Overcoming Bureaucracy: An Interview with Mandi Morgan – Katie Weldon

This interview came about serendipitously while Katie was in the process of writing her final paper at Emily Carr University  As a film student, the research paper addressed the National Film Board’s decline in viewership, as well as the dilemma of how best to support Canadian filmmakers. Along with traditional resources for her research, she sent a hopeful e-mail lined with questions to Vancouver-native Mandi Morgan, an NFB/ONF employee in Montréal, and was pleasantly surprised by the stranger’s impassioned response.

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Katie Weldon: Could you tell us about your background, artistic and otherwise?

Mandi Morgan: I am originally from Vancouver, British Columbia, but my family now resides in Sandy Hook on the Sunshine Coast with the bears.  I currently live in Montréal.  Six years ago I took a train across Canada with two suitcases filled with my most important possessions and moved to Montreal.  I moved with the hopes of getting into the Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema.  To pick up and leave my family, my roots, my life and friends in my 30s was the hardest thing I’d ever done.  Yet uprooting, building, and going through the intense solitude and sadness of leaving everyone I ever loved, was the best thing I ever did.  Now I understand the depth of gratitude and love. I did all of this to pursue my dream of being a filmmaker and artist.  I did not find creative inspiration in Vancouver.

In 2006, I received my B.A. at UBC in World Literature with a minor in Film Studies, and in 2010, I received a B.A. in film production specializing in documentary/experimental cinema at the Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema, Concordia University.  I am a multi-media visual artist specializing in filmmaking, expanded cinema, animation and illustration.  I work with video and 8mm/16mm film formats.  I prefer to work with my hands and avoid computers if I can.  (Impossible.)  All of my animations are hand-drawn and paper cutouts.  I am part of a film collective in Montréal called Groop*index.  It started in 2011 after four of us graduated from Film School and we did not know what to do with our lives.  It was a rather existential time in our lives when we first developed the group.  We were all in our 30s, in major debt, and we had all just graduated from film school. We laugh about it now, but Groop*index was certainly born of uncertainty.  Suffice it to say, we are all doing great now!  The goal of the group is to support each other and provide critical roundtable advice for our projects.

Blue meanies H264 from Mandi A Morgan on Vimeo.

KW: Where are you working on these days?

MM: Along with several small personal projects, I am currently the assistant director to documentary filmmaker Martin Duckworth, working on a film about renowned Canadian playwright David Fennario.  The documentary is a film about the making of his most recent play, Motherhouse.  It is a heated political play about women working in the munitions plant in Verdun, Montréal during WWI.  I also work at Concordia University as the booking coordinator for IITS Cinemas.  It is an exciting job with a lot of responsibility and high levels of pressure during busy times.  Essentially, I coordinate the events that take place in our four cinemas on several levels.  These events range from high profile film festivals such as Fantasia and RIDM, film retrospectives, academic conferences, private screenings, Cinema Politica, and academic classes. Our team is highly professional and I am proud to work with this crew.  It is a very exciting time for the cinema department at Concordia University because our two major cinemas, with over 1000 seats combined, are being renovated this summer with an upgrade of equipment.  We also carry the mandate to maintain and preserve the exhibition of 35mm and 16mm film.  With all the cinema houses sadly closing down in Montréal, there are not very many cinemas that will continue to screen celluloid.  Our cinemas will be in demand and this is exciting!

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KW: You’ve worked at the CinéRobothèque in Montréal, correct?  It sounds like it was a pretty magical place, could you describe it to someone who’s never been?

MM: The CinéRobothèque was the flagship for learning about Canadian culture.  Visitors to the CinéRobothèque walked into a darkened room equipped with approximately 25 personal viewing stations.  Each station possessed a user-friendly touch screen computer with the NFB/ONF’s collection of over 10,000 films dating as far back as 1918. The viewer could easily navigate and find films based on genre, subject, year or filmmaker.  The seats were very comfortable, and people would pass the whole afternoon or evening watching films.  The CinéRobothèque attracted local and international researchers, tourists, families, new Canadians, students, street kids, seniors, teachers, children and cinephiles.  It had an open door policy where everyone was welcome.  Street kids would come in and watch films on those unbearable days when it reached -30 degrees.  It was the home to those first awkward dates, and for old men who could barely stand without a cane but struggled to get to the CinéRobothèque despite the weather conditions. Essentially, the CinéRobothèque was Montréal’s/Canada’s public darling as far as learning about Canadian/Quebec history, culture, politics, geography, and creativity through the means of informative visual media.  There was a centre in Toronto also called the Mediatheque which was similar, but not as large and without as lofty a collection as the Montréal centre. This centre was also closed.

