By Vic Sarin. Durvile Publications Ltd., 216 pp, softcover
Long-time Vancouver resident Vic Sarin is one of Canada's most enduring cinematographers and directors. And over his 55-year career in television and film, he's collected more than enough memories to fill his new memoir with colourful anecdotes and wise observations.
The good-natured principal of Sepia Films has travelled with Adrienne Clarkson to interview the Shah of Iran. He's met the Dalai Lama and John Lennon. He also wrote and directed the epic feature film Partition, and directed some utterly original documentaries such as Keepers of the Magic and Hue: A Matter of Colour.
As a cinematographer he's brought a bevy of famous actors to the big and small screen.
It's all laid out in his new image-packed Eyepiece: Adventures in Canadian Television and Film (Durville Publications), which includes some tough-minded reflections on the Canadian film industry.
He acknowledges that Canadian moviemakers tell great stories. But he also opines in his book, perhaps controversially, that they "still tend to get bogged down with doom and gloom" and "always gravitate toward tragedy or some kind of sad issue".
"Canadians have been very good at exploring issues in our films, but the fact is, when people pay ten or fifteen dollars for a ticket to the movies, they want to escape from worrying about things all the time; they want to be entertained," Sarin writes.
The 72-year-old filmmaker also suggests in Eyepiece that it's part of Canadian culture "to pay attention to sadness and problems, instead of focusing on the uplifting aspect of the human spirit, giving people hope and joy".
"I often think of the films of my first home, India," Sarin writes. "It is a country that is crowded, poor and separated by class, but the films are full of joy, romance, bright colours, singing and dancing. Meanwhile, Canada is a rich country with everything to be happy about—yet our films are almost always dark and depressing.
"Do we as people project the opposite of the world around us?" he continues. "Is the sadness of Canada's films a reflection of how good we have it here?"
It's a thought-provoking comment from someone who's seen enough of the world to be able to look at Canada as objectively as he views images through his eyepiece.
Career launched in Australia
Sarin, the Kashmiri-born son of an Indian diplomat, came of age in Australia in the early 1960s. As he began pursuing his passion for filming, he received a lucky break. His best friend was a driver for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and helped bring Sarin's work to the attention of a television news executive.
Sarin received another break when he arrived at "the small shed of an airport" in Vancouver in 1963 with his visa in hand.
At the time, an immigration official told him that he had to have an address where the government could send him his documents. Sarin's predicament was that he didn't know anyone in Canada and he had no address. And without that, he might not be allowed into Canada.
So he randomly plucked an address of a woman named Mrs. Campbell from the phone book. She lived near Granville and West Broadway.
The customs official accepted this address and allowed him into the country. After leaving the customs area, he contacted Mrs. Campbell and she agreed to help, later forwarding documents to him in Toronto.
"My introduction to Canada was the kindness of a total stranger," Sarin relates in the book.
The guts of Eyepiece deals with Sarin's tales about working on CBC TV shows, in the CBC film unit, and as a freelance cinematographer and director. This part of the book is highly readable and often entertaining.
However, at times I felt that Sarin isn't quite as open as he could have been about some of the racism he might have experienced as a brown man operating in a largely white environment in the 1970s and 1980s.
There are allusions to difficulties with colleagues in the film unit, which were patched over, and references to him not being nominated for awards, even though his work as a cinematographer was highly praised.
As a reader, I couldn't help but conclude that Sarin is a nice guy who wasn't in any mood to rip open scabs that had long since healed over from the past. Perhaps this diplomatic tact was passed down by his father.
That said, there are some amusing, blunt, and insightful references about Sarin's times working with the exceedingly difficult Dennis Hopper, the searingly intense Christopher Plummer, and the thoroughly professional and down-to-earth Helena Bonham Carter.
For these reasons alone, Sarin's rollicking recollections belong on the bookshelf of any serious aficionado of Canadian film history.
Sarin claims that Canadians are sometimes afraid to entertain
The sections that captivated me the most were his observations on the shortcomings of contemporary Canadian cultural policies, which placed obstacles in his path on his grandest project, Partition. It was a love story about a young Muslim woman (played by Vancouver's Kristin Kreuk) and a Sikh man (played by Jimi Mistry) set amid the creation of an independent Pakistan and India in 1947.
The movie was set entirely on the Indian subcontinent, but most of it had to be filmed in Canada to qualify for federal funding. It was inspired by Sarin's father's gutsy and compassionate decision to allow a Sikh man and his Muslim lover to meet surreptitiously in their family home when Sarin was a child.
In Eyepiece he also highlights some of the challenges faced by Canadian directors when it comes to distribution. At one point, Sarin recommends that Canadian theatres be required to reserve 10 or 15 percent of their screen time for Canadian films.
But he also suggests that Canadian English-language filmmakers should also pay attention to audiences' expectations when they go to the movies.
"It's amazing that French-Canadian films, with a limited audience, always seem to do well, while English Canada struggles," Sarin writes. "In English Canada, we are so inundated with movies from our US neighbours that we are afraid—I believe—to make any film that even resembles Hollywood at all. Because we are different and unique, we are afraid to entertain."
Books like Sarin's are sometimes released to little fanfare and linger in libraries or are ordered over the Internet by serious fans, as well as by friends and family members. But what he says about Canadian cultural policies deserves a wider audience within the corridors of the National Film Board and Telefilm Canada.
This is especially so when English-language Canadian films are at even more risk of being buried under an avalanche of U.S. content produced by the likes of Amazon and Netflix.
Sarin has learned a great deal since he arrived in Vancouver in the early 1960s with a passion for moving pictures and not a whole lot of experience or any formal training.
It's been a life well-lived, and Sarin's advice, now that he's a film elder, is well worth heeding going forward.