Two remarkable songwriters linked by blood, music – and a painful legacy.
Interview with Writer/Director Millefiore Clarkes
Congratulations! Why did you make your film?
The Song and the Sorrow is a documentary produced by The National Film Board about Juno-Award-winning musician Catherine MacLellan, and her relationship to her father – singer/songwriting legend Gene MacLellan (Snowbird, Put Your Hand in the Hand). Gene MacLellan struggled with mental health issues his entire life, and committed suicide when Catherine was 14. It is now two decades after his loss, and Catherine is finally ready to confront the hurtful mystery of her absent parent and embrace his musical legacy.
The Song and the Sorrow follows Catherine as she journeys to understand her father and face her own struggles with mental illness. Through archival footage and intimate interviews with friends, family members, and musicians who knew and played with Gene – including Anne Murray, Lennie Gallant, and the late Ron Hynes – the film reveals a troubled and loving man who was never at ease with fame or money.
Catherine is determined to lift the oppressive burden of silence that accompanies the stigma of mental illness and hopes that others can take strength and solace from her story. Catherine and I have worked together for many years making music videos, so when I was asked by The National Film Board of Canada if I had any ideas for a new documentary, for some fated reason, I thought about Catherine. I had learned through the process of making previous films, that one of the most important elements of a good documentary is access. A good story is no use unless you have access to the right person to tell it. Because I knew Catherine personally, and her story resonated with me on a personal level – it was a natural fit.
However, focusing The Song and the Sorrow on Gene’s struggle with mental health was Catherine’s initiative. When I first approached her about making this film, the focus was more on the creative legacy between a parent and child, about the complex relationship and inspiration derived from a parent with a large personality and artistic temperament. I was also interested in how sadness and loss can precipitate creative expression. However, I was nervous to ask her about his suicide – I didn’t want to exploit her personal tragedy. But Catherine was at a point in her life, 20 years after Gene’s suicide, where she was looking for ways to talk about her experience. She got back to me immediately suggesting that we focus it on Gene’s struggles and her exploration of how that has affected her and her family.
It was a very collaborative process, because we were both entering into it with different strengths. I think we succeeded in combining our strengths to produce something meaningful. It’s a personal story but the themes are universal – how the legacy of a parent is carried forward in the child. How sadness can bring a powerful perspective to our awareness and sometimes even result in beauty and art.
Imagine I’m a member of the audience. Why should I watch this film?
I believe this film is worth watching because it is an intimate and empathetic look at a family and a man who lived under the strain of mental illness. Mental illness affects us all in one way or another, and though it is a personal story, its message is universal.
It is also a film that celebrates the incredible talent of Gene MacLellan – his songwriting and musicianship is world-class and because he shunned fame as it came looking for him, he is not widely known outside of musical circles. So I hope audience members go away with a curiosity about Gene MacLellan’s music, and seek it out.
How do personal and universal themes work in your film?
This very question was something I contemplated throughout the process of making this film. There is always a risk - when telling someone’s personal story – that it becomes esoteric: you have to care about them to care about the story. I was lucky in that Catherine has a compelling and vulnerable presence on screen (and in person) so that you do end up caring about her. But I think that the universal messages in the film are consistently present. It’s a film about family, about things that go unsaid in a family, about the myths we make of our parents, about coming to terms with parents as people and forging our own paths. It’s about music. And what is more universal than that?
How have the script and film evolved over the course of their development?
This was the most structured documentary I’ve ever made, from a pre-production perspective. I am generally an almost exclusively intuitive filmmaker: I articulate a philosophical approach, show up and film, then figure it out in the edit suite. I think that is the basic approach of all documentary filmmaking. But with The Song and the Sorrow I really tried to nail down scenes and story-structure well in advance of filming. That became both a strength and a weakness. When one is too tied up in ideas of what a documentary should be, you can miss what’s actually happening right in front of you. I do think that it was successful in that it produced a finessed film – I had such an amazing team of people collaborating on the project and the end result is perhaps a more polished a film than I’ve ever made. I am itching to make a truly organic and intuitive film next, however. I think that’s more where my natural inclinations as a filmmaker lie.
What type of feedback have you received so far?
The Song and the Sorrow has been really well received. It has played at the Ted Rogers Hot Docs Cinema in downtown Toronto twice, it has received three awards at festivals and continues to travel the festival circuit. There has been some really engaged and earnest dialogue sparked with the audience after screenings. People have confided that the film made them feel like opening up in the own lives to face issues that they’ve perhaps avoided. When you hear that you know that you haven’t made a film in vain. I think it’s especially rewarding for Catherine MacLellan who had to make herself very vulnerable to tell her story to the world. And so I know that it means so much to her that it’s actually reaching people.
