Upside-Down and In-Between

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I gaze at the reflection
Until I forget
There is any other world.
There are two trees
That at first looked upside down.
It didn’t take long
Before I was so immersed
In this world of trees
Suspended from the sky,
The empty ground below,
The muted glitter
Of the sakura lights
Hung side by side
With the dried leaves
Of Japanese maple
That winter left behind.
I wasn’t quite a part of this world;
I was aware of my legs,
Large and looming,
Close to me,
In the waterworld below;
There was no way to enter.
But the other world had left,
And I had no thought
Of bringing it back,
Of needing to belong to the scene.
Observing was my way of belonging,
Of being immersed
In the world of contemplation,
Which filled me.
When I did finally look up,
I was startled to see the world I knew
And was mine to join,
And here I was,
Not in one or the other,
But somewhere in between,
And I knew I would have to decide,
And knew it would be impossible,
The upside down world no less real,
The familiar world no less imagined,
I, as witness, with my expanded view,
Exactly where I wanted to be.

– Tammy Stone Takahashi

We are the living.

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We are all the living
we are all the dying.
We are in this one world,
each of us a universe
bound to the next
in humility and servitude
if we choose.
We must choose.
There is no default
set to make things right
if we do not forge
a path of kindness.
There is observing, repenting,
learning, starting again,
but there no starting over.
We are the living,
we are the dying.
We witness and document,
make art and make love,
because there are a million ways
we are human,
but one way in which
we need to share,
to be understood,
to be met with the compassion
that chokes us
when the world
is strangled by so much suffering.
Let us grace the living
with every possibility for life;
it is the work of our life to live,
and make each breath
a windstorm blowing in the direction
of restoring dignity for all.
 
– tammy takahashi

Trust and Love

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I think the word “trust”
and my heart cowers, trembling,
trying to squeeze
into the tiniest corner it can find,
to be left alone to pick up
a million shattered pieces,
find utmost tenderness
in the wake of a thousand heartaches.
There are so many ways of falling apart,
each feeling like a well-trodden road
that can take you to your place of pain
with the great ease of the unburdened.
The climb back, out, in the other direction,
the monumental effort of this.
The ache of one tiny swivel of the head,
the reward is instant.
Right there, just off to the side
on the road of worry,
a tree, gargantuan, protector and protected.
Both ways.
It makes no promises, asks nothing of you.
So you are drawn here, slowly, to observe,
to witness
(still clutching your aching heart)
the great way of the tree,
standing through all seasons,
accepting of its plush plenitude
and bear nakedness alike,
harming no thing,
nourishing as it is nourished
only to the extent that it can,
so that it always has what it needs,
the great lesson in this.
The great miracle
of being teaching being,
of all that is offered, all the salves
to a heart in need of healing.

– tt

How To Fall in Love With Your City All Over Again.

Tammy T. Stone

Tammy T. Stone

 

“Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.” ~ Maya Angelou

Why do we want to be a tourist in our own city (or town, or suburb, or village, you name it?)

Because fresh eyes and an open heart are the true antidote to boredom, lethargy, confusion and feeling stuck, and by antidote, I don’t mean “cure,” because we already know that life entails more than naming a problem and then fixing it on the proverbial spot.

Sometimes a simple shift in perspective can get the ball rolling and awaken the brain-mind complex to start working with us toward desired change. It’s as simple as that. I’m sure we’ve all had experiences where the very last thing we wanted to do was hit the yoga mat, or show up for our coffee date, or sit on the meditation cushion at the appointed time.

We’ve probably also experienced the actual doing of those things that seemed so mountainous, and feeling greatly rewarded and satisfied as a result.

If for no other reason than to try something new and engage in a sense of discovery with where we are (physically and metaphysically), it’s worth casting our lives in a renewed light, or approaching familiar things in a different way. The seeds of change are also the seeds of possibility.

Why don’t we try a few of these, starting with very simple shifts we can make in our own home?

Watch the sun rise (suns don’t only rise on beach vacations!).

Look out the window for a few minutes, instead of turning on the computer or phone.

Start your tourism right where you are. Take a lingering look at the books on your shelf, or the smattering of varied dishware accumulated over the years, and use a different mug for your morning coffee (maybe while reading a “new” old book!).

Okay, we can leave the house now. Why not take a walk in a new neighborhood? If you have to work, walk instead of bike, or take a different route if you’re driving. You get the picture.

No matter what the time constraints are or where you’re headed, really look around. Notice the store fronts, the relative health of the grass and foliage around you, or at how melting snow changes the landscape you know so well. Any new construction projects in our midst? Anything that’s been redesigned?

Visit the local library. It may have been a long time, so going is like revisiting our childhood and a new part of town at once (how efficient!)—two very exotic locations, not to mention the worlds we can find in the books themselves. We can also get a library card, because while we’re tourists for the day, we’re also sticking around!

Take pictures. No matter what device your camera is lodged into, use it as a photography medium. Let’s regard the city/town/suburb/village as we would a tourist destination. Find what is beautiful and make an image of it. We can send our new discoveries to friends and share the wealth, enjoy looking at them and marveling at the hidden treasures continually awaiting our attention.

Try new cuisine. We can bring India, Thailand, Japan, Jamaica, and so on, right to us for a little while. Entering a new restaurant is like opening a great book, and is a feast for more than just our sense of taste.

Check for activities (free or otherwise) going around town and try a couple of them out. Maybe this is the perfect chance to discover new and rewarding ways to spend time and nourish ourselves, or try out different variations of things we already do, but in a different setting.

