Giving People The Power To Tell Their Story

“Well, I came to Montreal when I started university in ’84. My first love and interest was visual arts so I did a BFA at Concordia, or part of one before I went rogue for 12 years. Then, as you said, I had a real passion for the Montreal music scene. I worked as freelance photographer in the early days at the Montreal Mirror.

My favorite was photographing bands, doing some editorials as well, cover shots. These are all sort of external elements outside of the fine art scene to support my fine art interest. I printed T-shirts and sold them at Dutchy’s Record Cave and the famous Saint-Laurent vinyl shop. Then, as I said, I progressed into music. I had several bands and followed the scene very closely around Station 10, Foufounes and whatnot.

Later in life, I went back to finish off my BFA and I had been introduced to filmmaking. What I particularly like about being a filmmaker now, it’s the culmination of all my interests. The visual arts, music, and storytelling, which I’ve always loved. Giving voice to people, giving people the power to tell their own story, everyday people, really was important to me.”

Preserving The History of Griffintown

“My first experience down here in the territory was McAuslan Brewery. I was invited to be the artist in residence. It was a wonderful story of entrepreneur businessmen meeting with entrepreneur artists. Peter and I became good friends, dear friends. I proposed that I would do a body of work on the past and the present of Lachine Canal, what it was in its industrial era and what it has become in its post-industrial era. And Peter entertained me.

After losing three studios to condo projects, he offered me the second floor of his visitor’s center. It was at that visitor’s center that I launched myself into the urbanism of Montreal, the Lachine Canal as a waterway, and, more specifically, the people of this territory. As a Master’s thesis project, it was my thesis advisor, Laurie Blair, who suggested, “You should really do something on Griffintown.” I had another idea in mind and she tailored that.

She was very wise to do so. Out of that, ensued a short doc called Dans l’Griff, which is a three-generational story about the Mercier family. All their stories elicited from their personal photographs, from their photo albums, and filming them on location with the photographs that are eliciting the memories of what life was like ’cause that life is gone.

My idea with their documentary was to show the past and the present. In order to familiarize myself with Griffintown, I did something called the Griffintown Tour. It was 21 short films of Griffintown. I picked out 21 architectural sites and I had a PhD, a guy named Matthew Barlow, who was specializing in the Irishification of Griffintown. Matthew told a social history while doing this walking tour that I devised.

I thought the best way to understand the territory and the landscape is not only through the historian but through the buildings themselves. That’s now online. It’s a wonderful project. I occasionally get emails from ex-Griffintowners that have mobility issues, living in old folks’ homes that have you saying, “Thank you, Mr. MacLeod, for preserving our history. I remember the Lowney Chocolate and the Dow Brewery scandal and the Liberator crashing.” It was very important for me to humanize that territory.”

Buildings Should Be Inclusive Spaces

“I think it’s inevitable that the condos were coming. We saw it in Vancouver. We saw it in Toronto, as you said. It came to Montreal. As a result, I did, in fact, lose three buildings. Two of them have been knocked down, one for the Ville-Marie. I cycled by one today that’s not there anymore, with the expansion. It’s inevitable with new urban planning and change, we’re gonna lose part of our patrimoine and our history.

I also believe in projects like this building (Complexe Dompark) or Saint Ambroise buildings, how they get repurposed. I saw this in Griffintown with the Lowney Chocolate building, which has been turned into condos. There’s a positive takeaway when we value our history. Being someone who’s interested in history, showcasing or highlighting stories around the people that worked in there, the laborers, themselves, or the industry and what if offered to the community.

Because a lot of these buildings, let’s put it this way, without the Lachine Canal, for instance, you wouldn’t have any of these communities. You wouldn’t have Saint-Henri, you wouldn’t have Burgundy, you wouldn’t have Griffintown. The industry brought the people and the people came to work in those factories. Now, the idea of what you do with those buildings after, it’s kind of at the hands of the Ville de Montreal and developers, people who have a vision like this place, where they turn it into something multifunctional.