What made the CinéRobothèque especially interesting was a six-foot tall robot named after the first projectionist in Montréal, Leo-Ernest Ouimet.  When a viewer chose a film from one of the viewing stations, the computer would send a message to Ernest and he would retrieve a large laserdisc film from his many thousand drawers.  He had an impeccable memory.  Ernest was getting rather old.  His services were being replaced by digitized films and he occasionally fell asleep on the job.  That is what happens when you get old.  But our technicians always managed to revive him back into order.  The technicians had a complicated relationship with Ernest because he was quite difficult to fix, seeing that he was built with the same sophisticated software as the Canadarm.  Viewers came from far and wide to see Ernest play films, especially the children, who pressed their noses against the glass waiting for Ernest to greet them with movement.  What was particularly special about the CinéRobothèque was that the viewing stations were absolutely free.

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The CinéRobothèque was also an educational centre, where our team of animators designed 16 different film-related workshops specializing in the documentary and animation genres.  There were paper cut-out, claymation, pixilation, and puppet animation workshops.  There were several film production workshops, including workshops about how to examine films responsibly and critically.  The workshops were designed for all ages, levels and abilities.  My favourite workshops to teach were for those with disabilities.  We taught animation workshops to the visually impaired, and sound workshops to the hearing impaired.  People often wonder how it is possible to teach the non-seeing about animation, and the hearing impaired about sound in films.  However, it was one of the simplest of the workshops because it was an exchange.  Not only did the participants experience new ways to see and hear, so did the animators learn different ways of seeing and hearing.  Creativity was always encouraged.  The end result was always above satisfactory.

On the level of cinema exhibition, the CinéRobothèque was an extremely important centre for the city of Montréal.  The NFB/ONF cinema was home to the most sophisticated and professional cinema equipment in the city.  It hosted several integral film festivals, such as RIDM, Festival du Nouveau Cinéma, FIFA and RVCQ to name a few.  We shared an excellent partnership and passion for cinema with the festivals and organizations. It was an important centre for local/international filmmakers to premiere their films.  It was the place where the community would see films of relevant subject matter, connect with the community and challenge, encourage and provoke critical thought.  The centre was located in an area called Quartier Latin (Latin Quarter), the epicenter of the arts in Montreal.

KW: What was your role at the NFB, specifically before the layoffs in Montréal in 2011?

MM: As for my role at the CinéRobothèque, it was a hybrid job.  The employees were all responsible for having a very good knowledge of the collection in both official languages.  I liaised between the public and the NFB/ONF, and helped people with their research.  I was responsible for informing the public about the NFB/ONF.  In a sense I was a librarian, but for visual media and films.  I helped to coordinate the smooth execution of festivals and was responsible for teaching workshops.  The most special element of the centre was the team.  It was a true gift to work with such a positive and supportive crew of colleagues.  We all shared similar responsibilities and were all expected to know the different elements of the job.  We rotated our responsibilities and helped each other out when help was needed. If there was one positive to come from the centre closing, it is that some of us have become friends for life.

I feel that I had a relatively special role at the NFB/ONF leading up to the layoffs, because I was one of the last to be hired onto the team before the cuts.  In addition, I was also the only Anglophone working at the centre.  And at that time, one of only two females teaching workshops.  This intimidated me greatly. I needed to learn confidence very quickly. This was incredibly challenging for me, because when I applied, I thought I could speak French, but when you get up in front of 30 people to teach a class in a second language, you quickly learn that you cannot speak the language as well as you thought.  I was mostly sleepless for the first few months of working at the centre, because I loved my job so much that I did not want to lose it due to the language issue. There were a couple of people who were not comfortable with my level of French, but for the most part, my peers recognized my effort, and these great friends are the ones who encouraged me to improve and become completely bilingual.  I knew I was in a very rare and fortunate position and I would have done just about anything to keep this job because I feel/felt very passionate about humanitarian cinema and the NFB/ONF mandate.  In fact, I always dreamed of working for the NFB/ONF one day…  a place that functioned as both work and home.