People watch. This can be done in a café, on a patio somewhere, on church steps—you name it. See what people are wearing, how they move, what their facial expressions or the sounds of their voices are revealing, how they live and go about their lives, and just get lost in the wandering, and wondering about humanity. This is not about invading people’s privacy, of course, but gathering impressions in a mindful and respectful way.

As Maya Angelou says above, one of the most beautiful aspects of travel is to find and remember all the ways in which we, as humans, are alike and connected, to the betterment of every single one of us. I can’t think of a better way to generate compassion.

Watch the sun set (suns don’t only set on beach vacations!)

And finally, we can take a moment at the end of any given day we’ve actively engaged with our environment in a new way, to express gratitude for where we are, and review. What did we enjoy among the discoveries, and what surprised us? Was there anything about this “new” place we’d like to incorporate into our lives in the coming weeks and months?

Let’s express gratitude for the opportunity we gave ourselves to open our eyes and begin again, and realize that beginning again is something that can, and will happen as many times as we allow it to.

Bon voyage!

What Our Stories Tell Us About Ourselves.

Tammy T. Stone

Tammy T. Stone

 

Are we the stories we tell?

Do our stories—that is, our way of conceiving and talking about ourselves—have anything to do with the question, who am I?

Which stories make us feel like ourselves, and how much, and in what way? How much do our stories correspond to the answers we find when we attempt self-understanding?

We probably find that some of our stories, if we reflect on them, make us feel very secure while others make us squirm a little, and that the stories that have these effects are likely to change over time.

Ramana Maharshi, the great Hindu guru and sage who awakened at the age of 16, famously advocated asking the question “Who am I?” as a meditation practice, believing that self-inquiry, and plenty of silence, was the way to evolve to higher planes of consciousness.

“Enquiring within Who is the seer? I saw the seer disappear leaving that alone which stands forever. No thought arose to say I saw. How then could the thought arise to say I did not see.” ~ Ramana Maharshi

We can say that “that which stands forever” is something pure, beyond the mind and the stories we tell about ourselves.

Yet stories are bound to erupt as we ask, “Who is the seer?” Who is the person even doing the asking? Who is it that is seeking his or own true identity? Who asks, “What is true? What is reality? Where am ‘I’ really located and what is essential about me?”

Our answers are bound to tell us something about the stories we tell and the relationship we have, and think we have, with them.

What are some of the ways we tell stories?

We write works of fiction.

We make movies.

We lie.

We tell the truth.

We share anecdotes with friends.

We explain things to children.

We explain things to each other.

We draw pictures.

We discuss our memories.

We remember things, and then re-remember them, over and over.

We sit under a great big sky and wonder about things.

We put two and two together.

We fill out forms and questionnaires.

We answer the question, “How are you,” and explain to people what we do for a living.

We react in predictable ways to things that cause pain, and joy.

We say things like, “I wouldn’t do that. I love those kinds of things. I am the type of person who hates when that happens.”

A story is never just a story. It is the culmination of an entire system of thoughts, beliefs, conditioning and identifying markers. As they form, they become infused into us, and it becomes hard to distinguish the stories from the person, the “I” who has absorbed and reformulated them again and again.

“The body does not say ‘I’. In sleep no one admits he is not. The ‘I’ emerging, all else emerges. Enquire with a keen mind whence this ‘I’ rises.” ~ Ramana Maharshi

How empowering, then, to recognize that, just as we are not our bodies (if we lose a finger, we still think of ourselves as us), or our feelings (feelings come and go, but we still feel we have an “us”), and our minds (our thoughts are a virtual revolving door of coming and going, yet here “we” are), nor are we our stories.

Our stories can be beautiful things. We are creative beings by nature, and storytelling (and extensions of that, myth-making and the formation of all kinds of grand narratives) are a natural part of the fabric of being human, in both the individual and collective sense.

It’s when our stories threaten to limit us, overwhelm us and hold us fixed to one spot (especially when that spot is not serving us and we no longer want to be there), that we may wish to learn how to separate from our stories.

Our stories have gotten us here, to this point, no matter where we are or what our aspirations might be. This isn’t good or bad; it’s natural, and intrinsic to our way of being human. We can’t so much as look as cross the street without a whole host of stories running through our head, some of which help us know how to cross that street in the first place.

We all exist in relationship, to other things, beings and people, and to our own history, and what is the strongest glue bringing us into connection, if not our stories?

But notice how they are among the first things to rise to the surface, explode into chaos and reveal their impermanence when we sit down to meditate, breathe and fill ourselves with silence in a space of calm and rest.

They bubble up and ask to be witnessed. They shake; they are fragile and hesitant and wavering and very demanding of our attention. They poke and threaten to disappear if we let them.

Do we let them?

How much do we hold on, terrified to lose our grip on what we’ve come to know as our reality, and how much do we let go?

If we hold our stories in our hands and scrutinize them, will they change or will they disappear, and doesn’t the former mean the latter? If something takes on a different form, it is no longer what it was. This means that we can dislodge it from its stronghold and it loses some of its power over us.

Sitting quietly and observing our stories stomp into our minds in a relentless bid to take over is one way to recognize that we aren’t our stories; why would the deepest, most lasting parts of ourselves give us such grief and be so susceptible to transformation? Journaling—writing variations of our stories down—is another powerful way to get them out, separate from them and begin to see them for what they really are.

Which takes us that much closer to who we really are.

Let’s love our stories, and honour the humanity that allows us to have and share them, and to learn from each other in this way. Let’s mindfully remain aware that we are creating something every time we tell a story, and that this act of creation has come about to serve a purpose. Only we can determine what that purpose is and how we feel about it.

And when and if the time comes, let’s recognize that there is so much more to who we are than the stories that have brought us here, and that we have the power to lay them gently aside as we continue on our path of evolution.