Because the sole use in the industrial areas, you had a building that made leather works or made glass or metal. And to divvy them up into condos is one thing, but to, like you said, to hang on to the cultural aspect of the building or the historical aspect and use them for meeting places. Going down to McKiernan’s for lunch today, how fantastic that is. These are the commons that all good, thriving societies have. I know Jane Jacobs talked quite a bit about this in Toronto, that to have multilevel incomes is essential to a healthy territory, healthy community.

What we’re seeing now is build it, they will come scenario. That’s what we’re seeing. Now we’re seeing the cafes and the restaurants and stuff. We hope that there will be a better plan moving forward for these kinds of urban scenarios. It’s finding the tax base to pay for all the luxuries and all this stuff, that’s important. Social housing, low-income housing, affordable housing and condos should all be inclusive. That’s my opinion, my take on it.”

Diversity Is A Strength

“Where I live in NDG, my neighbors on either side, one are from refugees from San Francisco and the other ones are refugees from Brooklyn. Both of them left for this very reason. The artists, the restaurateurs, the small mom and pop shops make a neighborhood what it is and then the tech money comes in and everyone gets pushed out.

That shouldn’t have to be the case. I think there’s a compromise. I think there’s a way to create a commons, like I said, the stratified price points on buying and renting. When you have that, you have a greatness. That’s why people move to those neighborhoods, in the first place, because of their unique character, architecturally, ’cause of the diversity. You see it in nature. You see diversity is a strength. Monoculture is a weakness.

I think condos are nice but all those people in the condos in Griffintown are gonna want the nice food, they’re gonna want the pubs to go to, they’re gonna want art galleries, they’re gonna want my Griffintown tour, you know? Why not? It’s coming.”

It’s Essential To Mix It Up With Other Countries

“The film board, I should give credit to them. The filmmakers assistants program was an opportunity for somebody who didn’t do film school, like me, without that program. Those post-production in-kind funds really enabled me to explore, make mistakes, and learn through the process. Where, maybe it would have been a bit different going right into hardcore industry, where a mistake means that you’re gone, you’re off the set.

I had that kind of latitude, which I think was essential to my growth. Our work has gone to Ireland, it’s gone to Netherlands, France, Germany, the States, across Canada. It’s essential to mix it up with other countries, as I was saying before.”

Personal Demeanor & Gratitude Goes A Long Way

“Yeah, I think their mandate really fit in with the type of work that I wanted to do. National Film Board Canada has always been interested in Canadian stories and stories that deal with everyday people, culture, history, things from other cultures and histories, as well. It’s had a large mandate that really fit in with my interests.

It was a good fit for me. I don’t think it’s for everyone, but you’re going in to work with a technician who’s wiser than you are on your topic or in your level of production, whatever stage of your post that you’re in. For me, oh, you’re the guy that did such-and-such a film. I love that film. I’m gushing over the technician, where the Hollywood model’s a bit the other way around. I guess, going in there with a certain level of humility and saying like, “I didn’t study this. This is my first film. I’m coming into this, I’m open to get your feedback.” Kind of a change in a room when you present yourself in that capacity.

I think that was a strength for me because, what it did, is it, all of a sudden, they would go the extra mile. I think personal relations and how you work with people, your personal demeanor is and showing gratitude, all these things, it goes a long way. It’s something I learned through my career and it’s only brought good things and good experiences and great people.

I grew up with some fantastic editors and camera people and stuff. Because it’s not the high-budget filmmaking either, it’s made me do a lot of things that, I don’t fall under one title, as just the director. I produced, directed, animated, line produced, got on camera, so it’s nice to have had the opportunity to be in someone else’s shoes, as well. Again, it brings a certain level of humility to the practice.

I love the teamwork of filmmaking, too. That’s another thing. You know yourself. It’s not about one individual that drives the project or makes things work. It’s about the team effort and working collectively. I knew that from being a musician but I didn’t know that from being an artist. An artist was very solo, very solitary.

I worked in an art collective at one point, which was like being in a band with all its chicane and its good and bad. Filmmaking, I don’t know, not saying that doesn’t exist there, too. It seems that everyone’s role’s really defined so you know where you stand, you know what your job is. I feel well in filmmaking, for that reason.”

