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Many of my earliest memories are liminal. They straddle the line of past and present, a constant reminder of my tendency to blur fact and fiction. I remember movie nights in the dark, and a desire to be seen as something more than I was.
My memories play out like flash frames. They’re still images: a red blanket over my movie-viewing den or the feeling of my father’s coarse stubble on my scalp. Movie night was an institution of my childhood — an event for the whole family. We gathered before the big basement screen, the retina of my mind’s eye.
These memories are reminders of a simple truth: For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to be a filmmaker.
Watching movies are some of my strongest memories. The television, just as broad as it was tall, hummed with tangible static and illuminated an otherwise dark room.
I made filmmaking part of my identity at an early age. I was four years old when I declared my interest in directing movies. I knew the stories I loved were being told by someone, just like the stories I heard from my parents before bed.
I imagined transforming the sequences built around my action figures into cinematic experiences on the silver screen. I was captivated by the idea of entertaining my family with movies like the ones we watched together. Years went on and my childhood ambitions began to materialize. I built sets with LEGO and filled miniature hands with props. YouTube gave me a platform to publish my videos, and after my LEGO rendition of Green Day’s “Know Your Enemy” received more than 18,000 views overnight, I was elated.
In high school, I felt the inverse of that optimism. I met others with similar aspirations, but who had made short films of their own. I felt diminished. It seemed like circumstances had arisen for others that enabled their creativity and I was just missing out on luck. I had stopped making videos years ago. I justified it as aging out — it was too hard to make the leap from LEGO to live-action video.
My envy led to insecurity. I didn’t realize that the pressure I felt was my own. I had expectations for myself that I couldn’t meet. The enormity of starting scared me, but I still longed to fulfill that part of my identity. I would feign knowledge on movies I’d never seen, lamenting the possibility of being called out on my inscrutable tendency to say, “I’ve seen it!”
I desperately wanted to be recognized as a filmmaker, but I refused to take my school’s video production class. The thought of confronting my capabilities and learning how they compared to my expectations terrified me. Without evidence of my inexperience, I could claim superiority and critique the creativity of others. I was in a state of willful ignorance for several years. In hindsight, these were protective measures to shield my ego in.
I always had the support of my family. When I told my parents that I wanted to attend film school, they were as pleased for me as if I had declared medical studies. I knew that I wanted to make films, but to do that I needed to confront the unknown and get to work. A short film isn’t a creative miracle – it’s a product of a mechanical process. The steps existed, I just needed to follow them. Film demands effort, and I needed to repeat the processes over and over to develop skills and eventually my style.
But at 18, I was insecure and lazy. I lied about having written screenplays to my friends and family, and repeatedly cast my friends in perpetually upcoming productions. I sought instant gratification because I doubted my potential. My negativity permeated through the barriers of my own self-esteem and its symptoms rose in my romantic life. My former partner knew I was struggling because my jealousy was apparent. I was concerned about the time she was spending with others and struggling with feelings of unworthiness and self-loathing. As she made progress in her own creative endeavors, I wondered why it scared me to see her improve.
University was an opportunity to change that. I could stop procrastinating and make meaningful strides toward becoming a filmmaker. I knew I wanted to major in English literature, but I told myself I would take film as a minor and do my best to split the disciplines equally term-to-term. I took a few film courses and participated in interesting discussions with my peers. It felt good to talk with others about movies I had always admired. Even without experiencing any hands-on video production in our courses, I began to associate the idea of filmmaking with a positive feeling for the first time in years.
A professor named Jonah Corne taught all of my film courses at the University of Manitoba. In my third and final year of study, he introduced us to a filmmaker whose work transformed my attitude toward creativity.
Dziga Vertov, a Soviet documentary filmmaker, believed the camera had a preternatural ability to discern the truth. Vertov viewed the camera as the ultimate tool for capturing reality. He argued it was far more confident than human memory. Vertov co-opted Karl Marx’s sentiments, proclaiming drama on film to be an “opiate for the masses.” Unlike his Soviet contemporaries like Sergei Eisenstein, whose influence on montage-style filmmaking would inspire franchises like Rocky, Vertov was determined to use the camera as a tool to affect human nature. Vertov preached that the camera had the power to liberate the operator’s mind, allowing an individual to observe life in an objective way. Vertov believed that achieving this consciousness was a responsibility everyone shared, and he often promoted the camera as a tool for social and economic revolt. It was his wish to decipher the world around us or turn himself from “a bumbling citizen through the poetry of the machine to the perfect electric man.”