 

This is Why Today, I Meditate.

Tammy T. Stone

Tammy T. Stone

 

I will bring myself to the cushion, not because I want to be enlightened.

Yesterday, I might have been thinking like this.

Yesterday, I might have unintentionally brought goals with me to my meditation seat, memories of learning from a place of love and light, compassion and bodhicitta, soaking in this glory under so many bright, holy suns.

Maybe the memories go even further back, into a consciousness that leaves its imprints even as I can’t reach for their source.

Today, there is fear. There is the temptation to find solutions to problems my mind doesn’t know how to handle. Confusion enters, reigns, dominates.

This is what fear does, it spirals and expands and makes me desperate to climb out, but instead the terror creeps slowly out from the cover of dark and makes its way slowly around the world’s every crevice.

There is fear all over; I fear the world is baking and burning in fear. I am enjoined, too; the darkness and terror envelops me and originates in me too.

Acts of hatred, of violence and hostility—I shake all over, not comprehending. There is a great danger in this confusion. I fear being a mirror on all sides, exponentially growing my confusion as I spread it out far and wide to everything I come in contact with.

My mind will spin from here to the end of time if I let it. It does this well.
Sadness emerges through the fear, a bottomless ache that I know lives underneath fear because I have unearthed these layers before.

Feeling sadness brings me one small step closer to myself.

In fear, I run away. In sadness, I can allow a certain stillness.

So I sit, not to erase being sad and afraid, not to jump right over them to the unparalleled post-thought clarity I might have been seeking yesterday.

Today, I need to sit on my cushion and not think about fear and destruction, but see them. See them not as images and thoughts, but as unease written all over my body.

I need to do this as I breathe in, breathe out, letting my breath remind me of my physical presence, my map of all I have been and all we have come to; and also of the heartbeat that connects to the living organism all around me, because this being is expansive and bathes us even when we forget, and doesn’t seek destruction.

I will meditate because I want to embody and reflect peace, not fear when I go outside today, and because the path of the warrior, of the gentle, compassionate activist begins with an ability to be quietly, fully present with the self.

Today, I will meditate not to get me somewhere else, but to get back here to start from where I am, to caress the wounds by observing them, watching them change, and anchoring myself in a breath that is specific and grounding and also shared with every other being.

“Life is glorious, but life is also wretched. It is both. Appreciating the gloriousness inspires us, encourages us, cheers us up, gives us a bigger perspective, energizes us. We feel connected. But if that’s all that’s happening, we get arrogant and start to look down on others, and there is a sense of making ourselves a big deal and being really serious about it, wanting it to be like that forever. The gloriousness becomes tinged by craving and addiction. On the other hand, wretchedness—life’s painful aspect—softens us up considerably. Knowing pain is a very important ingredient of being there for another person. When you are feeling a lot of grief, you can look right into somebody’s eyes because you feel you haven’t got anything to lose—you’re just there. The wretchedness humbles us and softens us, but if we were only wretched, we would all just go down the tubes. We’d be so depressed, discouraged and hopeless that we wouldn’t have enough energy to eat an apple. Gloriousness and wretchedness need each other. One inspires us, the other softens us. They go together.” ~ Pema Chodron

There is a Love Beside Love.

Tammy T. Stone

Tammy T. Stone

There is a Love Beside Love

There is a love beside love.

It sits with me when you cannot

Teaching me about absence
About the very bottom of desire

Love comes with me on a walk
and we experience things together

For a moment I dissolve in the sun

and start to see Love’s teachings

wide open in all things,

That I will never be the song
I am singing to the clouds

That I am not a bird
as I peck for sustenance under the sky

I am not a laugh
as I see the sparkle of my joy in your eyes

That laugh that gives life for
at least a thousand years

I cannot be the river
or the wooden plank I sit on
high above its narrow passage

even as I understand the water’s downward flow
and shiver as the eagle soars low to its
rippling crests

Nor can I be the language stenciled onto craters

that have sent messages along the river

that sit beside me now

even as everything I cannot say

lays bare in words
awaiting discovery

I say to the love that sits beside me
I am not you, and love looks back

(I am love)

I say I am not life

(I am life)

The sun on the river shines bright
without my ever looking up

I don’t want to know anything else

I want my feet to kiss the river
down at the shore
as long as it will have me
as the day grows cold

and you will come back to me

It’s quiet, still

I want to thank the wooden planks I sit on

pray for the forest
and breathe love in

Love out

(I am love)

 

*first published on elephant journal, here!

Japanese Death Poems Illuminate Life

Tammy T. Stone

Tammy T. Stone

 

“From my rotting body, flowers shall grow and I am in them and that is eternity.”

~ Edvard Munch

I came across a book, almost lost among Japanese recipe and travel books, with the words “Death Poems” written on its spine. I was immediately intrigued.

There is a tradition in Japan, I read, that upon one’s death, one would leave a will behind, but also a “farewell poem to life.” These death poems are called jisei, and the practice was long adhered to by Zen monks and haiku poets.

What might be contained in a few lines uttered by a spiritually advanced human at the time of death, to encapsulate a life in learning? What do the dying awakened ones want to leave behind for the rest of us?

The words ring like chime bells in autumn wind, and also cut like a blade. This, for me, is the paradoxical beauty and magic inherent in Japan’s ancient history.

Here are some of these last words, a death practice full of observation, contemplation and also humour, but also a gift to the living. So much to savour here!

 

Bassui Tokusho (died in 1387, age 61)

Look straight ahead—what’s there?
If you see it as it is
You will never err.