Many Learning Opportunities at E.K. Voland Art Gallery

“It was cool you brought up about the Voland art gallery. I haven’t exhibited myself, personally, in it, but I know women’s painting groups and stuff like that that have used that facility to rent and I think, when there’s a glut in spaces, that’s a very useful service to offer. If you’re not in a high-end gallery or a low-end gallery, you wanna show your work, you’re an emerging painter or artist of sorts, photographer, what have you. That’s a great thing. You pay your money down. You have your space and it’s up to you to learn how to promote, to hang it, to do all that.

It’s a great learning opportunity, too. I’m big on that, as well. Learning how to hang your show properly. How do you get people to come to your show? Preparing your invitation, your press release, going to the media. That, whether they know it or not, they’re offering that service to people who are in that state of their career, which I think is really cool. I’m glad to hear that.”

Old Factories Becoming Art Spaces

“I had a studio which has since, one of the buildings that was knocked down on the street called de Richelieu on the corner of College Street, right below the Ville-Marie Expressway. It was actually in Westmount, so I had pool pass privileges. Literally, I’d walk out the building and I’d step into Saint-Henri but our building was, in fact, in Westmount so I’d access the library and all the amenities.

To them, they were kinda socked when I told them my address at the Westmount library, like, “I didn’t know we were acquiring new streets.” I said, “Well, you’re not. I live in Westmount, but in a factory.” In order to make some money, I had about 4,000 square feet in that building and we would have bands come. We would kind of establish a kiddie to raise money to upgrade, paint the building, what have you. ‘Cause we would show inside the space.

The guy who owned it before me had a framing business and he had subdivided a bunch of spaces so, when I took over the space, I was able to rent out rooms to other artists in the neighborhood. I’d help subsidize my income in the early years, when I was in my thirties, I guess.

I had a dark room in there and we’d do shows. We had parking in front. It was the early days, 80s, 90s in Montreal where you could get big, industrial space cheap. We took full advantage of it. It was like Andy Warhol’s factory in there. We had people coming and going. All kinds of parties, bands playing, keggers, the whole bit. It was a lot of fun.”

The Montreal Passport Helps Us Connect

“I’m so glad my parents moved me here. My dad was from Cape Breton and my mother was from Southern Alberta. I used to go back to both those provinces as a young boy every summer to hang with my grandparents. It was no accident my parents chose multicultural Montreal because they wanted to give us something they didn’t have, which, one was getting a second language.

We moved here in 1970 during the October crisis, of all things, and my dad put us into a French Catholic school and I remember going in and there was this huge crucifix on the facade of the building and the directrice was a nun. My sister and I were sitting on either side of my dad and I just remember her saying, even at a young age, in grade two, however old you are in grade two.

The woman saying, “But Mr. MacLeod, you can send your kids to English school.” And he says, “No, I want my kids to have the French language. The French language is the portal into the culture. Without the language, they don’t have the culture.” Right at the onset, having two languages enabled me to shimmy back and forth, have a foot in both worlds, as it were. That really helped, in the art scene, in the music scene.

That’s something that Montreal had that no other city had in North America, to my knowledge. There’s Latinos in L.A. that have both languages in that capacity but, as Canadians, this is a very unique thing. I find it funny, Montrealers, you argue over two languages, but most people I grew up with spoke three, four, five languages. It’s kind of a unique paradigm, an ancient one that goes back. Being part of this city, I love representing that part of my cultural mosaic.

My Scottish-Irish and speaking these two languages, as my passport to outside of Montreal. That was one thing I noticed when I traveled for art residencies, exhibitions, what have you. When I was in Italy, I knew what gnocchi was. I had had prosciutto. I knew a good wine. We went to Spain, oh that’s paella. In the pubs in Ireland, I had frequented enough pubs here to know what a good pint of Guinness was and, if there’s no head on it, it’s not worth drinking.

These were little nuances that we take with us as Montrealers, that we have this passport. It enables us to at least have a segue, or an entrance into a conversation. I think, as human beings, we’re looking for what connects us, what are our common elements. Montrealers can consider themselves very fortunate, if you were open to it, that you had this passport. I’m very proud to have had that passport and still have that passport and carry it with me.”