Has the feedback surprised or challenged your point of view?
Short answer - No. It has generally confirmed the mission for making the film.
What are you looking to achieve by having your film more visible on www.wearemovingstories.com?
Like any independent filmmaker, making a film is only half the story. It’s the fun part. The part we know something about. Getting the film out into the world, reaching audiences – that’s the tricky part (for most of us). And it takes just as much energy and time. I am lucky in that this film was produced by The National Film Board of Canada – they have a whole team of people who work in promotions, marketing, and distribution. But it is still up to the individual filmmaker to support their film (no one cares about your film as much as you do). So – thank you for this opportunity to reach audience members in ways that I couldn’t otherwise. I am honoured to have The Song and the Sorrow featured alongside some of the great works and artists that you have on your website.
Who do you need to come on board (producers, sales agents, buyers, distributors, film festival directors, journalists) to amplify this film’s message?
This film has two main themes: mental health and music. So when attempting to reach audiences outside the film festival world, we are looking at communities that are already invested in these subjects. Rendezvous with Madness (Toronto) is the world’s oldest mental health themed arts festival. They opened their 2018 festival with The Song and the Sorrow and have brought it back to screen as part of a mental health film series in partnership with Hot Docs Cinema and Bell Let’s Talk. We are talking to the Canadian Mental Health Association to see how the film may be of use to them in creating dialogue. As well we are partnering with music festivals and conferences to bring the film to musicians, and music lovers.
However, I live remotely from any urban centre – in rural Prince Edward Island, Canada. I don’t have easy access to decision makers, the press, etc. As in any industry it always helps to put a face to a name – so meeting with festival directors, distributors etc. face to face is invaluable. It would be a huge help to have new avenues to connect with these people.
The film has received some great press coverage: Catherine MacLellan was interviewed on CBC’s Q, there were articles in The Globe and Mail, POV Magazine and The Toronto Sun, as well as a number of blogs and critical reviews. But it is, as I mentioned, constant effort to keep the ball rolling. There is so much great stuff out there, it takes a lot of effort to keep your film relevant. I am so grateful to have the National Film Board of Canada to do a lot of the legwork. But there’s always room for more!
What type of impact and/or reception would you like this film to have?
And as I mentioned, it is a National Film Board production. They have a long history of using films for educational purposes, getting them into school and library and community networks. It’s a wonderful thing to be a part of an organization that has this really noble mandate. So, hopefully, The Song and the Sorrow will continue to spark conversations that way.
I hope that it is used as a conversation piece – to demonstrate the necessity of talking about struggles as opposed to keeping it internal.
What’s a key question that will help spark a debate or begin a conversation about this film?
How do the secrets we keep hidden eventually emerge? What is a healthy way of talking about darkness?
What other projects are the key creatives developing or working on now?
I am working on a short film, a lyrical drama, that deals with the mental anguish that can be experienced as a result of climate change. It’s a poetic love song to the earth.
Interview: January 2019
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The Song and the Sorrow
Two remarkable songwriters linked by blood, music – and a painful legacy.
Director: Millefiore Clarkes
Producer: Paul McNeill, Rohan Fernando, The National Film Board of Canada
Writer: Millefiore Clarkes
About the writer, director and producer:
MILLEFIORE CLARKES (writer/director) Millefiore Clarkes is a filmmaker who lives in Canada’s smallest province – Prince Edward Island. She creates documentary, experimental films and music videos that have garnered a number of awards and screened internationally.
PAUL MCNEILL/ROHAN FERNANDO/THE NATIONAL FILM BOARD OF CANADA (producer) is Canada's public film and digital media producer and distributor. An agency of the Government of Canada, the NFB produces and distributes documentary films, animation, web documentaries, and alternative dramas.
Key cast: Catherine MacLellan, Judith MacLellan, Ron Hynes, Anne Murray
Looking for: Film Festival Directors, Journalists
Facebook: One Thousand Flowers
Funders: The National Film Board of Canada
Made in association with: The National Film Board of Canada
Where can I watch it next and in the coming month? January 17th - Hot Docs Cinema Mental Health Screening Series; January 27th - ReFrame Film Festival; February 7th - Available Light Film Festival; February 15th - Folk Alliance Festival; March - Salt Spring Film Festival. It will be released on NFB.ca in the Spring of 2019.