 

Daido Ichi’I (died 1370, age 79)

A tune of non-being
Filling the void:
Spring sun
Snow whiteness
Bright clouds
Clear wind

 

Dokyo Etan (died 1721, age 80)

Here in the shadow of death it is hard
To utter the final word.
I’ll only say, then,
‘Without saying.’
Nothing more,
Nothing more.

 

Gesshu Soko (died 1696, age 79)

Inhale, exhale
Forward, back
Living, dying:
Arrows, let flown each to each
Meet midway and slice
The void in aimless flight—
Thus I return to the source.

~

Hosshin (died 13th century)

Coming, all is clear, no doubt about it.
Going, all is clear, without a doubt.
What, then, is it all?

 ~

Kaso Sodon (died 1428, age 72)

A drop of water freezes instantly—
My seven years and seventy
All changes at a blow
Springs of water welling from the fire.

~

Mumon Gensen (died 1390, age 68)

Life is an ever—rolling wheel
And even day is the right one.
He who recites poems at his death,
Adds frost to snow.

 

Tetto Giku (died 1369, age 75)

The truth is never taken
From another.
One carries it always
By oneself.
Katsu!

 

I found more of these incredible poems here. Here are a couple of them:

The death poem of Matsuo Basho, one of the greatest haiku poets of all time:

On a journey, ill;
my dream goes wandering
over withered fields.

 

Zoso Royo (died 1276, age 84)

I pondered Buddha’s teaching
a full four and eighty years.
The gates are all now
locked about me.
No one was ever here—
Who then is he about to die,
and why lament for nothing?
Farewell!
The night is clear,
the moon shines calmly,
the wind in the pines
is like a lyre’s song.
With no I and no other
who hears the sound?

 

Live well; be happy!

Remembering Wolf Koenig: Dialogue

Tammy T. Stone

Tammy T. Stone

 

Wolf Koenig (1927 – 2014) was a giant the way more than a few Canadian artists are: in a quiet, humble and very modest way.

I had the huge privilege of witnessing these traits firsthand when I interviewed him back in 2001, while I was in the throes of a Masters degree in film, exploring notions of documentary, observation, reality and truth.

I was living in Bangkok at the time, and he was living in small-town Ontario, not far from where I’m from, though we never met face-to-face.

Kind in a from-the-bottom-of-the-heart way, gentle and at turns humorous and contemplative, Koenig showed his adventurous spirit from the get-go.

I had a million questions for this maverick of the Canadian documentary, and he very graciously agreed to a long-form e-mail interview—his first conducted in cyberspace, as he told me. It ended up being part interview and part dialogue, as I tried to soak up what this brilliant mind was teaching me. We “spoke” for a few weeks, almost daily and by the end, he referred to this exploration as an “archeological dig.”

An explorer—and philosopher, miner of the psyche, and self-professed “tinkerer”—he was.

In the 1950s, Koenig, along with his young, rogue colleagues at the National Film Board of Canada (including IMAX founder and inventor Roman Kroitor), formed a documentary unit called Unit B, and ended up changing the way documentaries were made—which is also to say, how we perceived the world.

Decades before reality TV would permeate the globe, the Unit B filmmakers had the idea that they wanted to record reality “as it was,” without any overt decisions to package or frame what they saw, or offer audiences a predetermined view of the subject matter. This flew in the face of the kind of propagandistic documentaries that were being made at the time, and the team, while given rudimentary support, was more or less left to forge their own path.

This even included the necessity of designing and building their own equipment to record synchronous sound (to record images and sounds at the scene, simultaneously): they were wholly determined to go onto the streets with equipment that was as light as possible, and try to unobtrusively capture the world.

My personal favorites are a two-part series on Glenn Gould and the Unit B’s most famous, a film called “Lonely Boy”, (1961), which follows then-19-year-old Ottawa-boy crooner Paul Anka as he sets out to make it big in Atlantic City. The poignancy and raw excitement this film generates cannot be overstated – check it out below!

It’s also considered by many to be the very first rockumentary, or at least its progenitor, and is startling when you watch the girls scream over Anka, crazed, and realize it was made about three years before the Beatles landed in America.

A lot of the Unit B’s work is not widely available, but serve as a lasting visual and auric archive of an era when the likes of Jackson Pollock, Jack Kerouac, Albert Camus, and this ragtag group of brilliant filmmakers set out to test the very limits of artistic and philosophical imagination.

What do splotches of paint on canvas, free-form poetic ramblings, existentialist philosophy and the observational film have in common? To me, they epitomize the ultimate spirit of modernity and represent, in very different ways, what happens when classical forms of representation no longer suffice to express a personal or societal ethos, when something has to give.

These artists truly turned the world on its head during a creatively fertile time, each representing an edge, a limit, a willingness to explore the frontier of mind and spirit. I think of this as meditation-in-action, a motivated intention to discover what lies beyond what the senses can know directly, using the senses as the way in.

Koenig and his fellow filmmakers may have wanted to “directly capture reality,” but they were in no way naive or obtuse about the possibility of doing this, unfiltered – art can only be an attempt, and people can only do their best, using the tools they have.

These were some of the brilliant, inspiring words Wolf Koenig shared with me, about the potential of art as it relates to Truth:

“I’ve come to the conclusion in my dotage that “structure” is what all the arts are really about – music, dance, the graphic arts, the theatre, the literary arts, architecture, poetry, etc. They show us by inference something that we otherwise can’t see. This ‘something’ is invisible to us, like a fir tree in the dark. But come Christmas time, people hang lights all over the boughs. At first one only sees the lights, but if you step back a bit and squint, you see the shape of the tree – even though the tree itself still invisible. The lights define it, so we’re able to see it by inference. In this laboured analogy, the lights represent the “arts” and the tree the “structure”. And the Structure is what permeates the universe from the sub-atomic particle to the whole cosmos – in effect, we are all little lights hung on the invisible tree. And the arts are about the only way we have of talking about this thing: “Structure” or “Truth.”