The Lachine Canal – Gateway to Industrialized Canada

“I think Lachine Canal is the gateway to industrialized Canada. Without the Lachine Canal, there would have been no Canada. Our roots in the fur trade, export of goods, the movement of goods. Lachine Canal opened up mid-1800s and closed in the 1950s. The Saint Lawrence Seaway took over. It was the little brother that could and gave great amounts to the empire and also created this great city. It was a trade city, Montreal.

I think the Lachine Canal, it’s wonderful that Parks Canada have taken it over and they’ve made it a pleasure place. I love taking the cycling path along Lachine Canal. To me, that is one of my religions here, is to do that route to Old Montreal. I think it’s fantastic.”

Diversity In Nature Makes It Strong & Resilient

“What I can see from Montreal or these communities is that there’s a constant flux. There’s a constant change. To quote Shrek, “Change is good, Donkey.” I think the idea that we sort of stagnate into one thing is counterproductive. I like the fluidity of change and what those people that come from away bring. Montreal’s notorious for fusion cuisine, for mixed marriages and all that stuff. That’s what makes us great.

Again, I don’t believe in a monoculture as a society. This city is not a monoculture. It is anything but that. Its diversity is what makes us strong, as diversity in nature is what makes it strong. Makes it resilient. I think Montrealers have that resilience because of that. These are definitive changes that I’ve seen. We’re seeing massive structural changes in the city with the, the cones has become a go-to joke.

I’ve seen orange pylon cone earrings to T-shirts to the works. There’s that resilience from the Montrealer again. How do we deal with something that, basically, drives most people crazy. They will not leave their house unless their cellphone is on Waze or Google Maps ’cause they don’t know how to get from A to B. I think of Terry Mosher, Aislin, he’s always got the great one-frame cartoon that’s gonna say it. He’s had a heyday with the cones and everything else.

That’s part of city changing, growing in numbers, expanding, contracting. I think we’re all richer for it. Look at this winter we just went through. That was the worst ice I’ve ever seen. When you see cars at the same height as the sidewalk because there’s 14 inches of ice. We’re gonna soldier through it. We’re gonna figure out what’s the solution to this. We’re gonna bitch and complain. Eventually it will or won’t get done. But people will still stay here.”

We Must Preserve Our Film Industry

“I remember in the 90s, Ireland had this incredible renaissance of filmmaking. My Left Foot, In the Name of the Father, all these great films are coming. It’s a country of four and a half million people. We’re 30-plus, why can’t we do it, too? Not that we’re not. Quebec has produced some fantastic films, but it was about tax breaks. It was about giving those incentives.

If we don’t give the proper incentives, I was sad to hear in Halifax, that the liberals took out the tax break and it destroyed the film industry that was built up over time. I never wanna see that here. I wanna make sure that those incentives are here. We need foreign money or opportunities for local money to get their tax incentive. Those initiatives have to stay and have to come. Without that, we’ll lose our industry. We’ll lose our talent south of the border and elsewhere.”

More Local Storytelling Is Needed

“This is what Jake Eberts said, “We have so many good Canadian stories that we don’t tell.” That we’ve relied, perhaps, on the Hollywood narrative. His joy was doing things like Black Robe and Education of Little Tree, talking about the indigenous stories. He was a big proponent of that. Talk to your elders. They’re full of stories, find out. Curiosity’s important.

I think we have to be more curious with our investigations and our work. You don’t have to look far. Giving voice to just an everyday person, like I did with the Merciers in Griffintown, they’re like, “Us? Why us? We’re not special.” I said, “No, everybody has something to offer.” It’s up to the makers of these stories, the directors, the producers, and the writers to be true to those and to find the kernels in them that are the gems. We need those gems. We should be looking more locally.”

The Importance of Cross-Cultural Exchanges

“There was a fantastic festival last year. It was like a Nordic festival at Place des Arts. Was it last year or year before? Yeah, two years ago. And I thought, wow, it’s fantastic. They had Sami singers from the north of Scandinavia to classical actresses, films, photo shows, what have you. I think we could attract more. I remember doing that on the Rendez-Vous de Cinéma Québécois, the first year with my After the War with Hannelore doc on the Cold War with Berlin.