However, with all the happiness and excitement of working at the CinéRobothèque, there was always the looming threat of the behemoth of our Conservative government. I anticipated losing my job, so I feel I lived in a state of constant anxiety.  It was heart crushing in 2012 when the Orange Crush was crushed due to the silly constituent election system we have here.  I knew it was the beginning of the end.  Many of my peers kept mentioning that I was being a pessimist and that I must think positively.  However, I knew and felt how increasingly ruthless the Conservative government was becoming.  It was only a matter of tick and then tock before the end of the next fiscal year.

What was most ruthless, however, was how the centre was informed of its closure.  We received a phone call.  The centre would be closed.  We all lost our jobs.  All 22 of us.  I felt so deeply saddened for everyone.  I was in the middle of teaching a workshop with a colleague when the news hit.  Others were working also, trying very hard to keep it together.  There were a lot of tears that day.  It was a violation.  There was no warning.  It was very difficult for those who worked at the centre, who had devoted their lives building the centre and community, etc.  It was revolting how, in one phone call, the plug was pulled, ruthlessly. Just like that.  Poof.  Jobless.  All our efforts and passion for the institution were completely dispensable. We were the face of the NFB/ONF.  It was us, who liaised with the public, and us who taught ‘Canadians of Canadians.’  Not the administrators lost in an office at the NFB/ONF Headquarters somewhere on the 40 (highway in Montreal).  What I felt to be particularly tacky, was when human resources showed up later that afternoon in their suits with briefcases filled with pamphlets and advice on how to cope when losing a job.  We were the effect of Harper’s bovine, headed straight to the slaughterhouse of the unemployed.  The centre would remain open for six months longer, which was  most difficult of all because we had to repeat the same old story over and over, and we had to hear from the community what a tragedy it was over and over.  It became depressing.  It was similar to someone who is terminally ill.  I loved the CinéRobothèque dearly.  We all did.  But we knew she had only 6 months to live.  It was difficult.

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KW: Can you describe the political landscape leading up to the NFB layoffs?  And what was the public’s reaction?

MM: The political environment leading up to the NFB/ONF layoffs was incredibly exciting in retrospect.  At the time, I can’t deny that the beginning of the protests were disheartening.  Each night, helicopters hovered over Montréal until the wee hours of the morning.  There was intense brutality in the streets.  It felt very Orwellian.  Everyone was warned not to go to the city centre where most of the protests took place.  However, one night I was curious and I took my bicycle into the heart of where the violence erupted every night.  I learned a lot from the solo field trip.  It was horrifying what I witnessed, however, I must be honest.  A lot of the violence was provoked.  Most of the perpetrators were drunk or on drugs and clearly not students.  Watching the tension rise was tantamount to watching a game of psychological mob chicken.  Many street kids would go straight up to the cops and yell “Fucking Pigs” no more than a few inches from their face.  Some spat on them.  The police would stand stoic, gazing beyond and through the perpetrators.  Similar to a tower of playing cards, it is only a matter of time until something loses balance, and then everything falls.  The tension rises and rises until one person can no longer tolerate the abuse and loses his/her steam.  When one falls, the rest follow in its stead, and then come the aftereffects of ungrounded mayhem and adrenaline.  This is exactly what happened.  United, the cops advanced block by block, with the mentality of beating anything in their path.  If a woman was walking a dog outside her apartment building, she would be hit by a baton.  It was terrifying.  Fear breeds panic. People jumped from car roof to car roof, smashed in all the windows, started intense fires that spread across intersections.  Tear gas, people screaming and running, people bloodied, eyes swollen by the batons, the clip clop of police horse hooves, innocent bystanders crying with shock at witnessing such brutality.  There were no students who provoked this.  These few idiots ruined it for everyone.    There were 100 useless idiots to 100,000 pacifists.  Of course the media filmed the 100 rock throwing, mask wearing idiots.  And the mass media delivered the message that the students ‘got what they deserved…’