I didn’t realize until just now how deeply his wise words remained within me as I set out to find my own way of being in the world, of observing my mind in hopes of peering into Truth.

RIP, Wolf Koenig, light that you were. You will be missed, and thank you for your work, the worlds you gave us, for your being.

 

* This article was published in elephant journal, here.

I also wrote an article about “Lonely Boy” (a true masterpiece, and Cannes award winner) in Dairy River magazine, which you can check out here. You can watch the full version of the film here.

 And now, for the dialogue!

Some of my interview with Wolf was published in a Take One Magazine article, so please enjoy! If anyone is interested in having access to the full interview, please feel free to contact me by email.

 

Candid Eye, & Lonely Boy Unit B: take one’s interview with Wolf Koenig.

 

If the word documentary is synonymous with Canada, and the NFB is synonymous with Canadian documentary, it is impossible to consider the NFB, and particularly its fabled Unit B team, without one of its core members, Wolf Koenig. An integral part of the “dream team,” he worked with, among others, Colin Low, Roman Kroitor, Terence Macartney–Filgate and unit head Tom Daly, as part of the NFB’s most prolific and innovative ensemble. Koenig-began his career as a splicer before moving on to animator, cameraman, director and producer, responsible for much of the output of the renowned Candid Eye series produced for CBC–TV between 1958 and 1961. Among Unit B’s greatest achievements is Lonely Boy (1962), which brilliantly captured the phenomenon of megastar mania before anyone else, and continues to be screened worldwide. I had the opportunity to “speak” to Wolf Koenig in his first Internet interview, a fitting format for a self–professed tinkerer who made a career out of embracing the latest technologies. He refl ects on his days as part of Unit B, what the term documentary means to him and the process of making Lonely Boy.

What was your background before joining the NFB?

In 1937, my family fled Nazi Germany and came to Canada, just in the nick of time. After a couple of years of wondering what he should do, my father decided that we should settle down on a farm. He found the perfect place, 145 acres of beautiful hills and bush bordering the Grand River, just outside of Galt, Ontario. The hills and valleys were beautiful, allright, but hell to plow and harvest. So we got a tractor, one of the first in the area, a Ford–Ferguson — small but strong.

One day, in early May 1948, my father got a call from a neighbour down the road — Mr. Merritt, the local agricultural representative for the federal department of agriculture — who asked if “the boy” could come over with the tractor to try out a new tree–planting machine. The machine was designed to fit only the Ford–Ferguson, and we were the only ones in the area to have one. So my father called me over and said, “Go!” As I was pulling the tree planter across a field, I noticed a couple of guys off to the side. One was pointing and giving directions and the other one was setting up a tripod with a movie camera on it. After the test planting was done, I went over and asked them what they were filming. Raymond Garceau, the director, told me that they were from the agricultural unit of the NFB and that they were making a film about this new tree–planting machine. I got talking to them and told them how much I loved films, especially animation films and that I wanted one day to work in that field. They suggested that I send a job application to the NFB. I think Garceau must have mailed me one, although I don’t remember exactly how I got it. Anyway, I sent it off, and about six weeks later I got a letter asking if I were interested in a position as junior splicer at $100 per month at the National Film Board of Canada. My father said, “Go! It’s the government!.”
So, on July 12, 1948, I boarded the CPR train in Galt, hay seed in my hair, hauling a cardboard suitcase bulging with clothing and my mother’s cookies and sandwiches. I was off to Toronto and then Ottawa [where the NFB was located at the time]. And on the morning of July 13, I reported for work as junior splicer. I was 20, and had no education save four years at vocational school, where I learned the rudiments to auto mechanics, drafting, house wiring and wood-working–all useful things if you’re a farmer, but not much help in filmaking. So I learned how to splice film and I got rather good at it. I met practically everybody involved in production because they all had to come to my tiny cubicle to get their films spliced. In spare moments, I’d hang around and watch people edit or go down to animation and see how they did it, and then go into the optical camera section and watch how animation was shot. I thought I was in heaven. Anyway, after about a year and a half of spicing and learning, I was invited to come and join the animation department.

I understand Tom Daly, who would go on to head the Unit B team, was executive producer for the animation department when you were there. What was your relationship like with him?

Tom was truly the heart of Unit B. He was the executive producer of the unit and its brains and muscle, too. He was a master editor, and still is, and he took great care that we new ones were fully instructed in the rules of the craft. He’d give regular lectures and with the help of a 16 mm projector took us through a film shot by shot that he or Stuart Legg – the great British documentarian brought in by Grierson during the war to oversee The Worth in Action – had edited. Tom had apprenticed with Legg and learned the craft from him. In the war years, they invariably had to use newsreel material from disparate sources – British, German, Portuguese, American or Canadian – yet made it look as if it all came from the same source. Later, as head of Unit B, Tom continued to mentor and guide us. And he still edited. I remember Colin Low and me looking over Tom’s shoulder as he cut Corral and later City of Gold. And he explained everything he did. He was a master teacher as well as an artist. Without his guidance and infinite patience, many of us would never have worked on a film. And Tom challenged us intellectually too. He’d get those of us who were undereducated to read the classics, like Plato’s Dialogues. He was giving us a university education. No other executive producer would have taken the trouble to do this. In the end, Tom’s efforts paid off. Studio B did some of the NFB’s most interesting work and has never seen his like again.

