Saul’s Long Shadow

A Regina film and arts icon gets his turn in the spotlight

Film | by Gregory Beatty

art

Anecdotal Evidence: The Work Of Gerald Saul
Art Gallery Of Regina
Until Aug. 27

If you’re a fan of Canadian film, you’ll be pumped to know Atom Egoyan will be in Regina in November to open an installation called Steenbeckett at the MacKenzie Gallery and participate in a broader international conference titled Meet in the Middle: Stations of Migration and Memory Between Art and Film.

Co-organized with numerous community partners by Elizabeth Matheson of the Strandline Curatorial Collective and the University of Regina’s Christine Ramsay, Meet In The Middle (MITM) consists of 12 events (or “stations”) that started in 2014 and will run until January 2017.

Station six is at the Art Gallery of Regina right now, and it’s a good one — a 30-year retrospective on the career of Regina filmmaker Gerald Saul.

Saul’s influence extends beyond his own work as a filmmaker. He’s a long-time member of the Saskatchewan Filmpool Cooperative and, perhaps more influentially, has taught for over 15 years at the University of Regina.  The shadow he’s cast on the local (and national!) arts scene is a large one.

Setting The Scene

First up: what’s Meet In The Middle’s curatorial focus? “[It] is on memory, migration and trauma and what it means for people to move — whether it’s because of genocide, and being forced to move, or choosing to emigrate, and the kind of traumas that go with that as you enter a new culture,” says Ramsey.

Whether fleeing war and oppression, or poverty and deprivation, millions of people are on the move around the world at any given moment, so MITM couldn’t be more timely. As the theme developed, Ramsay adds, Egoyan, who is of Canadian-Armenian descent, leapt naturally to mind.

“Not only is his work strongly connected to the Armenian genocide [perpetrated by the Turkish Ottoman Empire during World War I], but his characters are always undergoing different types of trauma whether it’s framed personally or politically,” Ramsey says.

As a filmmaker, Egoyan has 15 features to his credit and over 20 shorts and TV movies. In keeping with MITM’s secondary theme of exploring the intersection of art and film, though, Steenbeckett is a film installation. It was first mounted at London’s Museum of Mankind in 2002, and consists of a labyrinth-like structure of rolling film stock.

The title includes pun-like nods to “Steenbeck”, which is a well-known film editing machine, and Irish playwright/novelist Samuel Beckett who is famous for his dark outlook on the human condition.

Art & Film

Over the last few decades, says Ramsay, curators have wrestled with how to present film and video in a gallery setting. In a pop culture context, those media are usually experienced on a large screen in a darkened theatre or on a small screen at home.

What works there, though, doesn’t necessarily translate to a gallery exhibition.

Instead of arriving at a designated time to see a film/video from start-to-finish, for instance, gallery-goers wander freely and might arrive (or leave) at any point in a screening. Other art works are also competing for their attention, so a conventional installation strategy, be it through a projection on a screen or transmission on a TV, often struggles to engage viewers.

Steenbeckett neatly sidesteps that conundrum by focussing exclusively on the physical properties of film.

Saul’s exhibition Anecdotal Evidence, conversely, features a more conventional approach to viewer engagement, with numerous works screening simultaneously.

The exhibition includes two late-1980s feature films: Wheat Soup (co-directed with Brian Stockton) and Life Is Like Lint, as well as some thematically-driven shorts from his Angst, Doubt, Dread and Toxic film cycles. There are also some audio recordings from an early 1990s project where Saul set up an answering machine and asked callers to reveal their deepest fears and anxieties, plus some archival and prop materials related to the works on display and other projects.

The material is presented in multiple formats to enhance viewer engagement, but the exhibition is still daunting. To see every scrap of film, listen to every audio recording, and properly view all the other material would probably take half a day. That’s an 12 investment the typical gallery-goer would be hard-pressed to make.

Taken as a whole, though, says Ramsay, Saul’s work fits neatly within Meet In The Middle’s central theme.

“Experimental, more art film forms is what we’re interested in,” she says. “But there’s also a sense of Gerald’s work touching on the idea of the Saskatchewan gothic and anxiety around white settler life and the way people came to this land.”

As the western Canadian frontier opened up in the late 19th century, people from Europe were enticed to emigrate by government and corporate propaganda that painted a picture of the prairies as a settled land with bucolic villages and a genteel lifestyle.

When immigrants arrived, of course, the reality was much different.

“They gritted it out living 10 miles from each other, and all the mental illness that came from that,” says Ramsay. “Gerald’s work has a real sense of that gothic prairie idiosyncrasy where people are half crazy. It’s playful, but there’s also a sense of bleakness.”

Settlement wasn’t just traumatic for immigrants, of course. It also had massively tragic consequences for the Indigenous population that experienced colonization and displacement from their traditional lands, lifestyle and culture.

That topic will be addressed at a Meet In The Middle symposium that will be held in conjunction with the Egoyan opening in early November. Several panels are planned, says Ramsay. One interesting one will feature local filmmakers Janine Windolph and Trudy Stewart — who have documented the legacy of the Regina Indian Industrial School in a project called RIIS From Amnesia.

Other panels will look at links between Armenia and Saskatchewan, the challenge of curating film and video in a gallery, and Egoyan’s body of film installation work.

“We’ve got these international Egoyan scholars coming, and some local people, and it’s going to be a four-day extravaganza,” says Ramsay. “And we’re going to be exhausted at the end of it.”

For more information on Meet In The Middle, see mitmproject.info.