Stringent laws were imposed restricting students’ rights to protest.  You could be arrested if you were walking in a group of eight or more people.  No wearing of masks was allowed.  This did not deter the students nor the people of Montréal.  Every night the students marched and endured the severe beating of the police.  As the violence got worse, the people of Montréal (not only students, but grandmothers, families, immigrants, uncles, Hasidic Jews, children, the English and the Québecois) outwitted the police and spread the protests out into different areas of the city.  At 8:00pm every night, ALL of Montréal went into their cupboards and grabbed pots, spoons and pans and would join each other out on the streets clanging and banging in solidarity.  All of Montréal walked for several miles because all of the separate groups from all over the island met together at the confluence of random intersections and walked together down the two major streets toward downtown.  More than 100,000 people marched together, wearing costumes, dancing, smiling, celebrating, blowing bubbles.  I don’t think one can truly comprehend what it could possibly sound like to have 100,000 people banging pots and pans in unison, joyously, in absolute solidarity.  I will never feel something like that again I don’t think.  I don’t think a thousand flawless runs down a ski hill will equal this amount of joy.

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I feel very saddened that English-speaking Canada has a deep misunderstanding about what really happened with the student protests here in Montréal.  It was not just about ‘Québecois’ students not wanting to pay to go to school.  That is the rudimentary, hooked on phonics version of what really happened.  It was the accumulation of many things. The government’s budget cuts, people’s rights, oppression, the environment, the banks.  If the movement was examined critically and responsibly (and not by the violent images on TV every night), most Canadians would be very moved, inspired and proud of what the student protests managed to accomplish.  The narrow take from the media and lack of presence/acknowledgement by the federal government sadly perpetuated the divide between Québec and Canada further.  I find this very sad because it should not be the reality.  Without the bridge to inform and educate openly about either culture, stereotypes solidify, and both parties become increasingly ignorant and stupidly uninformed.  Not only was there a big elephant in that big old green common room of ours, but there was a whole herd of hundreds of thousands of determined elephants stampeding and celebrating in the streets, shutting down Canada’s second-largest metropolis.  Where was the government?  It was very unfortunate that the rest of Canada started in on the street celebrations once the movement was lauded and followed internationally.  It should also not go unnoticed that The Maple Spring and The Idle no More Movement, both drawing international attention and admiration, were inaugurated by Canada’s sweetheart minorities.

The protests occurred close to every evening starting as early as February.  The protests came after the Occupy Wall Street movement and also after the Arab Spring.  Revolution was/is certainly in the air and if there is any place in this country to galvanize a revolution, it is Québec!  From the movement sprouted other movements and other protests with regards to teachers supporting students, protests against the banks, against environmental degradation, against Bill 78, against F-35s, against Omnibus Bills, etc., etc., etc.  As the protests were in full force, not only did Canada receive her proverbial slap on wrist and budget hair cut; but we got a severe buzz cut, as it is the appropriate style when forcibly joining the army.  The mandate to put more spending into the military infuriated everyone.  The CBC was cut drastically, and so was the NFB.  People became increasingly angry and became more involved, especially in Montreal where culture is valued  It was a perfect time to fight for culture!  Especially as a representative for the NFB/ONF.