It sounds like an ideal work environment. Does your relationship with Roman Kroitor go back to the early days too?

I met Roman first while I was still a splicing boy. He came to the NFB — I don’t know the exact year — as a summer student. He came into Unit B and therefore was under Daly’s jurisdiction. Roman was doing his Ph.D. in philosophy, I believe, at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. I met him in the usual way. He brought something in for me to splice. We got to talking and pretty soon we were spending lunch hours debating deep philosophical things while eating our sandwiches. Roman always won any debate. He was just too smart for me. He was also very outspoken, and he spoke his mind without much regard for diplomacy. Once, one veteran NFB director stopped Roman in the hall and asked him how he liked his latest film. It had just been screened and he noticed that Roman was there. And Roman said, “It’s a pile of shit!” And I’m sure it was Needless to say, the “old boys” became a little leery of Roman. They didn’t appreciate his frankness. However a least one of the old boys liked Roman’s chutzpah, and so Stanley Jackson would often join us in our philosophical lunches, which we would often continue at Murray’s Restaurant after work, and then we would go see a movie. When I finally got out of splicing, I was fortunate enough to be taken in by the animation department, which was the fulfillment of a dream I had ever since I saw Disney’s Snow White and the Seven dwarfs in 1937. Eventually, I began working with Robert Verrall and Colin Low on The Romance of Transportation in Canada.

Did you work with Kroitor prior to the Candid Eye series?

Yes. Roman’s genius came in handy on City of Gold. He helped shape the film, working closely with Tom Daly, who edited it, Colin Low, myself and Pierre Berton, who wrote and read the narration. Roman was a technical wizard. We had the problem of doing the complex, curved camera moves over the photographs. This was an immensely difficult task, and Roman invented a solution. We called it the “Kroitorer” and it consisted of a hand–sized platform with four tiny caster wheels, a magnetic solenoid, within which was a sharply pointed armature and an oscillating power supply that caused the sharp armature to vibrate up and down 24 times a second. The photograph was covered with a sheet of clear acetate. The Kroitorer was powered up, and moved over the photo, the pointed armature leaving a trail of tiny impressions on the surface of the acetate. Then black grease pencil was rubbed into these impressions to make them more visible. Next, the acetate sheet was placed beside the animation table under a small microscope a ttached to the table and the photo was placed under the camera. The camera operator had only to align the crosshairs of the microscope with the first dot, shoot a frame, line up the second dot, shoot another frame, and so on. The results were perfect. This saved us weeks if not months of work and reshoots. Roman and I then worked together for a couple of years on the Candid Eye series.

How did Candid Eye come about? How was it initially conceived?

I can answer this very simply — Henri Cartier-Bresson. One year I was given a book of Cartier-Bresson photographs, The Decisive Moment. The photographs absolutely stunned me. Here was real life, as it happened, captured on film at the moment of greatest clarity and meaning. I showed the book to Roman, Tom and others, with the purpose of convincing them that we could do this kind of observation on film. We had already seen work from the British Free Cinema and we were impressed. And then there were the earlier films of Pere Lorenz, The Plow that Broke the Plains and The River. We were also very familiar with the fine wartime documentary features like Desert Victory and The True Glory. So it was in the air and the Cartier-Bresson photographs were the final inspiration. Roman agreed we should give it a try, so we took the notion to Tom, who agreed with us. Off we went with little experience, but a lot of enthusiasm. I think our first film was The Days before Christmas, a natural subject, considering the season was upon us. A whole lot of us fanned out across the city and began running film through the cameras.

Candid Eyes was a true departure for CBC-TV and for filmmaking in Canada. Did you have any particular idea about how Candid Eye subjects should be approached? Is it possible to say there was a mandate, or a distinct philosophy, behind the series?

The idea behind the Candid Eye series was simple: show our world and the lives lived by ordinary people without influencing or manipulating them. Observe but do not disturb; preferably remain invisible. Our intention was to put the real world on film — sound and image — in order to help people become more aware of their community and the world they lived in. Who knows whether we succeeded. If nothing else, we recorded a bit of history. Pretty high-minded, if not a little naive, eh? Anyhow, that was it. Not much of a manifesto, but it allowed us a great deal of flexibility and a lot of room to grow. Today, anyone and everyone can do this with the marvellous new DV cameras. I sure wish we’d had these in the old days.

How much of what you did was made possible by the portable 16 mm cameras and possibilities for synchronized sound, so often hailed as the tools that made cinema verite possible?

Alas, we didn’t have a lot of that wonderful new technology at the beginning of Candid Eye. All we had was the little 16 mm Arri S, not a silent machine, therefore not suited to shooting sync sound. For sound, the sound recordist had to haul around a portable suitcase-sized recorder, the Maihack, which was spring wound and weighed about 50 pounds. A little later in the game we used the sprocket-tape machine for sync sound. It was designed and built at the NFB, and used specially perforated quarter-inch audio tape. However, this was not a portable device. The Nagra arrived sometime later. For sync picture we had the 16 mm Auricon, but it couldn’t be hand-held. It weighed about 40 pounds with a 1,200-foot magazine, so we used tripods. A lot of our stuff was shot on the handy little Arri S. The sound recordist picked up a lot of ambient sound and, with careful picture and sound-editing, we got it to look as if the material was in sync an editor’s trick from theearlier documentary days.

You know, the guy talking on the phone, shot so that you couldn’t see his mouth move and editing his voice over the picture.