You do the mixers and stuff and you’re just among other Quebecois filmmakers. Like, what good is this? Then, happily, when I did my Water of Life feature, we did the mixer and then there was people from Denmark and Brazil and the U.S. and Manitoba and they were looking for content. I think that we have to stop looking in so much and start looking out with our stories and our exchanges.”

We’re All In This Together

“I remember the referendum in ’95, slugging it out for a few years. A lot of galleries closed. I was dependent on gallery income to support myself. Gentrification did come in and I did lose studios because of developers wanting to turn them into condos. I jumped ship. I went to Vancouver for about three years and promptly discovered they have the same issue there. It was not just unique to Montreal.

I did come back. I missed the two languages. Vancouver was not sustainable. It was not doable. It was just too expensive. I think that, again, my father’s foresight in saying, “I want my kids to learn the language.” Helped considerably. I don’t think you can live here without some sort of access through language, that portal. I’m delighted that I had that and I work on the French side of the film board. We’re all in this together. I think that if we have more of that narrative, there’s only good things that can come out of it.”

Meeting Leonard Cohen for The Mirror

“Oh yeah, Leonard Cohen. The man lives up to his reputation. What can I tell you? I was working, it was 1988. I was working for the Montreal Mirror. Newbie on the block. They said, “Okay, here’s your second or third job.” I don’t remember what it was. “You’re going to be going with this guy, Martin Siebrok. He’s gonna be the journalist, you’re the photographer.

You’re gonna do the cover and it’s gonna be Leonard Cohen.” I went, “What? Leonard Cohen, really?” It was I’m Your Man tour. He was wearing the classic shirt with the suit and whatnot. We met him off Park and Prince Arthur. I think it was the Meridian Hotel there, at that time. Just in the back next to the bar, of course. When Martin and I showed up there, he was at the table, very graciously met us and he sat down and he had a bottle of Advil in front of him.

I think he was probably a little hungover from the night before, whatever going ons. He gave us all the time in the world. We were low guys on the totem pole, the Montreal Mirror wasn’t any international magazine, but completely indulged us. As we were going along, I remember squatting down beside the table. I had recently had a tattoo done and, in the point, it was a Celtic cross.

He looked down at me and goes, “Oh, are you Irish?” I said, “Irish-Scottish.” He says, “Oh, no kidding. I was just in Dublin. A friend of mine has a cross just like that. Do you want a drink?” I’m like, a drink? We’re working. I said, “Martin?” He says, “Yeah, every time I do an album, I have this drink called the red needle.” I said, “The red needle? What’s the red needle?” He says, “Well, it’s a bit of tequila, some cranberry juice, some fruit and whatnot, you mix it. I’ll sort it out, I’ll get them to make it for us.” The drinks came.

The conversation carried on. I got my cover shot. I got my insert for him. I had an extra roll of film. This was analog, back in the day. I had motor drive on my camera and I said, “Mr. Cohen, could I indulge you in walking on the street, on Prince Arthur? I’d like to get you, just walking.” He was feeling a bit loose after a few drinks.

So he just charged outta there, walking down Prince Arthur and I’m just banging off the 36 shots, back in those days, you had 36 and that was it. We got what we needed. It was done in a few seconds. Those shots of him walking on the street were in my archive for 30-some years. I happened to meet a woman named Carrie Haber. I was asking Carrie where you’re working.

She said, “Well, we’re doing a walking tour on Leonard Cohen in tandem with the exhibition at the MAC.” I said, “Oh, that’s interesting.” I said, “You know, I just dug up these photos I have of Leonard Cohen, of him walking on Prince Arthur Street.” She says, “You have photos of him walking on Prince Arthur Street? Get me them tomorrow.” I’m like, “Okay, no problem.”

So we scan them, sent them off. She had an animator loop them as part of their walking tour. You can download it on Detour now. There’s a short and a long tour of Leonard Cohen’s Montreal. It’s those photos of him animated with the angel in the background that’s been factored into the animation and him turning to the camera after doing his little dance on Prince Arthur for me. Just as a tribute to the man who all Montrealers love. It was an honor to do that, especially after meeting him. It was a really, he was floating around. His spirit was there and it was great to see that come to fruition.”