When I learned that I had lost my job, I was truly heartbroken, because it was taken away from me.  I have a very political background as my great grandfather, William Irvine, was one of the principal founders of the NDP.  He is also responsible for abolishing capital punishment in this country.  I’ve always had a particular passion to remain politically involved and active, and I felt that this was my calling.  Instead of being broken and devastated, as I was, I devoted my energy and focus into finding justice.  Denys Desjardins, a very important advocate of Québec cinema and renowned documentary filmmaker, started an organization called the MSSO (Movement Spontané Pour la Survie de L’ONF or Spontaneous Movement to Save the NFB.  At first, there were approximately 10 people who would meet weekly in an old, shabby, underground film exhibition spot called Casa Obscura.  A good friend and I were the two representatives of the NFB/ONF from the CinéRobothèque, and we would provide him with necessary information and numbers about the centre.  But this small group, many from the documentary filmmaking community, organized ways to draw attention to the closure of the centre and fight to have it saved.  I helped translate some documents from French to English.   The MSSo organized a protest. Over 300 people came to the front doors of the CinéRobothèque with signs and banners to save the NFB/ONF.  People came with large banners and homemade posters stating, “We need more 35mm films, and not more F35’s.”  The NFB/ONF’s logo was pasted on posters with a tear falling from the eye.  It was very touching.  Creative partners came in solidarity, such as the Cinematheque Québecoise, RIDM, and FNC.  The CBC came to cover the story and asked to interview one of the staff members, and I wanted to so desperately, but I was warned that I could lose my job (again). People eventually sat in the middle of the street blocking two major intersections.  Horns were at war.  Some drivers parked in the middle, slammed their doors shut, screamed en tabernac and raced to the metro.

I met one peculiar character at this demonstration by chance.  He was wearing a long black trench coat, had pomade-slicked hair and he resembled a 1970s afterhours jazz musician.  I had to talk to this guy. The character ended up being Tyrone Benskin, the Minister of Heritage for the opposition.  In other words he was the NDP Minister of Heritage.  We had a great discussion and I told him of my great grandfather.  I got his card and told him we would be in touch.  When I attended the next MSSO meeting, I informed Denys that I had met Tyrone Benskin personally and suggested that we meet him.  A few of us from the documentary filmmaking community went to meet Mr. Benskin to seek help with keeping the centre open.  Yanick Letourneau, the director of United Sates of Africa, members of the RIDM film festival and Julie Perron and Denys Desjardins, two veteran NFB/ONF filmmakers and myself met in Tyrone’s office.  I prepared a list of all the positives that the CinéRobothèque brought to the community, along with a lofty list of all ramifications its closure would have on the documentary filmmaking community.  I wrote it in hopes that he may take some of the ideas and address them to Mr. Harper in the House of Commons.  Tyrone was extremely sympathetic and informed us of what wass happening behind the scenes in the House of Commons.  Inevitably, I left the meeting feeling more depressed and hopeless than when I entered it.  However, I felt that we had Tyrone on our side, and that was truly something.  He said he would mention our concerns.  I was so excited.  I pored through the monotonous dialogues of the House of Commons everyday looking for Tyrone Benskin’s name, always to no avail.  I searched and searched naively, wondering what he said to the Prime Minister.  Nothing.  Until one day, not too long afterward, I was reading the paper in a bakery and there it was. Tyrone’s name, in a caption that read, “Tyrone Benskin raises important issue for funding the Queen’s Jubilee to Prime Minister Stephen Harper.”  I continued reading, and learned that Tyrone requested a $2,000,000 budget to promote the Queen’s jubilee.  What is most important to mention here is that the NFB/ONF’s budget cuts for the 2012/2013 fiscal year was exactly $7,000,000.  This is why both centers were lost.  The government spent $2,000,000 to promote the Queen’s visit with perhaps a million wasteful plastic pins, and a million wasteful paper flags.  Our CinéRobothèque went to Canadians attending 30-second parades with the anticipation of 20 seconds of a black car driving by with black windows, all the while waving flags that were ultimately made in China.  This is the sad truth.  This is where our beloved CinéRobothèque went: to waste and fleeting ideology.

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KW: For aspiring documentary filmmakers like myself, what is your advice for entering a film world (in Canada), where there is relatively little arts funding? 

MM: As a documentary filmmaker nowadays, in this political environment both nationally and internationally, I feel the filmmaker has a large social responsibility.  This goes for all artists alike.  It is inevitable that there will be mass cuts to funding for filmmaking.  This is something that has always happened.  Now, with the current government it will be more severe.  However, it is the filmmaker’s responsibility to fight back and remain true to his/her craft, to take this challenge and make films regardless of the obstacles.  If a filmmaker wants to make a film, there is no way the film will not be made. It is very desirable to make a film and have a large budget for post-production.  However, that may not be the reality these days.  A true filmmaker will get out and shoot anyway.  If a film must be made, it will be made.  Most importantly, crucial information will be revealed.