Here I should digress for a moment and talk about this editing business. The fact is, every cut is a lie. The cutaway of someone intently listening to someone speak is shot after — or before — the actual conversation. Even with multiple camera shoots, the editor uses the ideal reaction shot rather than the exact, matching moment. And when one cuts back to the speaker, likely as not, a long chunk of the actual conversation is dropped in order to get to the point. So, the truth is adjusted. The irony is that, in editing, one has to lie to tell the truth, otherwise the audience would die of boredom or the truth would be smothered under a mountain of chaff. Anyhow, toward the end of the candid Eye series, the camera and engineering departments built a small, noiseless camera. It was a bit awkward to hand–hold, a design problem that could eventually have been corrected; however, just then, the French company Eclair put the NPR on the market. Perfectly balanced for hand–holding, relatively light — about 18 pounds — and almost totally silent. But it came too late for the Candid Eye, even for Lonely Boy [the immediate heir of the Candid Eye series].

A prevailing myth is that there was an active dislike of Unit B and its new ideas at the Film Board, that you were the renegade team. Was it difficult to work as part of this group at the NFB at this time?

The rumour is only partly true. Yes there was a certain disdain toward these young upstarts who thought they knew how to make films. I don’t think it was outright hostility. We were a bit of a joke making films on 16 mm, the “substandard format” as it was called. “Real pros” used 35 mm. Eventually, though, I think we won the old guard’s respect. And even they began to try 16mm. It was a lot cheaper than 35 mm and the equipment was much more portable. The BNC Mitchell, a 35mm blimped sound camera, weighed in at about 80 pounds. The French section of the Film Board was much more open to the newer ways and quickly adopted them. Within a couple of years the whole place was moving in the new direction.

Now, to get to Lonely Boy. There seems to be a dispute whether Lonely Boy was part of Candid Eye or not. Was it?

Lonely Boy wasn’t part of the original Candid Eye series, although it was a direct descendant. It was made in 1962. Candid Eye ended in 1961 with Festival in Puerto Rico, which was about Maureen Forrester in Puerto Rico. The idea for the film, I guess, came from me. We hadn’t really looked at pop music yet and here was an opportunity to go that route — a young, successful pop star from Ottawa, of all places. Roman and I went to Boston to see one of his concerts. The scene was totally different from what we had experienced. We were convinced that there was a film here.

I understand you only had one camera on that shoot. How did your team solve the problems of capturing so much action simultaneously with one camera?

One camera was all we needed. We had pretty well absorbed Tom’s editing lessons by then. We became quite adept at shooting with a mind to the editing process — get lots of cutaway material; get wide shots as well as close–ups; get reaction shots; get material to establish the location, etc. I’m sure you’ve noticed that at one point in the film Anka gets dressed in a black suit before stepping out on stage. Then, when he appears before the crowd, he’s wearing a white suit. Obviously shot at different times. Not an ideal cut, but the general trajectory of the sequence allowed us to get away with it. As I said, every cut is a lie. But sometimes one has to lie to tell the truth.

There is such a sense of immediacy about the film, as though you and Roman were completely thrown off guard by the sensation Anka had become, which is a credit to how the final film was put together. How much did you know about him before joining him for the few days of the film?

We didn’t know much about Anka when we started out. But we did see his concert in Boston and we knew that the material would be rich and relatively easy to obtain. So, with a fair bit of experience behind us, as well as a considerable helping of naivete, we jumped into the river. Then it was a matter of being alert to every moment and continually observant and trying not to drown.

I find it fascinating that while synchronous sound was a triumph of the verite movement, you eschewed it at several key moments in the film, such as when the camera rests on the screaming girls’ faces while we only hear Anka sing. And when Anka is seen writing on stage at the Copacabana, but we hear his voice on the track talking about the gift he’d been given. Can you tell me a little bit about how these decisions were made?

Sometimes, necessity is the mother of invention. Turning the screaming down as Anka continues to sing happened because even though the sound editor, Kathleen Shannon, painstakingly cut and synchronized every scream to the non–sync picture, the screams got to be a bit too much. The only solution was to turn them off. Surprisingly it worked better without them. The imagination continued to supply them. And the sound of Anka’s performance wasn’t recorded at that location either. Marcel Carriere, the sound recordist, was off in the crowd recording the screams while I was shooting picture, non–sync. If you look carefully, you’ll notice moments when Anka’s lips go out of sync a bit as he sings. That’s because the sound was recorded at another concert, a couple of weeks earlier. The band’s and Anka’s routine were perfectly repeated every time. The tempos varied very slightly, hence the out of sync, but it was so close we could use it for short pieces. It’s the magic of editing. The same thing happened at the Copac abana. We used a recording from another location, but this time the tempos were far off, so we used Anka talking about his gift to mask the discrepancy. This also had the incidental advantage of adding another level of thought, allowing the audience to be in two places at once. So you see, it was necessity that made us become inventive.

The film is so ambitious, employing cutaways, creative use of sound, self-reflexivity, interviews. Can you expand a little on the editing of Lonely Boy?

The editing of a documentary is like creating something out of thin air, The shots are often unrelated in time and space and yet, by bringing them together correctly, they begin to attract each other and cohere, like molecules forming a new substance. In editing — like playing an instrument — one has to know the rules as almost second nature. Then one has to let go and allow the material to lead you. The shots often tell one where they should go; one has to be alert and listen. The process of editing, especially documentaries, is probably the most demanding part of filmmaking and it’s also the most rewarding. In the editing process, the film begins to live. Even ordinary material, well put together, can really shine. Conversely, good material badly edited can ruin the project. The cutting of Lonely Boy, as always, was a collaborative effort. I did the basic assembly and Roman and Tom would look at it and make suggestions. Then John Spotton and Guy Cote took over — each with one half of the film — and did the final polish, adding some ideas that we hadn’t thought of. So, you see, even at this stage of the game, film is an ensemble art. This way of working was probably unique to our gang. Many great films have been made by individuals working solo. We were just more comfortable as a chamber orchestra.

