puppets and overhead projections to tell a story. We decided on Jackie because we felt the story was compelling and with so little visual documentation of her career publicly available, it would have been impossible to make this documentary using conventional methods.
TOPS: Sarah, Porch Stories tells a very neighbourhood-specific story. Can you tell us some more about your own neighbourhood experiences living in Toronto and how they informed the film?
SG: Living in Little Portugal as a hipster wave was coming in, I was witnessing a shifting neighbourhood. This has only accelerated since I made the film… I was motivated by a feeling of wanting to capture the fabric of this time and place, as it was changing. I was also struck by how separate the two worlds were, so I wanted to tell a story in which they might interact. One of the joys of making the film was that the process itself enabled me to bridge those worlds as we had both an English speaking and Portuguese speaking cast, and so people who would normally not get to know each other did.
TOPS: Sarah, you worked with Toronto musicians Laura Barrett and José Miguel Contreras. How did this collaboration come about? (Why did you choose music as the centrepoint of their romantic chemistry?)
SG: The collaboration grew pretty organically. I had a unconventional casting process, working on a micro-budget with actors of different experience levels. I thought it would be great to have my two leads be professional performers, even if they hadn’t specifically acted before. I’ve also always been drawn to the process musicians have, frankly envious of it, the ability to jam and create something beautiful in the moment. I wanted that to be part of the film. And they really helped guide how it would go, they were very into the musical component of their characters and since it was a natural place for them to connect, it seemed like a great place to centre their characters’ romance around.
TOPS: For you, what makes Toronto a cinematic city? Is there something special about Toronto that you draw inspiration from?
SR/LH: Cinematically, Toronto is most often playing another city, like Chicago or New York. Its contribution to film is pretending to be someplace else. There's a stereotype of Torontonians as being navel-gazing, but compared to other North American cities there's a lack of mythology about the city and its history. There aren't many films set here, with a few exceptions such as Portrait of a Serial Monogamist by Christina Zeidler and John Mitchell. Part of the joy of watching Portrait of a Serial Monogamist are the scenes set in distinctive spots throughout the city: the Beaver and Queen West, the Depanneur, the train tracks. It's a reminder of just how beautiful, textured, and distinctive Toronto can be when it plays itself. There's also not a lot of focus on the history of Toronto - we don't have a city museum, and we don't do a great job of honouring significant locations. We rarely look back. But Toronto has a wealth of untold stories. In making this and two other films about queer Toronto history, we've seen a huge positive response, which tells us that there's a hunger for these kinds of stories.
SG: Porch Stories looks at this tiny, very specific slice of West End/downtown Toronto life. There are so many microcosms throughout the GTA. I love some recent films that delve into other neighbourhoods, such as Joyce Wong’s Wexford Plaza which takes place in this one area of Scarborough. Perhaps it is the incredible range of such dynamic and different little worlds which is unique about making a film that stars Toronto.
Porch Stories, Whatever Happened to Jackie Shane?, and Bickford Park screen July 1st at Christie Pits Film Festival, also featuring live music from Laura Barrett, José Miguel Contreras and Luna Li for a special Canada Day celebration.