Al Purdy Was Here: A film by Brian D Johnson
Featuring: Margaret Atwood, Dennis Lee, Eurithe Purdy, George Bowering, Jean Baird, Steven Heighton
Performances by: Leonard Cohen, Bruce Cockburn, Sarah Harmer, Tanya Tagaq, Gord Downie, Gordon Pinsent, Joseph Boyden, Doug Paisley, Michael Ondaatje
Opens in Toronto on Friday, December 4, 2015 - Bloor Hot Docs Cinema - with Special Guests
B.C. Premiere, Whistler Film Festival - Friday, December 4, 6:30pm, Village 8 Cinemas #7
“I never thought about being a poet. I always wrote poetry. What did I have to think about? You don’t decide things like that. You do it.” – Al Purdy
Following sold-out screenings at TIFF 2015, where it received 2nd Runner-up for the Grolsch People's Choice Documentary award, Al Purdy Was Here, Brian D Johnson’s portrait of the legendary Canadian poet, opens in Toronto at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema on Friday, December 4, 2015 with special guests at post-screening Q & A’s.
At the December 4 show, author and film co-writer Marni Jackson will conduct a Q & A with poet Karen Solie, winner of this year’s Latner Writers’ Trust Poetry Prize and the 2010 Griffin Poetry Prize.
At the show on Tuesday, December 8, producer-director Brian D. Johnson will conduct a Q & A with singer-songwriter Doug Paisley
On Wednesday, December 9, Johnson will conduct a Q & A with singer-songwriter Jason Collett, host of Jason Collett’s Basement Review and co-producer of The Al Purdy Songbook.
Along with this Toronto engagement, the film is generating a Purdy revival in the Canadian heartland he loved so well, with audiences embracing the film in theatres from Charlottetown to Vancouver, and a growing list of communities served by the TIFF Film Circuit. Al Purdy Was Here opens in Winnipeg December 3. It has its B.C. premiere at the Whistler Film Festival on December 4, to be followed by a Vancouver release in early 2016. Though based in Ontario, Purdy had strong roots in B.C.—from his Vancouver days working a mattress factory and a slaughterhouse (which inspired some visceral poetry) to his later years wintering in Sydney with his wife Eurithe.
In Al Purdy Was Here, director Brian D. Johnson has crafted a cinematic and musical portrait of an artist driven to become a great Canadian poet at a time when the category barely existed.
Johnson’s debut feature documentary also captures a Purdy revival as a grassroots movement rallies to preserve his legendary A-Frame cabin as a writing retreat. Built by Purdy and his wife Eurithe in 1957 in Ontario’s Prince Edward County, the A-frame was a hangout for the pioneers of CanLit, including Margaret Lawrence, Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje. In this rustic salon, nourished by Al's wild grape wine, a cultural community took root. Now, 15 years after the poet’s death, the cabin becomes an unlikely beacon for a creative renaissance.
“I owe this film to my wife and co-writer, Marni Jackson,” says producer-director Brian D. Johnson. Jackson was working on a play about Purdy when she was drawn into scripting a fundraising show for the A-Frame at Toronto’s Koerner Hall, in February, 2013. Johnson cut an archival montage for the show and arranged to shoot it. “The film grew organically from there,” he says. “Purdy fans came out of the woodwork at every turn. Ron Mann, and Bruce Cowley of CBC’s Documentary Channel got the ball rolling. It was inspiring to see so many people come forward and donate their work to us—including writers, musicians, photographers, filmmakers, animators and graphic artists.”
Purdy has been variously called the last, best and most Canadian poet. In Al Purdy Was Here, we learn how this Trenton high-school dropout, who hopped freights during the Depression, struggled to become a poet—writing bad verse for two decades before finding his voice at the A-Frame and leaving a legacy of 39 books of poetry, a novel, 2 volumes of memoirs, 4 books of correspondence, radio and tv plays, an Order of Canada and two Governor General’s Awards. Weeks before his death in April 2000, the League of Canadian Poets proclaimed Purdy “The Voice of the Land”, the phrase engraved on his gravestone and on a bronze statue in Queens Park unveiled in 2008.
Al Purdy Was Here is brimming with archival materials and first-hand accounts including interviews with those close to the poet—publisher Howard White, editor Sam Solecki, writers Margaret Atwood, Dennis Lee, Steven Heighton, George Bowering, and Bowering’s wife Jean Baird, the powerhouse behind the A-Frame campaign. Footage of interviews with Canadian TV personalities of the day – Adrienne Clarkson, Pamela Wallin, Pierre Berton, Daniel Richler – show Purdy as a charmer, a provocateur, and an outspoken cultural nationalist. Eurithe Purdy, his 90-year-old widow, reflects on their turbulent marriage while overseeing the cabin’s restoration as a writing retreat. And Katherine Leyton, the A-Frame’s first resident poet and a vivacious young feminist, finds herself conversing with Purdy’s ghost.
Woven through the film are live performances recorded for The Al Purdy Songbook, original music inspired by Purdy’s life and work. Performers include Atwood, Ondaatje, Leonard Cohen, Bruce Cockburn, Gord Downie, Gordon Pinsent, Sarah Harmer, Felicity Williams, Doug Paisley, Snowblink, Greg Keelor, Tanya Tagaq, Jesse Zubot and Joseph Boyden.
The narrative is also punctuated by Zen-like musings from @StatueofAlPurdy, the Twitter account set up anonymously for the statue of Purdy in Queens Park.
Director-Producer Brian D. Johnson
Brian D. Johnson is one Canada’s leading film critics and cultural commentators. He is also an author, filmmaker, musician and broadcaster. He is president of the Toronto Film Critics Association, where he created the annual TFCA Awards gala in 2008, now home to the $100,000 Rogers Best Canadian Film Award. An award-winning journalist, Johnson was a Senior Writer with Maclean’s magazine from 1985 to 2014. He is the author of three non-fiction books, including the TIFF history Brave Films, Wild Nights: 25 Years of Festival Fever (2000)—as well as a book of poetry, Marzipan Lies (1974), and a novel, Volcano Days (1994). He has directed two Bravo!FACT short films, Tell Me Everything and Yesno.
Al Purdy Was Here is produced by Purdy Pictures Inc. in association with the Rogers Documentary Fund, the Rogers Cable Network Fund, the Documentary Channel, and the Canada Media Fund (CMF). Executive-produced by Ron Mann and Bruce Cowley for the Documentary Channel, and co-produced by Jake Yanowski, Al Purdy Was Here is produced and directed by Brian D. Johnson, written by Marni Jackson with the director, and edited by Nick Taylor. Nicholas de Pencier is the DOP, the composer is Casey Johnson. Films We Like will distribute the film theatrically in Canada. Copyright Purdy Pictures Inc.
Running time: 92 min.
Official film website: alpurdywashere.com
Media Contact: Virginia Kelly, Meghan Parnell
V Kelly & Associates