Veteran documentary filmmaker Ron Mann is in Whitehorse this week, hosting workshops through the Yukon Film Society.
Mann will discuss the process of making independent documentary features from development to distribution, amply illustrating his presentation with clips from his more than a dozen feature and medium length documentaries.
Ron Mann is that rarity among Canadian filmmakers, a documentary specialist who has been able to produce and direct his films independently, with a minimum of government funding, all the while reaching out to a substantial audience that stretches beyond Canada to the US and Europe.
Mann’s newest films, Know Your Mushrooms and In The Wake Of The Flood, about Margaret Atwood’s book tour promoting her recent Year Of The Flood novel, were recently screened locally. Additional documentaries include Grass (1999), an examination of the history of repressive anti-marijuana laws in the US, pop-culture romps such as Comic Book Confidential (1988) and Tales Of The Rat Fink (2006),about iconoclastic American custom car designer Ed “Big Daddy” Roth.
In conversation recently, Mann emphasized how much he enjoys working with aspiring filmmakers. He quoted his mentor and inspiration, political documentarist Emile de Antonio, who went to Harvard with John F. Kennedy and later filmed Rush To Judgement, on the president’s assassination: “If we don’t help each other, we’ll never move ahead.”
Mann recalls the encouragement he received, when, as an aspiring fifteen-year-old film enthusiast, he wrote to George Romero, director of the classic Night Of The Living Dead. Mann was seeking a summer job. He actually got a gracious reply back from the director, which inspired him to keep on with his filmic ambitions.
“I am very committed to film as an activist tool,” says Mann. “Film can be used to amplify a message, and to get across agitprop or propaganda.
Mann has been involved with environmental groups for most of his life. “I was an anti-nuke activist in the ‘eighties,” he says, “and in grade six, I organized a rally against Kraft Cheese Slices, because they were using plastic for single slices.”
He also recalls one of his earliest films, a 16-millimetre short done in his teens calledFlak, made with $2,000 saved up from summer jobs. It was about friends rallying to protest pollution coming from a Toronto area insulation factory. The film was restored for a Hot Docs retrospective of his work last year.
Even before the Atwood film, with its undertones of saving the world from environmental disaster, Mann had broadened his scope from pop culture to environmental themes.
He has tried to live the same concern as he expresses in his films.
He talks about a mid-life point when, at 52, his health was becoming a concern. He took up yoga to rejuvenate himself.
“I needed to do something, as simple as getting on a bicycle and drinking a lot of water,” he explains. “Film takes so much energy to make – I needed to completely recharge.”
Mann considers himself a lifelong learner. “I’ve never stopped being a student. I’m the kind of person that goes into a bookstore and stays there for hours; my friends can’t pull me out.”
He also considers himself an optimist. Though he’s been immersed in the apocalyptic vision of In The Wake Of The Flood, he feels that we will pull through our present concern for the planet’s future.
“Maybe I see things through Joplinesque rose-coloured glasses, but it’s just my nature. People come together in times of urgency, whether it’s a blackout or an earthquake disaster.”
Mann also believes that environmental and social justice movements make up the majority of what we used to call the counter-culture.
“And that’s a great network of people,” he says. “It’s all about solutions. People know where the problem is…Things are changing.”