I was enamoured with Vertov’s work. After we screened Man with a Movie Camera (1929) in class, I bought books and did all I could to absorb Vertov’s philosophy. I was struck by his pragmatism. His readings taught me that the camera was a device that could not function without my input. I considered the possibility of reframing my perspective through the lens of my camera. I wanted to test Vertov’s thesis: that through the act of mechanical labor, evolution would occur.
Broadway Avenue – December 21, 2021.
Objective: A study on composition, or how to pick up a camera for the first time.
I wanted to have Vertov’s eye for composition. Despite its speed of sixteen choppy frames per second, Man with a Movie Camera flowed with authenticity. Vertov chose to spotlight the mundane and regular. With my camera in hand, I found myself staring at things differently. I was reading the lines of buildings stacked against the blue sky and waiting for slices of light to appear on the sidewalks. I bristled against the wind, clutching my mirrorless camera and a flimsy tripod. These tools were new to me, and I was eager to use them.
I planted the legs of my tripod in the snow. My eyes wandered. I had always wanted to observe things like a filmmaker, but today I was looking for the truth. I watched for the objective truths of Winnipeg. With patience and care, I began to construct images that were evocative of what it felt like to inhabit this city. A Sedan spun its tires. Months of gravel spun up into a slush as the rubber fought futilely against a divot. Several cars took a left, each less certain than the last as the slick roads tested the efficacy of their all-season and winter tires. Steam rose from rooftops indiscriminately. The Legislative Building was covered in white, and on the snow sat a stone pedestal from which a bronze Queen Victoria had been toppled that summer. Red handprints dressed the pale rock, bright against the snow.
I thought about Vertov’s anthropological cinema, and how the images he captured tried to emulate memory alongside reality. Aspects of reality could be dramatized. I directed my camera at the street around me to construct my first montage. I felt inspired. I looked around. I wanted to find a story about memories. I hadn’t expected the adrenaline rush associated with that search. It was difficult to entertain the thought of anything else, constructing a collective consciousness in the image of a shuffling, shivering Winnipegger.
Once home, I reviewed the footage. I was overwhelmed with passion for the project I’d taken on. As I scrubbed through the raw footage, I imagined the reactions of my parents when they had seen my montage. It was far from the feature-length blockbuster I’d imagined at the age of three, but my heart threatened to pulse through my chest with anticipation. For the first time, I found something I was good at. I lacked a lot of the technical knowledge that I am now acquiring in my coursework and practice, but I had shocked myself with the ease of that afternoon on Broadway. I wasn’t preoccupied with what was technically correct. My eyes identified images that felt evocative of my own experiences. I had never considered I might have a perspective to share before that afternoon.
Dziga Vertov taught “kino-pravda,” or “film truth” to his contemporaries and followers. I felt spiritually linked to Vertov’s quest for personal revolution, and after that day I began to wield my camera often. I felt like a kinok — one of Vertov’s followers — just a century too late for the lesson. Still, the philosophy was clear, and I questioned how far I could stretch the therapeutic nature of the day’s exercise. It may have been as simple as creating a routine for myself, but I bought into the idea of my eyes as imperfect machines, made obsolete by the perfect one in my hands. My camera was a tool. As the months wound on, the only way to lift my mood was to reframe the world around me through the lens of my camera. I uploaded my work to social media.
It took patience. Vertov removed himself from the process in his writing. He treated the camera like a disembodied organ. It operated like a body part, or more precisely, an eye and the brain. That relationship took work, too, and I would stand barefoot on the carpet with my camera cradled in both palms. My fingers propped the device up, steadying it as I turned slowly on my heels. I wanted to perfect the handheld look. I couldn’t accept any bump or jitter — nothing that would remind the viewer of their role as an audience member.
Vertov wanted to uncover an unknown truth about reality. It was his mission, and now mine, to “capture life unaware.” Vertov promised to “explode art’s tower of Babel.” I just wanted to emulate my memories. I took Vertov’s words literally — radical methods could produce radical results, and with the guidance of readings I hoped to capture an empathetic emotional quality Vertov called “inaccessible to the human eye.”
