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 Bruce Cockburn, Sarah Harmer, Tanya Tagaq, Gord Downie, Leonard Cohen
Gordon Pinsent, Joseph Boyden, Doug Paisley, Michael Ondaatje
World Premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival 2015 TIFF Docs program
“Underneath the shambolic Al was the serious Al. And you could get to it after a while, once you got through the part where he was poking and teasing, and fooling around, and growling, and peeing on your car.” – Margaret Atwood in “Al Purdy Was Here”.
"I don't know of any good living poets. But there's this tough son of a bitch up in Canada that walks the line."
- Charles Bukowski
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 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 and worked at mattress factories, 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 Governer 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 fllms, 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 CBC Documentary Channel, and the Canada Media Fund (CMF). Executive-produced by Ron Mann and co-produced by Jake Yanowski, Al Purdy Was Here is directed and produced 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.