Once upon a time, long before every kid with a laptop could splice together a video, Vancouver was a hotbed for experimental film. In the wake of the city’s hippie revolution and into the rebellious early days of punk, a small army of artists here was looping, cutting, overexposing, and acidifying film stock by hand. They were drawing the attention of the world to their daring experiments.
For some reason, this colourful period of Vancouver art history has been lost to cultural amnesia. But a trippy new documentary by veteran local filmmaker Richard Martin, called BackBone: Vancouver Experimental Cinema From 1967-1981, aims to revive the era and give it a new appreciation.
“A lot of this material and exploration found its way into rock videos and commercials, and a lot of people don’t realize where it came from. A lot of that influence, we take it for granted today,” says Martin, who himself was an experimental filmmaker in the ’80s before going into directing for TV and films like Air Bud: Golden Receiver and the more recent experimental short “Mixed Signals”. “For me, it’s just a celebration of cinema and honouring a bit of the history. Hopefully, it’s for younger artists to look back at that stuff and say, ‘Wow, it wasn’t invented in 2005.’ It was a really amazing period of innovation.”
In his new film, screening as part of the DOXA Documentary Film Festival, Martin interviews artists like David Rimmer, Sturla Gunnarsson, Al Razutis, Gary Lee-Nova, Peg Campbell, and Tom Braidwood about their work and what the informal DIY scene was like. Commentators like former Blinding Light!! Cinema’s Alex MacKenzie and Emily Carr University president Ron Burnett (an experimental-film scholar) provide commentary. Throughout, viewers get a rare look at the experimental films themselves, from Lee-Nova’s 1967 montage of DTES electrical transformers and nuke-safety drills, Steel Mushrooms, to Chris Gallagher’s mesmerizing, seamless splice of the city thru windshield wipers, 1981’s Seeing in the Rain. Martin says that in some cases it was the first time the films had been transferred to digital—and just in the nick of time.
“Through the incredible support of DeLuxe Lab[oratories]—while there were still film transfers!—we did it,” he explains. “It was so under the gun it’s scary: in a couple of months the equipment was all gone.”
At first, Martin had only intended to put together a compilation of the films, but it soon became clear that there was a larger story he had to share: about a provincial mountain town that suddenly exploded in artistic expression after the Trips festival in 1966. Martin became fascinated with how supported the scene was by people like the Vancouver Art Gallery’s Doris Shadbolt (who let innovators like
Intermedia hold film nights at the institution).
“Today, you have to have a plan,” Martin says. “Open up YouTube and there’s 100,000 experimental works. Back then it was freewheeling, with not as many people doing it.”
Martin plans to take the film on the fest circuit and has a gig at the Portland Art Museum in late May; here at the DOXA fest, it joins a program of work exploring experimental filmmaking (including Andrea Callard’s Talking Landscape: Early Media Works 1974-1984).
BackBone’s creator says it’s hard for that new generation to understand that rather than a few seconds on a computer, the experimental films could take weeks to make. But after doing all his research and interviews with the colourful cast of artists, he also has another theory on why they have been so underappreciated until now.
“It was a time when art was just something you did. It wasn’t like you were trying to establish yourself as a career,” he explains. “They were cowboys and they were anarchists and they weren’t that good at self-promotion and then just got assimilated into the mainstream and the trail goes cold.”
BackBone plays at the Cinematheque on Saturday (May 4) at 8:30 p.m. and on May 12 at 4:45 p.m.