Mike Johnston is baking in the april sun, the sleeves of his Leafs jersey rolled up to the elbows, and telling me how his heart broke a couple of weeks back. “We were ahead,” he’s saying, “with 2.9 seconds left in the game, and they gave up the tying goal and lost in overtime, and I couldn’t watch hockey for two weeks.”
He’s talking about the Peterborough Petes, his home team. “When you’ve spent a whole year in the arena following a major junior hockey team.” He shrugs and shakes his head. “It’s hard to take that loss.”
I’ve met Mike in the little glassed-in lobby next to the quad at Innis College to talk about his film, My Student Loan, screening as part of the Hot Docs festival (Sunday, April 27, 7 pm, Royal). It’s about his student loan and student loans in general and the policy-makers who through carelessness or callousness have ensured that Ontario students will be heavily burdened by them for years to come.
Outside our alcove, students walk quietly down the halls or sit in the Pit, getting educated and accruing debt. Inside, Johnston’s voice booms cheerfully, a friendly baritone singsong, ironic but folksy, making fun but letting you in on the joke. He kind of sounds like Michael Moore, right?
Well, sort of, and the similarities don’t end there. Like Moore’s films, My Student Loan is a wry look at the havoc wrought in the lives of honest folks by greedy mucky-mucks. Only instead of the auto workers of Flint, Michigan, we’re looking at the university students of Peterborough, Ontario, and instead of chasing down CEO Roger Smith and the rest of the General Motors honchos, we’re pursuing Ontario politicians and the administrators of Trent University.
Johnston isn’t, however, just a Canadian version of Moore.
“I can see the obvious connections between Michael Moore and myself,” he says, “He created a genre that made it easier for other filmmakers to tell this kind of story. But to tell you the truth, somebody like Bill Mason from the NFB had a far bigger influence on me as a filmmaker.”
Johnston’s been a fan of Mason’s classic canoe documentaries (remember Paddle To The Sea?) since he was a kid.
“He could make very informative films in a simple and goofy way. Those films are 35 years old, but I guarantee, you play them for kids today and they’ll love them. That’s the mark of a great filmmaker.”
He grins. “Go to the Canadian Canoe Museum in Peterborough and you can see Bill Mason’s canoe, with all the duct tape under it. And you know where they put it? Right beside Pierre Trudeau’s.”
I suddenly feel an unaccustomed flush of patriotism, between the hockey and the canoes, but Johnston has still more fuel. His decision to become a filmmaker was triggered by his friendship with another Canadian icon, the late, great poet Al Purdy.
Johnston was living in Purdy’s basement on Vancouver Island when inspiration struck. “I’d shot some interviews with Al, and that sort of gave me the idea to make a film. I didn’t want to start working on a documentary about him right away, though. He didn’t get started writing until his 40s, he didn’t find his voice until midlife. And I felt it wouldn’t be right to start making a film about him before I hit my 40s.
“My Student Loan seemed like a good place to start, because its subject is very personal to me.”
In the end, making the film was part inspiration and part desperation. “I thought making a film that was basically about my lack of resources would be a good way to break into a new trade without any resources — although to some of my family and friends it sounded like a crazy idea.”
Johnston pulled it off, though. With a Canada Council grant, a borrowed camera and videotape sponsorships from local businesses, he was able to make the film for about $6,000, not counting living expenses for the three-plus years it took him to complete it. He also got help in the form of obsolete Beta stock from the Cogeco community cable channel in Peterborough, where he hosts a weekly show called Swap Shop.
When he gets talking about his cable show, he sits forward on the couch. “It’s live television. It’s the buy-sell-trade-give-away show. Give us a shout and I’ll put your item on the air.”
He feels the same way about community TV as he does about junior hockey, the canoe museum and Peterborough’s Market Square Performing Arts Centre, where he works part-time as an organizational development coordinator. You get the feeling he’s fundamentally a civic-minded guy. It’s this exuberant interest in local affairs that’s the real driving force behind My Student Loan.
When he talks about education, my suspicion is confirmed.
“A good, accessible education at every level is part of the reflection of what we’re supposed to be as a country. But there’s been a steady decline of support for education in this province, in this country. It’s got to stop.
