Monday, 26 June 2017

I Heard the Birch Tree Whisper in the Night –a Gerald Squires Documentary by Kenneth C. Harvey

The highlight of the 17th Nickel Film Festival was I Heard the Birch Tree Whisper in the Night–Kenneth Harvey's first feature length film.  I was so determined to see this documentary about the late painter Gerry Squires that I bought a ticket a month in advance and it was a good thing because the screening quickly sold old, as did the one the following day.  I returned on the second day in order to catch the Q&A session with Kenneth Harvey.

Based on the strength of the two-minute trailer, CBC bought rights to the film.  (The duration of the film consequently is what is called a CBC hour, i.e. 45 minutes.)  The trailer shows Gerry Squires in his studio sitting before a pair of huge blank canvases, which is also the opening of the film.  It is a poignant moment, a trembling Squires recalls for the camera the moment he realizes he is deathly ill.  Contemplating a shivering birch tree in the failing evening light of spring, Squires– porous with receptivity– comes to accept his dire situation.  Fortunately, Harvey resisted the conventional wisdom of documentary making and the filmmaker did not go for the close-up.  Instead, he turned off the camera and hugged his friend and subject, something Harvey says happened more than once during the two years of filming and twenty hours of interviewing Squires.

Harvey walks a fine line with this film and the viewer benefits from the respectful distance that Harvey adopts.  Originally, Harvey explained, this project was supposed to be a short film about the painting of a woman's portrait.  It would document that near supernatural process of putting oil paint on canvas to capture a person's essence.  As a photographer, who had also made a portrait of the same woman, Harvey was interested in the shifting perception of the artist and the subject's likeness.  However, the nature of the documentary took a radical change when Gerry Squires' health declined.  The act of Squires painting would remain and it is in Harvey's words "the spine of the film". The viewer gets to see Squires create an expansive landscape and fill those two blank canvases all the while talking about the intimate process.

As a novelist, Harvey brings seasoned narrative skills to the documentary.  The film traces Squires career but also fills it with a cast of colourful characters from his life.  During the Q&A, he referred to artists Clifford George as "the comedian", Stuart Montgomery as "the wild card" and curator Caroline Stone as "the academic".  Inspired editing, juxtaposes Gerry Squires' romantic accounts of how it was necessary to his artistic process to live in the lighthouse with practical wife Gail Squires' version pointing out the perils of living, near penniless, with small children perched on an ocean side cliff.  The hints of humour and outright belly laughs, combined with the universal themes of life, death and the differences between men and women are what will give the documentary appeal to audiences beyond the province and country.

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