TORONTO – Several Canadian journalists are reversing roles at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival.
Brian D. Johnson, Katherine Monk and Michelle Shephard are among the reporters who are taking questions rather than asking them as they promote their own films.
“It’s brighter on this side of the fence,” says Johnson, a prominent film critic and contributing editor at Maclean’s, who is at the fest with his debut feature documentary Al Purdy Was Here.
“It’s humbling and it’s thrilling. I’ve been a writer all of my life and it’s kind of a solo act. When you make a film, even a small film like this, it’s a collaboration.”
Al Purdy Was Here is billed as “a cinematic and musical portrait” of the late pioneering Canadian poet.
WATCH: Trailer for Al Purdy Was Here
Literary luminaries Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje are among the interviewees who reminisce about Purdy’s cabin in Ontario’s Prince Edward County, which he and many Canadian authors used as a writing retreat. There’s now a movement to preserve it for a new generation of writers.
Atwood and Ondaatje are also among the performers who recorded original music for The Al Purdy Songbook, along with Leonard Cohen, Bruce Cockburn, Gord Downie, Gordon Pinsent and Tanya Tagaq.
Atwood is “a big part” of the film, says Johnson, noting she has some fun anecdotes about her friendship with Purdy.
“Margaret Atwood poured a bottle of beer over Al Purdy’s head the very first time they met because he called her an academic. I mean, never a truer word was said. And then he went out and peed on her car tire.”
In Monk’s debut short doc Rock the Box, she puts the spotlight on Rhiannon Rozier, a Vancouver-raised female DJ in an industry dominated by men. Feeling she’d hit the glass ceiling, she posed for Playboy in order to get into the franchise’s club circuit as a DJ.
“I think it’s a movie about how society assigns value to people, and if a woman is valued more for her boobs than for her skill sets, then that was interesting to me,” says Vancouver-based Monk, an author and regular contributor to CBC Radio, Global Television and Corus Radio.
“It seemed to take a microscope to some of the inherent sexism, institutional sexism out there that we just don’t see.”
Shephard, an investigative reporter with the Toronto Star, co-directed Guantanamo’s Child.
She also wrote the 2008 book that inspired it, Guantanamo’s Child: The Untold Story of Omar Khadr, about the then-15-year-old Canadian citizen who was captured by American forces in Afghanistan in 2002 and spent a decade imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay.
WATCH: Trailer for Guantanamo’s Child
Shephard, who co-directed with Patrick Reed, says she spent 12 years covering Khadr’s case and finally got to meet him over his first few days of freedom.
“I think there was this real euphoria, for somebody who had spent almost half of his life growing up behind bars,” she says.
“He didn’t want to do this film, he wants nothing more than to just fade away, not be in the headlines and live as much of a normal life as he can – and I believe him when he says that.
“I think he really does not seek attention. I think he’s got a difficult road ahead. I think he’s a public figure and … he’s grown up in custody, so he’s got a lot to learn.”
The film festival runs through Sept. 20.