“There’s going to be a different crisis in education soon — the repayment of these student loans.”firstname.lastname@example.org
HOT FESTIVAL TIPS
hot docs Canadian international documentary festival at the Royal Cinema (608 College), the Bloor Cinema (506 Bloor West), Innis Town Hall (2 Sussex), the ROM Theatre (100 Queen’s Park) and the Uptown Theatre (794 Yonge), from Friday (April 25) to May 4. Single tickets $10, srs $8, festival pass $60, available at Sonic Boom Records (512 Bloor West) or by phone at 416-516-3320 fax orders 416-516-1822 online orders and info: www.hotdocs.ca. For this week’s complete schedule, see Rep Cinemas
In a year when documentaries are having a greater impact than ever, the Hot Docs festival celebrates its 10th year with 122 films from around the world. Here are five that prove truth is not only stranger than fiction, but better.
jail baitjail bait
Girlhood directed by Liz Garbus, May 3, 9:30 pm, Royal. 82 minutes. Rating: NNNNN
More provocative than Christina Aguilera’s wardrobe and even harder to forget, Girlhood tracks three years in the lives of juvenile detention centre residents Shanea, a likeably remorseless killer, and Megan, a grinning troublemaker bent on self-destruction.
Garbus’s presence is barely felt, a restraint that allows for truthful storytelling and for events and obstacles to surprise us. Whether it’s Megan’s junkie mother and cold granny debating parental responsibility or hearing the centre’s staff counsellor preach, “It’s not what you did, it’s what you do,” there isn’t a scene that won’t engage you, from start to bittersweet finish.LORI FIREMAN
parental guidanceparental guidance
Rage Against The Darkness directed by John Kastner, May 1, 7:15 pm, Royal. 88 minutes. Rating: NNNN
Somewhere in between taxes and death comes the terrifying prospect of moving from home to nursing home. With sisters Bunny and Leona as his guide, director John Kastner takes us through this harrowing process in a film (currently expanding into a five-hour CBC mini-series) that’s by turns enlightening, uplifting and disturbingly real.
Kastner doesn’t shy away from embarrassing his subjects, nor does he attempt to martyr them, and the result, hammy choices aside (extreme close-ups of shaking, liver-spotted chins and frequent moans), is a gripping look at aging and mortality. LF
hooker heavenhooker heaven
Chicken Ranch directed by Nick Broomfield, Saturday (April 26), midnight, Bloor. Free. 74 minutes. Rating: NNN
Cheeky, diverting fun that, like its subjects, is proud of its lack of morals, here’s an inside look at Nevada’s infamous legal brothel.
You decide what’s more entertaining — the candour and camaraderie among the women as they describe their clientele’s inadequacies, or the hilariously abrupt forced ending. Shot in 1983, it’s being shown for free as part of acclaimed director Broomfield’s retrospective. Consider it a cheap thrill. LF
down mexico’s gay waydown mexico’s gay way
Juchitan, Queer Paradise directed by Patricio Henriquez, Monday (April 28), 7 pm, Royal. 65 minutes. Rating: NNN
Favouring their native Zapotec over English, free of McDonalds, supermarkets and gotta-be-macho men, Juchitán, Mexico, stands out in its proud refusal to conform. Here, people don’t just tolerate their vast homosexual, or muxe, community — they honour it.
Though this film is poorly edited and in parts unfocused, it’s well worth viewing, with its cross-dressing basketball players, religious discussions, musings on monogamy and a devoted gay father with his loving son.LF
stupid people tricksstupid people tricks
Stupidity directed by Albert Nerenberg, May 1, 9:30 pm, Bloor. 75 minutes. Rating: NNN
Nerenberg presents an overview of contemporary stupidity from jackass to Dubya, and then goes off in search of the lowest common denominator responsible for making it that way. On the way, we learn about the history of IQ tests, the origin of the word “moron” and the many ways idiocy manifests itself in politics, religion and the media.
With its rapid-fire editing and spoofy, Entertainment Tonightish aesthetic, Stupidity is more a riff than an argument, and it raises more questions than it answers. Still, it’s an intriguing subject, both funny and scary, and Nerenberg attacks it full on with humour and moments of insight.