I would like to ask you about what it means to you to make an observational film because there’s something transcendent about Lonely Boy and this seems to have something to do with truth, whether it’s an emotional or visceral truth. Do you have any thoughts on this?

Any of Cartier-Bresson’s photographs shows us the truth. He was our inspiration because he did it so consistently. Clearly, it was no accident for him. He knew exactly when to trip the shutter. With film, it’s a little different. It exists in time, and so the element of time becomes important. In both cases, though, there’s a shared commonality — and that’s structure. Roman — the great structuralist — used to clutch his forehead after a rushes screening and ask despairingly, “What’s the structure? What’s the structure?” And he was right to ask it, because that’s what a film is really about. I’ve come to the conclusion in my dotage that “structure” is what all the arts are really about: music, dance, the graphic arts, the theatre, the literary arts, architecture, poetry, etc. They show us by inference something that we otherwise can’t see. This “something” is invisible to us, like a fir tree in the dark, But come Christmas time, people hang lights all over the boughs. At first one only sees the lights, but if you step back a bit and squint, you see the shape of the tree, even though the tree itself is still invisible. The lights define it, so we’re able to see it by inference. In this laboured analogy, the lights represent the “arts” and the tree the “structure.” And the structure is what permeates the universe from the subatomic particle to the whole cosmos; in effect, we are all little lights hung on the invisible tree. And the arts are about the only way we have of talking about this thing structure or truth. So you are quite right to raise the question. Truth is what it’s all about, isn’t it?

Wolf Koenig’s films and television include: Neighbours 1952 (ph); The Romance of Transportation in Canada 1953 (coan, AAN-AS); Corral 1954 (ph); Gold 1955 (sc/ph/ed); City of Gold 1957 (d/ph with Colin Low, CFA-FY, AAN-SD); It’s a Crime 1957 (d); The Days before Christmas 1958 (co-p/co-d/coed, TV); Blood and Fire 1958 (co-p/ed, TV); Glenn Gould – Off the Record 1959 (p/d with Roman Kroitor, also ph, TV); Glenn Gould — On the Record 1959 (p/d with Kroitor, also ph, TV); The Back–Breaking Leaf 1959 (co-p, TV); Lonely Boy 1962 (ph/co-d with Kroitor, CFA-FY); The Great Toy Robbery 1964 (co-p); The Drag 1965 (co-p, AAN-AS); Stravinsky 1965 (ph/ed/co-d with Kroitor, TV); What on Earth! 1966 (co-p, AAN-AS); This is the House that Jack Built 1967 (co-p. AAN-AS); Psychocratie 1969 (co-p, CFA-FY, CFA-AS); N–Zone 1970 (co-ph); Hot Stuff 1971 (co-p); The Family that Dwelt Apart 1973 (p, CFA-AS, AAN-AS); The Street 1976 (exp, AAN-AS); The Hottest Show on Earth 1977 (co-p/co-d/co-sc, CFA-SD); Spinnolio 1977 (p. CFA-AS); Eve Lambart 1978 (exp/ph); Why Men Rape 1979 (co-p/co-ed); Ted Baryluk’s Grocery 1982 (co-p, GA-SD); John Cat 1984 (d/sc); Connection 1986 (d/ed); Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance 1993 (co-p).

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Mountain Watch

june 18

Mountain Watch

(Laos)

The new moon is a mist behind clouds. I turn to the mountains in the near distance, on the other side of a very narrow river. There’s a small rickety bridge that crosses it and they’ve been building a second bridge not far away, now complete. It’s not flimsy yet but there’s the potential for this. The sky is thick like you can touch it, a dress from the Victorian Age made of endless folds of velvet. I want to watch the mountains go dark the way you want to catch that exact moment when water bursts into bubbly, evaporating heat. There’s that expression, about how this is impossible (because watched pots don’t boil), but of course that’s not true. It’ll boil like the sun rises everyday (so far that’s a sure thing, until one day the sun will just run out of energy and won’t be able to climb). I’m not sure what that expression is trying to tell us: maybe that impatience causes eternities? That if we turn away from our anxiety things will work out on their own? Personally, I just think we forget what it can be like, to watch water boil. We try, and the mind goes elsewhere and the body follows because we’re not in control of anything. If you’ve ever tried meditating, you’ll see how difficult it is to watch your breath go in and out, in and out, with full concentration. This is mind-training, and the mind is stubborn. It wants to be anywhere else and it wants you along for the ride, so you start thinking about the past and future, all sorts of happy and dismal things, and before you know it you’re anxious and miserable and the breath, which has grown shallow and rapid, has been forgotten. But I am here, now, in love with the mountains of Vang Vieng, their curves and shapes and strength, and I want to watch them change into night. I want to watch them do their version of boiling, evaporating into nothing. So I sit down and watch. There’s a large mountain covered with trees, and next to it is a series of smaller mountains, with one darker one dominating, also covered in trees. Above these, the sky is now several intoxicating shades of blue. Seeing this, I’m back to when I was here years ago, and how I felt so protected under these imposing, godly she-mountains, how lonely I was. I remember where I am, and see again: the sky is darker, but you can still discern the blues. The mountains behind the darkest one have faded into the background. The large mountain next to it has become a silhouette. I hear someone start to cry. I try to find her but I can’t. I think of loneliness again and now my attention has moved away from the mountains, which are almost gone now. But I remember these mountains as much as I’m looking at them. You can feel them even as they become gone.