CANADA – 2015 – 92 MIN – COLOUR & B&W - FEATURE - IN ENGLISH
A FILM BY BRIAN D. JOHNSON

What does it take to carve out a career as a poet? Why on earth would anyone attempt it? Al Purdy Was Here is the portrait of an artist driven to become a great Canadian poet at a time when the category barely existed. Al Purdy is a charismatic tower of contradictions: a "sensitive man" who whips out a poem in a bar fight; a factory worker who finds grace in an Arctic flower; a mentor to young writers who remained a stranger to sons. Purdy has been called the last, best and most Canadian poet. "Voice of the Land" is engraved on his tombstone. But before finding fame as the country’s unofficial poet laureate, he endured years of poverty and failure.

Born in Wooler, Ontario in 1918, Al was a high-school dropout who hopped freight trains during the Great Depression. He lived all over the country, working in mattress factories. After two decades of writing what he admits was bad poetry, in 1957 he and his wife build an A-frame cabin on Roblin Lake in Ontario's Prince Edward County. There he finds his voice, and surprising success. The A-frame soon becomes a mecca for the early pioneers of Canadian literature, writers like Margaret Laurence, Dennis Lee, Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje. And in this rustic salon, irrigated by Al's wild grape wine, a cultural community takes root.

Now, 15 years after Purdy's death, artists and patrons have rallied to restore his shambling cabin as a writers’ retreat.  It's a quixotic enterprise. But as the A-frame comes back to life, it generates a Purdy revival, and an album of original songs inspired by his life and work. The film features performances by artists including Leonard Cohen, Bruce Cockburn, Gord Downie, Gordon Pinsent, Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, Sarah Harmer, Tanya Tagaq and Joseph Boyden.  The narrative, meanwhile, moves between Purdy's story and the compelling characters bound up in his legacy. They range from his 90-year-old widow, Eurithe—who reflects on their turbulent marriage while overseeing the cabin's restoration with a vigilant eye—to the A-frame’s first resident poet, a spirited young feminist who finds herself conversing with the ghost of an old-school male.
 

 

 

Q&A: Brian D. Johnson offers a refresher course in the work of Al Purdy
Vancouver Sun

Director Brian D. Johnson on creating doc on Canadian poet Al Purdy
Globe and Mail

NNNN "Let’s hope Brian D. Johnson’s excellent documentary about Al Purdy sparks a poetry revival in this country. At the very least it should generate interest in Purdy, who cultivated a regular-guy image while writing poems of the utmost craft."
NOW

Film critic Jason Gorber reviews the Whistler Film Festival, Al Purdy was Here, Carol, and Hitchcock/Truffaut.
CTV News (Video)

"When film critic Brian D. Johnson retired, he became a filmmaker himself. His first project: a documentary about the difficult, brilliant (and strangely forgotten) Canadian poet"
- Ex-Press

"You’ll find the spirit of Al Purdy alive and well"
Times Colonist

3.5 Stars! "first-time director Brian D. Johnson fluidly and idiosyncratically chronicles the life of a reflexive, unschooled man."
Globe and Mail

"Al Purdy makes for a fascinating subject"
CBC.ca

"This documentary may even inspire you – if not to write, then at least to read some of what Purdy left behind."
National Post

"From Critic to Filmmaker: Brian D. Johnson on Al Purdy Was Here"
Dorkshelf

"In Al Purdy Was Here dozens of literary talking heads led by Margaret Atwood bring the charismatic Canadian poet Al Purdy to life with anecdotes, reminiscences and first-hand history but it's the copious video evidence of Purdy himself that makes the best case for his unique voice."
The Whole Note

"A late film “reading” of one of Purdy’s best works from novelist Joseph Boyden and singer Tanya Tagaq is worth the price of admission alone."
Toronto Film Scene

3.5 Stars! "Brian D. Johnson makes a strong transformation from Maclean’s film critic to documentary director with this engaging account of the late Al Purdy, the colourful rebel poet who became a CanLit star."
Toronto Star

"DocFest film Al Purdy Was Here details life of the famed poet" - Interview with director Brian D. Johnson
Inside Belleville

Video Review
The Watchlist

Whistler Film Festival 2015 Interview: AL PURDY WAS HERE director Brian D. Johnson
EFilmCritic

Audio Review
Frameline

"Al Purdy Was Here is a tribute documentary to Purdy, a Canadian literary icon (many consider him Canada's Bukowski) but also a throwback to a time in this country when culture and arts played a more significant role. Mixing a ton of incredible archival footage with a contemporary story about restoring Purdy's old cabin as a writer's retreat, this one features performances from some Canadian greats as they pay tribute to a true legend."
Pique News Magazine

AL PURDY WAS HERE  is the 2nd runner up for TIFF's "People's Choice Award"!

