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Documenting art and truth

March 29th, 2018

Portrait of filmmaker Charles Officer.

Photo by Justin Morris. Image courtesy the artist.

Tomorrow night, acclaimed Jamaican-Canadian filmmaker Charles Officer will step out from behind the camera and take the stage for an exciting, unscripted conversation live at Massey Hall.

He’ll join internationally celebrated writer Salman Rushdie, provocative performance artist Andrea Fraser and JUNO-nominated musician Iskwé on stage for ninety minutes of artful debate as part of AGO Creative Minds at Massey Hall.

Before he was a celebrated filmmaker, Charles had another quintessentially Canadian calling – professional hockey. Cut short by injury, he returned to OCADU to finish a degree in communication design. An alumnus of the Canadian Film Centre Director Residency program, the director, writer and actor has over 35 screen credits to his name and is currently in post-production on the feature documentary Invisible Essence: Le Petit Prince, based on the international bestselling novella. Fresh off the NYC premier of his celebrated documentary, Unarmed Verses, we caught up with the renowned Toronto filmmaker to talk about art and truth.

AGO: We’re very excited that you’re joining us for Art and Truth: Creative Minds. For many people, documentary film is synonymous with truth. Do you agree?
Charles: At first glance, it may appear that documentary film is synonymous with truth. But in fact, documentary film is historically rooted in cultural, racial, gender and class-based colonialisms. For decades, North American filmmakers — predominately white men — have controlled the lens on what stories are told and what truths are presented on the screen. I believe that the choice of cinematic form – be it documentary or fiction – is inconsequential to creating something that is true. The responsibility for telling the truth belongs to the storytellers, not the medium.

AGO: The question of whether art can or even should be a moral compass has been much discussed. If you had to design a moral compass, what would it look like?
Charles: I wouldn’t impose a moral compass on others, but mine would look like this… North: Humanity. South: Truth. West: Family. East: Community.

AGO: Your most recent project, Unarmed Verses, just premiered in NYC and you’re working now on a project about Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince). Both tell stories through the lens of childhood. Do you think our ability to discern truth from fiction changes as we age?
Charles: Our ability to discern truth from fiction does change as we age – for better and for worse. Social conditions, cultural divides, political divides and the day-to-day rigour of survival are layers that we accumulate into the thing that we call adulthood. But we are seeing evidence daily that even the most educated and powerful adults on the planet can have a skewed perception of the truth. I think there is a glaring disconnect happening now, where we teach our children to tell the truth but adults are allowed to perpetuate lies.

AGO: What’s the biggest challenge you face as a documentary filmmaker working and living in Toronto?
Charles: It is a challenge making films, period. Working with the right collaborators is most critical. For example, Unarmed Verses might not have been made at all without our producer Lea Marin’s support. I didn’t need to spend hours convincing Lea of the value in telling such a story. And she didn’t impose creative direction driven by marketability.

To hear more from Charles, join us on April 4 at 8 pm at Massey Hall. Tickets for AGO Creative Minds at Massey Hall are on sale now and are priced from $19.50 to $79.50.

The conversation will be live-streamed at cbc.ca/arts and broadcast nationally on CBC Radio One.
For more information, please visit AGOCreativeMinds.ca.

Watch the trailer for Charles’ new documentary, Unarmed Verses.

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