Lights, camera…Lunenburg Doc Fest!

by Janice Middleton

  • <p>File photo</p><p>The Song and The Sorrow produced by the National Film Board features PEI musician Catherine MacLellan.</p>

The Lunenburg Doc Fest has "quadrupled" its budget in size since its modest beginnings in 2014 and now attracts close to 4,000 visitors compared with about 1,900 in its first year, organizers say.

The fifth annual film showcase that takes place at the Opera House and other venues from September 20 to 23 is a mix of documentaries, short films and workshops. It's praised by filmmakers and festival participants alike as a unique event that provides a forum for all that helps to grow the arts and entertainment industry, says Pamela Segger, executive director and programmer.

"For films that don't have major studio support, festivals like Lunenburg provide a level of awareness and access to audiences that would be sorely lacking otherwise," says documentary filmmaker Leon Lee.

Its also widely appreciated by the local business community. Vicki Buckley, proprietor of Shop on the Corner, says the film festival generates invaluable extra revenue for local businesses at a time of year when tourists are fewer and the business community is having to adjust to the shoulder season when business tapers off.

"Doc Fest is one of the best events that has come to Lunenburg," she said, adding "This helps us to remain open year round and keep four people employed all winter."

Aside from its artistic merits, the festival provides an economic shot in the arm to many of the film directors, says Millefiore Clarkes who wrote and directed The Song and The Sorrow produced by the National Film Board and features musician Catherine MacLellan. Both Clarkes and MacLellan are from Prince Edward Island.

Daughter of Canadian singer and song writing legend Gene MacLellan, Catherine grew up in the midst of well-known and talented musicians. MacLellan's song Snowbird, made famous by Anne Murray, defined a generation. Canadians who head south in the winter are universally known as snowbirds.

MacLellan's songs, Put Your Hand in the Hand, The Call, Pages of Time and Thorn in My Shoe are an intrinsic part of the canon of western music. Murray, Lennie Gallant, and the late Ron Hynes were friends and played with MacLellan. Elvis Presley, Joan Baez and Bing Crosby were among the many artists who recorded MacLellan's songs.

His death in 1995 by suicide at age 56 came when Catherine was 14. The Song and The Sorrow premiering at Lunenburg DocFest explores her loss and her father's legacy.

The 75-minute film, three years in the making, is "an emotional journey," Clarkes said in an interview. "It was Catherine's idea. She was nervous (about talking to people about his suicide) but finally really ready to open up about it."

Catherine is determined to lift the oppressive burden of silence that accompanies the stigma of mental illness, Clarkes said.

Through archival footage and interviews with friends, family, and musicians, the film reveals a troubled and loving man who was never at ease with fame or money. Clarkes and MacLellan had worked together before and were conscious of not veering into exploitation or manipulation but felt that in making the story "we and the audience could take a little courage from it.

"It's a fine balance."

A familiar participant in the annual Lunenburg Folk Festival that takes place in August, Catherine is in Lunenburg Friday at Doc Fest for a free concert at the Lunenburg Heritage Bandstand immediately before the screening. MacLellan's latest album If It's Alright With You: The Songs of Gene MacLellan was released on June 30, 2017.

Clarkes next film project, which she is pitching to potential backers at Doc Fest, is "love-conversations and vignettes, everything and anything conveying love."

Another offering at this year's festival is Letter From Masanjia from director and producer Leon Lee. The film proves one secret message can make international waves and bring the harsh realities of Chinese labour camps to light.

"I was intrigued by the story of an SOS note from a Chinese labour camp turning up in a box of Halloween decorations in Oregon and knew Western audiences would connect with the American mother who found it," Lee says. "Being from China myself, I knew that his story must be especially poignant - Masanjia is China's most notorious labour camp.

"When I tracked down the author of the letter, I knew this one-in-a-million human rights 'message in a bottle' story had so much potential to help turn the tide of oppression in China. My hope is that the worldwide attention and pressure created by the film will have the same monumental impact that Sun Yi's SOS letter had, or more so, in helping to end the persecution of Falun Gong practitioners, Tibetans, Christians and democracy activists in China."

It's Lee's first time at Lunenburg DocFest, and being on hand to see how viewers react to his work is important.

"For films that don't have major studio support, festivals like Lunenburg DocFest provide a level of awareness and access to audiences that would be sorely lacking otherwise. Festivals are always a crucial step in my plan for how to introduce as many like-minded people as possible to the stories I'm entrusted with. Plus, the thought-provoking atmosphere of a festival like Lunenburg goes hand-in-hand with my hope that the film will spark real action and change.

Rachel Bower, Director of LUNENBURG: Where the Land Meets the Sea, which premiered in 2017, had high praise for Lunenburg Doc Fest. "Over the years I have been to many film festivals, but I had no idea that the best one was so close to home. Thank you Lunenburg Doc Fest for achieving the perfect mix of documentary films, workshops, hospitality and strong sense of community."

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