Flavourwire / Cinemablographer / Indiewire / Realscreen / Sun Media / Vice 

Video interview with director Brian Johnson at the Edmonton International Film Festival.
Global News

"The co-writer of TIFF documentary Al Purdy Was Here reflects on decades spent at the festival as a film lover, critic, and now creator"
The Walrus

"The most visible is Brian D. Johnson, until recently a critic for Maclean’s magazine, and still president of the Toronto Film Critics Association. His feature documentary, Al Purdy Was Here, looks at the life of an under appreciated Canadian poet."
National Post

Johnson, a former senior film critic at Maclean’s, successfully interweaves a lot of elements, including the restoration of Al and Eurithe’s A-frame cabin in Prince Edward County for use by poets, the fundraising concert for the restoration and haunting sequences of musicians performing works inspired by Purdy. We also get amusing tweets from Queen’s Park’s @statueofalpurdy.
NOW Magazine

"Al Purdy comes to life in a new documentary"
Macleans

"Al Purdy lives in the present in film premiering at TIFF"
Globe and Mail

"Al Purdy celebrated in new documentary"
CBC.ca

4 (out of 5) "Filmmaker Brian D. Johnson rejuvenates the life and work of Canadian poet Al Purdy in this complex and engaging documentary"
Toronto Sun

"Al Purdy Was Here, Brian D. Johnson’s documentary about the deceased, highly combative Canadian poet, is not only one of the engaging treats in this year’s TIFF Docs program; it’s multi-dimensional."
Toronto Star

"The documentary was made by a man whose name should be familiar to filmgoers everywhere. Brian D. Johnson, who acted as Producer and Director, is one Canada`s leading film critics and cultural commentators. He is also an author, filmmaker, musician and broadcaster."
Northern Stars

"Filmmaker Brian D. Johnson delivers a finely crafted look back on a Canadian literary figure that has sadly slipped a bit in notoriety. Blending talking head-style interviews with performances from those indebted to Purdy’s legacy, Johnson crafts an atypical biopic that looks as much at the artist as those around him."
Toronto Film Scene

Director Brian Johnson talks about his TIFF film, Al Purdy Was Here and the array of feelings he hopes it will evoke. - Video
Tribute.ca

"Q&A: filmmaker Brian D. Johnson on Al Purdy, poetry, and persona"
Quill and Quire

"Al Purdy Was Here exposes Canada’s cultural roots" - Interview with Brian D. Johnson
Toronto Star

"Separating myth from Legend" - An interview with Brian D. Johnson
Toronto Film Scene

"Al Purdy Was Here operates as both an extended eulogy for the scrappy poet as well as an institutional history of the A-frame Prince Edward County cottage Purdy transformed into a kind of rustic artists’ retreat and salon for the likes of Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje."
Cinema Scope

"A thoughtful and beautifully captured celebration of words and music, Al Purdy Was Here is a surprisingly moving film that reaffirms the title subject as an intrinsic part of our vast cultural landscape."
One Movie Our Views

"The film serves both as an introduction/ invitation into the poet’s work and a celebration by those who knew him and his work best."
Dorkshelf

"Canada’s cottage-country cultural elite pay tribute in Al Purdy Was Here"
Georgia Straight

AL PURDY makes 5 Insider Must-See Flicks at the Whistler Film Festival
Whistler.com

"If you’re thinking this is all talking heads and old, shaky 8mm film, there is so much more."
Northern Stars

"the film beautifully portrayed the multiple levels of inspiration and artistic growth that Al Purdy's work facilitated ad nourished."
The Ontarion

"Filmmaker Brian Johnson has crafted a moving and complex portrait of the artist in his documentary film “Al Purdy Was Here”"
County Weekly News

AL PURDY WAS HERE to open the Guelph Film Festival
Guelph Mercury / Guelph Tribune