By STEVE MARTINDALE
For Salt Spring Film Festival Society
Travel from the top of Alaska to the tip of Tierra del Fuego, pull back the dance curtain to reveal tumultuous behind-the-scenes drama, and join legendary 1970s musicians both on stage and backstage in three award-winning documentaries at ArtSpring this month and next.
The Salt Spring Film Festival’s annual Best of the Fests film series begins on Wednesday, Nov. 15 with Chelsea McMullan’s award-winning documentary Swan Song, which immerses viewers in Karen Kain’s epic struggle — in the midst of the pandemic and on the eve of her retirement as artistic director of the National Ballet of Canada — to mount a glorious production of Swan Lake, which had originally launched her career as a world-famous ballerina over half a century ago.
With an intimate, character-driven approach, Swan Song interweaves the dramatic creation process with scenes from the dancers’ personal lives, through challenging setbacks, creative conflicts and devastating injuries. Contentious racial politics and a pointed push for equity are deftly explored, as some of the strongest emerging ballerinas are young women of colour, challenging ballet’s Eurocentric ideals of beauty, perfection and conformity.
Anyone with an interest in the creative process — and the joyful and occasionally exasperating challenges of inter-generational collaboration — won’t want to miss seeing septuagenarian Kain and her enormously talented ensemble of young dancers, choreographers, set builders and costume designers grapple with time constraints, unexpected delays and potentially explosive identity politics.
Presented by co-director Sean O’Neill, who will be in attendance on Nov. 15 from Toronto, Swan Song made its world premiere at the recent Toronto International Film Festival and was subsequently named Best Canadian Documentary at the Calgary International Film Festival.
Prior to working in film, O’Neill worked for a decade in various roles at the Art Gallery of Ontario, ultimately serving as its director of public programs and cultural partnerships. From 2017 to 2020, he co-created the CBC documentary series In the Making, serving as both host and executive producer. Bringing viewers inside the lives and work of leading artists at pivotal moments of creation, In the Making earned three Canadian Screen Award nominations, winning for Best Cinemaphotography.
O’Neill produced the documentary Crystal Pite: Angels’ Atlas, which premiered at the Vancouver International Film Festival last year where it won the Showcase Audience Award, and which would have been included in the 2023 Salt Spring Film Festival if it hadn’t first been broadcast on CBC last November.
Two weeks later, on Nov. 29 at ArtSpring, join seemingly fearless globe-trotter Matty Hannon as he embarks upon a daunting 50,000 -kilometre solo journey down the entire West Coast of the Americas in search of the best surfing beaches, traveling initially by motorcycle, in the award-winning Australian documentary The Road to Patagonia.
Hannon’s epic adventure doesn’t go quite as planned, as along the way he experiences breakdowns and detours, and unexpectedly falls in love right here in B.C. when he meets organic farmer Heather Hillier, who spontaneously follows Hannon south to his Patagonian destination, ultimately travelling through South America on horseback with their surfboards precariously strapped to their saddles.
Somewhat remarkably, the Salt Spring Film Festival is presenting the international premiere of this award-winning film, which was named both Best Film and Best Documentary at the Byron Bay International Film Festival and which won the Audience Choice Award at the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival, and which no one in the world outside of Australia has yet had the opportunity to see.
While the Best of the Fests series usually brings you the latest releases from the international film festival circuit, don’t miss a very rare opportunity to see a beloved blast from the past on the big screen when The Last Waltz — which is widely considered the greatest concert film of all time — is presented on Dec. 6 at ArtSpring with newly remastered 5.1 audio and HD video quality.
Calling it quits with a lavish farewell show at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom in late 1976, The Band’s final performance was captured for posterity by director Martin Scorsese.
The film boasts guest performances by an astonishing roster of musical talent, including Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Emmylou Harris, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Neil Diamond, the Staples Singers and Muddy Waters. Re-released across Canada to celebrate the life of Canadian musician Robbie Robertson, who died in August at the age of 80, this special screening will be co-presented by the Gulf Islands Community Radio Society.
Tickets ($13) for each film are available via ArtSpring, online or through the box office.