Toronto’s Experimental Film Scene: Q&A with Gayle Ye, Dan Browne, Izabella Pruska-Oldenhof, and Stephen Broomer

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As part of the Cinematic Cities programme at Christie Pits Film Festival, Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love looks to the unassuming corners of Hong Kong... An ode to uncompromising visual artists, our screening of In the Mood For Love is accompanied by a montage of local experimental shorts that each depict Toronto through a unique lens. Dan Browne’s Numbers is a formalist work composed of photographs of 100 distinguishable numbered entryways to Toronto’s private spaces. To similar effect, Gayle Ye’s Welcome to Yesterday captures the quirky mise-en-scène of Toronto’s iconic Honest Ed’s, a space now lost to gentrification. Izabella Pruska-Oldenhof reconnects with Toronto’s lost outdoor spaces through a pastiche of archival footage in This Town of Toronto..., and Stephen Broomer’s Queen’s Quay describes the frenetic energy of the cityscape in rich saturated colour.

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.

Editor’s note: the following composite interview with Gayle Ye (GY), Izabella Pruska-Oldenhof (IP-O), Dan Browne (DB) and Stephen Broomer (SB) has been edited for length.

TOPS: Do you have a favourite movie that captures the spirit of a city?

GY: The Florida Project instantly pulled me into the wonder and sadness of Florida.

IP-O: Rain (1929) by Joris Ivens is perhaps my favourite film in this genre. What captured my attention in this film was Ivens’ attention to the plastic elements in composing each shot, transforming everyday ordinary objects, streets and people into geometric abstractions, which was certainly fitting for a portrait of Amsterdam, the city of abstract painters like Piet Mondrian and Theo Van Doesburg, and the birthplace of de Stijl art movement (1917-1931). This film resonated with me and, over the next couple of decades, I learned to appreciate it even more, after numerous visits to Amsterdam and other parts of the Netherlands, the country where my partner was born. Rain is one of those films that you can return to over and over again or, at least, I can.


TOPS: For you, what makes Toronto a cinematic city? Is there something special about Toronto that you draw inspiration from?

DB: I love that the city has a largely unplanned and organic mixture and clash of cultures and forms of urban design. It could be done more efficiently, but the organic quality is unmistakable. I love how many parks and green spaces there are - it really stands out when you look from a highrise in the Annex area. One thing that I find to be utterly unique about Toronto is the mixture of residential spaces within the downtown core. I cannot think of a single other large city with side streets that have houses with front lawns stemming directly from major city thoroughfares like Bloor, College, Dundas, Queen, etc. I find it very surprising that I've only encountered this feature in Toronto -- despite the fact that it appears totally natural to me, it is very unusual.

SB: My focus has always been on recording my own experiences and my immediate environment, and so Toronto has given me no shortage of diverse subjects to explore. A lot of my films focus on areas in transition, for example, the ruins of a church that once stood in Little Italy; the garages and disused industrial buildings of East York; and the parks and ravines that have for so long defined this city’s landscape, the presence of which is changed by an increasing population.

TOPS: Is there a city that you dream of capturing on camera?

GY: I recently travelled to San Pedro Sula in Honduras for preliminary documentary research. It's known as one of the most violent cities in the world but during my time there I was met with such kindness that I'd love to share this "other" side of San Pedro Sula on screen.

IP-O: I would love to make a city film about Barcelona. I had the pleasure of visiting Barcelona in 2004, and it was a love at first sight. I actually shot quite a bit of footage on my Super 8mm camera and I hope to someday return to Barcelona to do some additional shooting and finally shape it into a city film, into Gaudi’s Barcelona.

TOPS: Gayle, what did Honest Ed's mean to you? Do you have a favourite memory?

GY: Honest Ed's was one of the first stores my parents shopped at when they first immigrated to Toronto. They bought their first television and vacuum there. 20 years later I moved into the same neighbourhood on my own so in some ways it feels like it's come full circle. My favourite memory of Honest Ed's is probably sneaking around trying to film Welcome to Yesterday without getting kicked out!

TOPS: Dan, a number of your films capture very specific Toronto neighbourhoods and environments (we really love your film Palmerston Blvd. from 2017!). Can you tell us a bit about how your experience living in this city informs your work?

DB: Filmmaking is a way for me to get into a deeper perceptual relationship with my environment, to better appreciate its forms and underlying structures, and the reasons they exist as they do. I've shot the power grid lines (in memento mori) as a metaphor for connectivity and the transmission involved in the electric age we are living in. I find it interesting that I might not have been thinking about that if I hadn't been living in an environment that was filled with power lines, transformers, constant construction, bridges, and so on. All of these forms often appear ugly (ie. the Gardiner) but their structures can be used in symbolic ways through the visual medium of the cinema. In Palmerston Blvd. I tried to take this further by shooting my domestic environment without having the forms represent anything except for themselves. The film attempts to make clear that all the objects depicted are really aspects of processes and not even things at all. This realization is contained in many layers, from the flurry of objects that composes my daily domestic rituals, to the greater cycles of my own life, to the natural seasons depicted in the trees outside the house and the pedestrians and cars on Bloor St., to the very architectural structure of the houses on Palmerston, which were built in the 1920s and have unique features pertaining to that area, and are enclosed within the stone gates and unique lamp posts of the street.


TOPS: Stephen, your film gives us a unique image of Queen's Quay. What resonated with you about that particular spot? Are there other nooks and crannies in the city that you're especially drawn to?

SB: I shot Queen’s Quay while walking around the waterfront in the early 2000s. I was struck by the graphic form of a relatively recent condo building, these little box windows, perfectly symmetrical, spreading out across one side of the building. A few years later when I saw the image again, I was looking specifically for those kinds of graphic forms, forms that one can separate from context and transform further as I have with saturated colours. In this sense, it may not have been that specific spot that resonated so much as what it gave me - a shape, recorded in passing. Cities give us countless experiences like this.


TOPS: Your films are paired with In The Mood For Love, a film that brings to the screen arguably one of the most influential aesthetics in cinema of this century so far. What films have influenced your own film style?

GY: In the Mood for Love has heavily influenced my work and is one of my favourite movies of all time. I remember watching it for the first time and being enamored by how thoughtful and calculated it was. The kind of restraint and "less is more" attitude is something I try to bring to my own film style.

DB: I've been very influenced by a wide range of filmmakers, from Norman McLaren to Stan Brakhage, Michael Snow, Joyce Wieland, Jack Chambers, David Rimmer, and my contemporaries such as Izabella Pruska-Oldenhof and Kelly Egan. Part of my struggle as a maker has been to reconcile the sensual and tactile aspects of visual forms within the digital realm.

SB: My filmmaking style is strongly influenced by the tradition of experimental cinema, and in the case of Queen’s Quay specifically, I was at the time interested in the work of Vancouver filmmaker David Rimmer, who would use looping images and changing colour filters to build experiences of vision that are dense, obscuring the ordinary subject in layers of image that make them abstract and even mythic.

Welcome to Yesterday, Numbers, Queen's Quay, and This Town of Toronto... screen alongside In the Mood for Love on July 15th at Christie Pits Film Festival.