Film City

While updating my Bullet Journal, I realized that I had taken notes about three film screenings that I haven’t posted about!

Edmonton has had several different film festivals, but the current big one is the Edmonton International Film Festival, which takes place in late September. (EIFF recently became an Oscar-qualifying event: the winners of the short and live film categories at EIFF are now eligible to apply to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) to have their films considered for an Oscar award.)

I made it to a couple of screenings at this year’s EIFF. Not only that, but the week before the festival, I had attended another film premiere. At the end of September, Festival City was looking a lot like Film City.

Necessary Evil

Banner for Necessary Evil (2018).

I’ll start with the project that I’ve been following the longest, Necessary Evil, directed by Chris Donaldson and written by its lead actor, Randy Brososky. I first met Randy back when I was co-hosting an arts and culture show on CJSR radio. Randy was one of our guests, promoting a comedy theatre show. Fast forward a “few” years, and Randy was working in a new medium: he was making a webseries.

Randy and his team campaigned for TELUS Storyhive funding, which is determined by a public vote, so the project always had a prominent place in my Facebook timeline. The premise of  Necessary Evil resonated with anyone who has worked in an office from Hell: in Necessary Evil, the office is actually Hell. The project succeeded in securing Storyhive funding based on the quality of the work and the popularity of the premise via online voting. It also has a great tag line: “If Joss Whedon combined Supernatural with The Office“. I’m biased, but I thought the pilot was fun. Randy plays Azmodeus, a seemingly average demon working a dead-end bureaucratic job in Hell. Bullied by his co-workers, he is emboldened to stand up to his supervisor, which earns him a call to visit the head office—that is, Lucifer’s office. Prepared for the worst, he discovers that Lucifer has abandoned Hell, and left it to Azmodeus to run. There are a lot of great jokes about working in Hell, and a few fresh surprises, such as Persephone (played by Kimberly Philpott), the angelic worker who has been seconded from Heaven. She’s very helpful to Asmodeus in his new role as boss, but there is a complication: he’s sweet on her. The office is populated by various other demons, including Aaron Talbot’s comically meek Xaphan, and Mark Meer’s ingeniously efficient Mephistopheles, who barely breaks a sweat when bargaining for a human’s soul. He tells Azmodeus, “The amount of effort required to enable humans to be terrible to each other is remarkably small.”

It was wonderful to see the show on the big screen, in a real cinema, with so many of the people involved in the production and success of the show. Randy’s team wants to make more episodes, so check out the the Necessary Evil website here:


Until First Light

Still from Until First Light (2018).

To back up about a week before EIFF, I was at another independent film premiere, this time at the Garneau Theatre, which is programmed by the Metro Cinema film society.

The film was Until First Light, written and directed by Kyle Armstrong. The movie is about a city man who must wind down the family farm after his brother, who operated it, committed suicide. It’s an atmospheric film that’s focused on the surviving brother’s emotional response. I was reminded of the subjective lens and non-linear narrative of Terance Malik’s Tree of Life. In the question-and-answer session after the screening, Armstrong noted that there was a lot of improv and that the film evolved as they worked in it: “It revealed itself,” he said.

Armstrong likes to work with non-actors, including the film’s star, Darren Frank, who had never acted before. My friend Blair Brennan, a visual artist, was cast in a small role as a neighbouring farmer. Going to the premiere with Blair and his family, and other friends who were supporting their friends, was a blast.

Although I turned to congratulate Blair after his scene, I don’t think I was distracted from the film’s main point, which was the hardship of dealing with major losses: of a loved one, of a family home, of a legacy business, of a way of life.

One of the topics that came up in the Q&A afterwards was funding. I didn’t fully realize how ironic this was until I began to write this post. Funding is a huge issue in both the arts and in agriculture. Family farm revenue is from selling crops and other products, but there are also subsidies and other modes of funding, which are constantly being debated, tweaked, enacted, or repealed. A couple of weeks after seeing this film, which includes footage of a dairy farm,  the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was renegotiated and re-branded, unpoetically, as the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA). One of the major concessions made by Canada was to allow U.S. vendors more access to the Canadian dairy market. Dairy prices are expected to drop. It was the kind of decision that might have made it easier for the protagonist of Until First Light to make a decision about the fate of the farm.

You can read more about Until First Light here:



Potash mining in Russia, from ANTHROPOCENE: The Human Epoch (2018).