Documentary filmmakers, the world’s most honest politicians, humanity’s social angels, need to go out and gather, accumulate and report on what is relevant in this world, to disclose what we are affected by and to celebrate how we may overcome and circumvent specific obstacles.  I believe that filmmakers who are the most passionate about making films do not make films for themselves, or a small niche of peers. True filmmakers recognize that being a documentary filmmaker is to struggle financially, to fight incessantly for a cause knowing full well that there may not be a positive end result.  They struggle to expose dire issues and bring to light certain concerns that humanity should know about.  Documentary filmmakers do not need the NFB/ONF for funding, cachet or creative approval.  They just need to go out and shoot.  Filmmakers are at an advantage in the sense that the equipment to record material is much more accessible.

If there is a will, there is a way.  That is why it is exciting to be a filmmaker in Canada right now.  As most of the conventional opportunities to get funding have been curtailed, the artists are left with their own will.  The responsible artists will resume their practice.  For any artist, if they are an artist, they must create or they will fall apart with sadness.  A good artist can and must turn anything into art regardless of the dwindled resources.  This is precisely where we find creativity, and this is exciting.  Canada’s cuts to the arts have actually provided many artists with an opportunity to express their raw and untapped talent. Artists have been vindicated from the bureaucratic dinosaur mentality of having to expose what Canadian identity is through our work. It has provided us with the freedom of DIY craft.

As artists, we need to relearn our creativity.  We must reclaim the duty to compel, share, ignite and connect community.  We must transform stifled spirits and teach them of legitimate humanity.  We have a big job to accomplish.  Artists have always changed the world.  There is a life beyond the NFB/ONF as a documentary filmmaker.  I am certain that the honest and the impassioned, and above all, those who love humanity will find their way.

K: Thank you so much for sharing your stories and insight.  You are a huge source of inspiration for myself and young artists alike

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Images:

Four black and white photos of the protests outside of the CineRobothèque in Montréal – April 10th, 2011. Protest signs translated:

The conservatives in ‘Raquetteurs’ (A pun of a very popular and famous NFB film)

Less F35 planes and more 35mm films

The Cameras of the ONF are out on the street- now so are we!

Harper’s Canada is a nation of no sense

Cuts to culture is a federal error

Other images in text by Mandi A. Morgan:

Bureaucracy (was created specifically to accompany this interview).

The Crickets

Syncrude

Newton and Skeena

Video:

Blue Meanies H264 by Mandi A Morgan

Katie Weldon is a recent graduate of the Film and Integrated Media program at Emily Carr University, Katie uses film as a vessel to promote small business, non-profit organizations, musicians, artists, and as an excuse to experience something new. Her main passion lies in documentary filmmaking. Recent projects involve working on CBC’s documentary series Flying Solo, volunteering for GenWhy Media’s production Fractured Land, and directing a short documentary, Meat the Butchers, about a 6-year-old girl who takes a fervent interest in whole-animal butchery. Katie’s contact info can be found on her website: www.solarized.ca

Mandi Morgan completed a BA in World Literature from the University of British Columbia in 2006.  She completed a BFA in Film Production specializing in directing from the Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema at Montreal’s Concordia University in 2010.  She was the recipient of the Bruce Mallen Award for, ‘Tackling the Paradox of War through Creative Cinematography’ for her film “Parade”. Mandi was also the runner up in the figurative category in theFestival International Montreal en Arts (FIMA) in 2010). She worked at the NFB/ONF’s Cinerobotheque in Montreal until the centre was sadly closed due to the federal cuts in 2012. She currently resides in Montreal, Canada.

http://mandimorgan6.wordpress.com/
http://groopindex.com/
http://vimeo.com/user9081382/videos/all
Mandi is a selected member of the Nous Sommes Les Filles organization:
http://noussommeslesfilles.com/2011/11/17/mandi-a-morgan/