I arranged my footage differently from how the human eye would typically perceive images. I used montage to create a visual message, describing the story with specific cuts and movements the human eye could not replicate. I found a rhythm in the raw footage. At this stage, I was still focused on learning the basics of camera movement. As I practiced a panning shot, I found a connection between two images: a shot of the Legislative Building, and a shot of Dalnavert, the historic museum off Broadway. Nothing linked these two locations besides proximity until I noticed how naturally the motion of two shots fit together. Hours after I put my camera away, I was finding the story in the edit. The search was electric.
Caron Park – April 26, 2022
Objective: To refine my eye for composition and take my time.
I was steadier with the tripod this time. I hadn’t calmed any and my heart was still racing. My throat felt tight. I didn’t acknowledge the immense stress in the moment. It wasn’t until I reviewed the footage and heard the raw audio of my ragged breath that I realized I was almost panting.
Learning to manage the nervous energy I felt while shooting led to more interesting compositions. I found snow melting into slushy wet puddles and dead branches growing so saturated and wet that they collapsed. I found these images with patience, turning the camera in my hands as I paced and watched for movement in the woods. It wasn’t enough to plant my tripod and shoot the path. I crouched in. I felt the cold as my knee sank into the snow while I brought the mechanical eye nearer to the subject. To convey the feeling of this environment, I had to appeal to memory. I brought evocative imagery to the forefront and captured b-roll of sliding ice as warm spring crept over the landscape.
I remembered our discussions in Jonah’s class that day. I thought back to when we learnt that Vertov, distinctly devoted to objectivity, sometimes staged his shots and purposefully edited the film to depict a reality created by his art. Vertov thought that documentary style of film required emotional context. He hoped a viewer would see a frame from his films and feel an emotional connection to the place, subject, or circumstances depicted.
It wasn’t long after I began to post my montages online that I felt the gratification of my effort. I had always wanted to be known as a “camera guy,” and people were beginning to see me that way. My short videos, only simple montages of nature and everyday life, gathered appreciation. My family and friends would leave supportive comments, and I was satisfied watching the number of likes grow. My identity finally felt justified. I felt image-obsessed, but I was proud of my work. I continued to create montages while experimenting with narrative short films for the first time in class.
Some of the techniques I noticed in Vertov’s work were taught in college, and others were criticized for their obtuseness. It was a fair criticism, but I stayed devoted to the montage work and “film-truth” in small projects in my own time. I began to select themes to centre them around, but not consciously. It wasn’t until I had collected all the footage that I would piece a story together through editing. I wondered if I was noticing the hidden narratives Vertov said his techniques could evoke.
Beaudry Park – July 8, 2022
Objective: Make the story my own.
The park was a beautiful green that afternoon. Every bloom was protruding, and the colours leapt onto my eye in lush tones. I was determined to document the beauty, so I smeared Vaseline across the lens of my camera. The thin layer — not shining, but viscously dull — brought a haze to the images. It swept over bright green stems and sublime yellow flowers and brought context to the joy of nature. The shot took on a warm tone, and every shadow was dim and fuzzy. The contrast between colours was diminished, leaving a pastel quality in the images.
I had disrupted the objectivity Vertov often called for, but I was also conveying the truth he demanded. A typical shot could never convey the humid heat as it hung atop the flowers and hovered with the bees. The hazy camera eye with my slight modification felt more honest.
It felt good to shoot with intention. I found myself thinking about how I might arrange the footage later to evoke what I felt that afternoon at Caron Park. I knew my friends would want to see it and would comment fondly on my effort. It felt good to have that validation in reach — it wasn’t so elusive anymore. I knew what that felt like now.
Finding my own style allowed me to navigate the disillusionment of my late adolescence. As I began to view the camera as a tool for change, I was able to reframe my mindset through montage filmmaking. In each vignette, I sought to explain an emotion or convey the sensation of the setting. I hoped the film would be like a footprint, the obvious evidence of a past event, impressions of my memory.
Filmmaking is how I show my truth. If I can observe, stay patient, and keep using my mechanical eye, I just might learn to catch life unaware.