Exactly one week after seeing Until First Light, I saw ANTHROPOCENE: The Human Epoch at the Edmonton International Film Festival. This, too, was a film that revealed itself. Filmmakers Jennifer Baichwal, Edward Burtynsky, and Nicholas de Pencier were not in attendance, but explained in an end-credit note that they had worked without a script.  They essentially pointed a camera and let the world reveal a story to them. (Editing and narration came later.) Their philosophy is that the visual is visceral.

Before this screening, I’d only seen their first film, Manufactured Landscapes, which primarily focuses on Burtynsky’s work as a large-format photographer of the largest human endeavours: quarries, mines, dams, and factories among them. ANTHROPOCENE picks up on the terraforming theme. As explained in the voiceover by actor Alicia Vikander, the Anthropocene is the current era, in which the biggest geological changes are made by humans.

This film is beautiful and terrifying, like many of Burtynsky’s best-known images. In a segment which bookends the film, Kenyan activists against elephant poaching arrange to burn stocks of illegal tusks that were confiscated by the authorities. They wanted to publically show that there is no market for elephant ivory, so they piled 10,000 elephant tusks into structures that resembled huts and set them afire. Watching the fire burn, I cheered the anti-poaching actions, but became sombre as it dawned on me that these 10,000 husks represented 5,000 senselessly murdered elephants.

During the course of the movie, we visit several huge projects, including:

  •  Nigeria’s Olusosun landfill, the largest garbage dump in Africa, where there are 1,000 homes and at least as many people who scavenge the site for a living;
  • a massive marble quarry in Italy, where a handful of workers use machines to extract in less than a day what 1960s workers would have taken 15 or 20 days to extract (in a clever bit of wordless commentary, the film shows the fate of all that newly machine-quarried marble by cutting to a workshop where sculptors make hundreds of hand-crafted reproductions of Michaelangelo’s “David”); and
  • the world’s largest potash mine in Russia, where massive boring equipment leaves psychedelic patterns in the rock.

Baichwal, Burtynsky, and de Pencier work on the philosophy that seeing is believing. However, while some of the scenarios were given full explanations during the course of the film, others were not. For example, one of the most stunning sequences shows massive excavators on unfamiliar terrain, with mist all around. It looks like something out of one of the Alien movies. We are told that the machines are being used to turn farmland into some other industrial use. One of the locals tells us that four towns have been destroyed for this expansion. But expansion of what? Why was it allowed to happen? How did people feel about having their entire town moved? I would have liked to know more.

As stunning visual after stunning visual is presented, segments are shorter and aren’t really followed through as much as, say, the Italian marble story. By the time we got to the time-lapse scene where coral dies before our eyes in a process called coral bleaching, I felt overwhelmed and distressed. I had the impression that the filmmakers did not want audiences to leave the film feeling that way. They gave Vikander some reassuring lines to deliver in her Oscar-award winning, plummy tones. She said that we still have time to turn this all around. However, because the film had not given us enough to go on, the words sounded sincere, but untrustable.

I wrote this post a few days after the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report estimating that we have 12 years to make changes to get the effects of climate change to a manageable level. The panel gave some actionable items, and I was reminded recently that humans got together managed to correct the damage to the ozone layer. This type of information is valuable as follow-up to ANTHROPOCENE.

ANTHROPOCENE: The Human Epoch also has an accompanying book and photographic exhibit (at the Art Gallery of Ontario and the National Gallery of Canada):


Follow-up Festival

There are opportunities to see all of these projects, like a virtual festival.


Science Fiction Freeway

Scene from The Fantastic Voyage (1966, 20th Century Fox).

Last Tuesday, I realized that being caught in freeway traffic was a science fiction experience.

Let me back up, so to speak. That afternoon, instead of going straight home, I took a bus to West Edmonton Mall to run an errand. On the way back, we hit the tail end of rush hour. The ride home takes about 45 minutes, so I like to settle in and read, write, tweet, and/or listen to an audiobook. Time passes quickly when your mind is focused on another world.

The driver on the ride back had a heavy foot, so we were speeding up Whitemud Drive. However, at around 149th Street, the driver suddenly decelerated. The bus was still moving, but very slowly. I could hear a siren closing the distance from behind us. By now, cars had edged of if the emergency vehicle’s way as best they could, pulling over to the right. Some squeezed in front of the bus; others came in tight alongside it.

