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Paying Respect

Author Steve Gravestock honours the work of a great Canadian director in
"Don Owen: Notes on a Filmmaker and His Culture"

By Jaimie Kehler

Don Owen: Notes on a Filmmaker and His CultureForty-two years after the debut of his ground-breaking film Nobody Waved Goodbye, Toronto-born director Don Owen is finally given the credit he deserves in Steve Gravestock’s new book Don Owen: Notes on a Filmmaker and His Culture. Published by the Toronto International Film Festival Group, the book marks the first publication dedicated entirely to Owen, and his contribution to the industry.

Straightforward and painstakingly detailed, Gravestock’s work is a well-crafted tribute to a man who left his mark on the industry. Gravestock dares his readers to pay homage to a Canadian great, and reconsider the nuances of Canada’s distinct film culture. He examines the life and art of a director who permanently changed the landscape of Canadian film with his stylistically controversial early features and docudramas.

“In effect, Owen’s been consigned to the role of pioneer rather than examined as a filmmaker in his own right,” writes Gravestock. By deconstructing Owen’s often sporadic and experimental film career, Gravestock creates a timeline of Canadian film culture in terms of characters, motifs and the constant roadblock of limited financing. The results of such frustrations are crucial to our understanding of Canadian cinema.

“The form of Owen’s career is distressingly emblematic and rather depressingly familiar, reflecting Canadians’ habitual suspicion of homegrown work,” writes Gravestock. Touching upon highlights in Canadian history and culture, Gravestock situates his readers for his film analysis, while offering insight to Owen’s influential work.

“Despite his crucial role in the emergence of the English-Canadian feature, Owen remains a problematic and neglected figure,” writes Gravestock.

Known (or unknown as the case may be), for such pivotal works as Nobody Waved Goodbye, The Ernie Game, Mr. Leonard Cohen, Notes for a Film About Donna & Gail, and Partners, Don Owen is indeed a crucial figure in the advancement of our film industry, yet he still appears as a mere footnote in our cinematic history books.

Gravestock’s work, while thorough, dissects Owen’s career to the very last location choice and symbol. Considering Owen’s fondness for overarching themes, such minute detail within the book seems contradictory. Rather than give readers a small overview of his important films, Gravestock instead offers an extensive play-by-play of each key work.

The book reads like a film class text, and, as such, the reader must remember that this is Owen through Gravestock’s eyes and the analysis offered is by no means law. However, readers who get past the initial dryness of the work are treated to a thought-provoking interpretation of a truly inspiring film career.

Gravestock offers readers a look at the early days of Canadian film from politics to personal triumph. Easily one of the foremost figures in Canadian English filmmaking, Owen is as misunderstood as many of his protagonists. Within his body of work, Owen touches upon such complex ideas as alienation, rebellion, exile, the tormented artist and an emerging distinct Canadian identity – themes which are apparent even today in contemporary Canadian cinema.

In a career “full of starts and stops, interruptions and hesitations,” Owen charged forward with his own brand of Canadian filmmaking. Ahead of his time, Owen is deserving of the nod of approval from Gravestock and the Toronto International Film Festival Group.

In many ways, Gravestock and Owen are a good match. Both are fascinated by the Canadian disconnect, both depict these themes in painstaking detail and both risk losing an audience as a result.

Providing insight to a forefather of Canadian film, Don Owen: Notes on a Filmmaker and His Culture is a valuable, though dry, read.