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A scene from Robert Lepage’s take on Wagner's epic Ring cycle
A scene from Robert Lepage’s take on Wagner's epic Ring cycle

VIFF docs paint portraits of the artist as visionary Add to ...

Hollywood may favour the happy ending, but film festival fare, thank heavens, is more nuanced – in particular non-fiction, where reality gets square in the way of the fairy tale. The star director’s high-tech stage might malfunction on opening night, the Oscar-winning animator may never complete his magnum opus, the bestselling Irish author might be facing death, just as she’s getting her life together.

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Three compelling documentaries screening at the Vancouver International Film Festival, which opens today, present three cultural overachievers at their most vulnerable, as they meet potential failure – or worse – head on. Canadian superstar director Robert Lepage grapples with a contraption of a stage at the Met, Canadian-born animator Richard Williams fights to finish the film that should be his masterpiece, and Irish author Nuala O’Faolain gets a shocking cancer diagnosis. Grim, at times, but gripping, always.

Lepage is a Québécois icon, but you didn’t have to be Canadian – or indeed an opera fan – to be caught up in the drama of his Ring cycle for the Metropolitan Opera in New York. We all read or heard about his beast of a stage – a 90,000-pound gamble that some purists felt was more spectacle than sprechgesang. No matter what people thought of the production itself (it was both panned and praised), there was some Wagner-worthy drama going on behind the scenes as Lepage and his team at both the Metropolitan Opera in New York and Ex Machina in Quebec laboured to bring the shows to the stage.

Watching the documentary Wagner’s Dream – which makes the case for Lepage’s vision being closer to Wagner’s than his detractors would have us believe – we all get to be flies on the wall as the machinery conks out on opening night; soprano Deborah Voight, making her Brünnhilde debut, falls; and the production suffers other, often stage-related, mishaps.

“When you’re trying something like this, when it’s extremely edgy, for sure you’re going to slip on a banana peel somewhere in the process,” Lepage said this week from New York, where he is directing The Tempest at the Met (it opens in October following its world premiere this summer in Quebec City).

Despite the added pressure, Lepage agreed to be followed by the filmmakers (the film was financed by the Met, but director Susan Froemke emphasizes that the filmmakers had complete creative control). The initial plan was that they would document only the making of Das Rheingold, the first opera in the cycle. But the filming was extended again and again as tension-rich material continued to present itself, in particular in the form of that stage. They wound up shooting for four years.

“Because this vision was so ambitious and so hard to execute and it seemed like every year we kept filming it was becoming more difficult to actually execute, the machine did become a major character and, as many people said, it became a diva too,” says Froemke. “Because some days it was happy and worked beautifully, and some days it was cranky and came to a halt.”

Lepage remains strangely calm throughout, even when things appear most dire. “I never once saw him lose his temper,” says Froemke.

When asked about this, Lepage laughs. “Sorry to use a vulgar word, but shit happens,” he says. “And it makes you more creative. When these things happen, if you’re crushed by that, you’re not meant to be working in the performing arts. Go do film and television where everything is under control, where everything is edited and canned.”

Not that film is always a sure thing.

Richard Williams is another Canadian visionary who pushes his own creative limits to – in his case – the breaking point. The Toronto-born animator wound up in London, where he established an excellent reputation working on commercial projects and Hollywood films. But it was his own film, to be called The Thief and the Cobbler, that really drove him. For almost 30 years, he worked to create what would surely be his masterpiece – an ultimately doomed project that is documented in Persistence of Vision, having its world premiere at VIFF on Thursday.

“It’s a huge story. And yet it’s kind of an untold story. It’s almost a forgotten story in cinema history,” says director Kevin Schreck. “How could something of this grand, almost operatic level of drama … be so overlooked? So my interest became an obsession of my own, in a way.”

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