I looked up from reading N. K. Jemisin’s “The Great City Born”, and saw a fire engine come into view and, slowly but steadily, pass us. The moment induced a bit of vertigo: it felt like the fire engine was passing while the bus was still, but both vehicles were moving at a disconcertingly almost-synchronized pace. Finally, there was a crossover moment when the fire engine slowed to a stop and the bus continued, speeding past as firefighters disembarked from the truck and walked up to three cars which had clearly crashed into each other. An  ambulance was already at the other end of this chain of vehicles, with paramedics checking out one of the vehicles or walking in the opposite direction to meet up with the firefighters. It was this moment that felt so science fiction to me.

Why? There were no aliens or futuristic technology or anything out of the ordinary for a mid-week rush hour. That was the thing. This all felt normal. We were on a curvy stretch of a freeway bordered by landscaped embankments, trimmed with Jersey barriers, and spanned by an overpass. No houses were in sight. Neither were there bikes or pedestrians (other than the emergency responders), let alone bike paths or sidewalks. But there was the bus I was on, and all the surrounding vehicles which may as well have been operating on a single track, like a monorail, or like automated vehicles programmed to drive in an orderly fashion.

It felt like being in a closed experimental system. The three vehicles in the accident were like pathogens, and the emergency vehicles were deployed like antigens. (After all, the Whitemud is considered an “arterial” road.) Despite these biological metaphors, we humans were essentially encapsulated in machines made of metal, fiberglass, and concrete. We made those materials, and we built systems that use them.  We’ve created machines made of metal, and other human-made material, that run on concrete tracks. The science of roadway construction enables the fiction that humans live in a machine world.

I only get this feeling on the freeway. More recently, I was in a bus on Whyte Avenue that passed an accident which also brought out a fire engine and an ambulance. However, things felt more like a part of life, not fiction. There was a lot of traffic, but it was stop-and-go, and the bus stopped at each of its scheduled stops to let people on and off. I could have gotten off at any point and walked to my destination, joining the hundreds of pedestrians strolling along the avenue.

The freeway eliminates that choice. If you’re on the freeway, you’re most likely inside a vehicle. If you’re a driver, you’re steering a ship within a known system, but with the potential for being knocked off the path by unknowns, like you’re piloting the Proteus in The Fantastic Voyage.

If you’re on a bus, like I was, you just board at the transit station, turn on your phone, that gateway to other realities, and let the vehicle convey you from one location to another. You might lose the sense of time and get caught up in a far-away world, and you might find yourself in your own neighbourhood in the present time. It’s not a time machine, but it can sure feel like it.




Art and the City


I recently had the pleasure of reading N. K. Jemisin short story, “The Great City Born”. In her world, cities go through a life cycle. Some cities may gestate for a very long time without being born, but when a city is ready to be birthed, it chooses an avatar, a kind of midwife. The avatar is a human being who can hear the city breathing and feel what the city feels. The person eventually becomes the city in a kind of multiple state of being that is well-conveyed by Jemisin’s poetic fiction.

The story was fascinating, and especially appealed to me as a fan of the WildStorm comic The Authority (created by Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch, and elaborated upon by subsequent creative teams). The Authority was a group of unlikely superheroes led by Jenny Sparks, the human embodiment of “the spirit of the 20th century”, and is probably most famous for including the gay couple Apollo and Midnighter, who were analogues of Superman and Batman. One of the other team members, Jack Hawksmoor, had the ability to talk to cities, but it was not a natural superpower, nor was it one that he agreed to acquiring. As a child, Jack was weaponized by 70th century humans who subjected him to painful body modifications that gave him the ability to fight a future monster by harnessing cities’ power. Jack–whose namesake is the English Baroque architect Nicholas Hawksmoor–could communicate with cities, but they remained separate entities.

Jack Hawksmoor was built infrastructure, a human-engineered city utility meant to work with other human-engineered city utilities. In Jemisin’s world, cities and humans live  symbiotically in a natural ecosystem: humans build cities that contain humans; cities choose which humans can contain cities.

I like the way cities are presented in both works. They are technological and biological, engineered and natural. Cities are the work of humans and they work with humans. Cities and humans shape each other.

This is the type of work I want to explore in this blog. I’m  interested in the relationship between art and cities: how art portrays the city; how cities affect the making, presentation, and perception of art; and experiencing art and my city. Arts City is in its infancy. I’m looking forward to see what happens as we grow together.

“The City Born Great” is collected in Worlds Seen in Passing: Ten Years of Short Fiction. It can also be read online at or via Kindle.

Jack Hawksmoor starred in his own mini-series, Secret History of The Authority: Jack Hawksmoor, by writer Mike Costa and artist Fiona Staples. Here’s an interview I did with Fiona before Saga and soon after the Hawksmoor series wrapped up in 2009.