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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 ...

Williams’s film was indeed an obsession. He worked on it for 28 years, painstakingly creating the animation – by hand, along with a devoted team – all juggling the project with paying work. On Oscar night, when Williams won for his ground-breaking work on Who Framed Roger Rabbit, he ended his speech cryptically. “The best is yet to come,” he declared at the podium.

But alas, it was not.

Williams did secure a deal with Warner Bros., but the Completion Bond Company seized the film when it went over deadline. It was ultimately released in a form that would have made Williams retch. The film he dreamed would elevate animation to a legitimate art form was reduced to the lowest common denominator, complete with musical numbers.

Schreck, 23, first heard about The Thief and the Cobbler five years ago when a friend sent him a link to a fan edit of the film. Schreck had read Williams’s seminal book The Animator’s Survival Kit – a bible of sorts for animators – but did not know about this chapter in the filmmaker’s life. Schreck began to pursue the story, interviewing people who had worked on the project and, through them, uncovering some extraordinary archival material – including footage of Williams discussing the film, and some of the animation itself. “We actually uncovered probably about two hours of animation that hasn’t seen the light of day in over 20 years,” says Schreck.

But Williams, who still lives in Britain, would not speak about The Thief.

Williams spent millions of his own money on his unfinished masterpiece; Schreck dug into his own savings and raised about $8,800 (U.S.) on Kickstarter to make Persistence of Vision – his first feature.

“It’s a portrait of an artist,” he says, “but it’s also a portrait of a man, a human being.”

In Nuala, a great Irish artist is seen – heard, really – at her most human. Nuala O’Faolain was 68 in early 2008 when she learned she had brain and lung tumours. Shortly thereafter, she asked her friend, veteran RTE broadcaster Marian Finucane, to interview her about the diagnosis and her impending death. It was raw, painful and honest – and touched a national nerve.

“I have to say pretty much everybody I know in Ireland has heard that interview,” says Patrick Farrelly, co-director of Nuala, which has its North American premiere at VIFF on Thursday.

The interview became the foundation for Nuala, which traces the unusual life of O’Faolain. One of many children of a philandering social columnist and an unhappy, boozing wife, O’Faolain got kicked out of school twice (high school and university) for messing around with men, but her longest monogamous relationship was with a woman. O’Faolain was a television producer, became a newspaper columnist and ultimately a memoirist, whose debut Are You Somebody? was a New York Times bestseller. O’Faolain was in her 50s when she wrote it. More books followed.

“The tragedy for her was she really had finally figured out so many things,” says Farrelly. “She’d figured out how to live a life that allowed her to write and to work and also allowed her to be happy in the way that she was living. And I think she’d finally figured that out when she was hit by the cancer.”

Like the radio interview – O’Faolain died a month after it was broadcast – the film is difficult and beautiful at once.

“I think I’m giving them access to perhaps a bleak but nonetheless an honest insight into people’s fears about dying and death. But also I think an interesting insight into a very complex woman’s life. And a woman who was great fun,” Finucane said from Ireland this week. “Though difficult. She could boss you from here to Timbuktu.”

Finucane finds it meaningful that the film is having its North American premiere in Vancouver, a city O’Faolain visited in the fall of 2007, a few months before her life abruptly changed, then ended. She was here for the Vancouver International Writers Festival and yes, she was as grand in person as she was on the page.

The last words O’Faolain spoke before she died were to Finucane, over the phone. “Goodbye, dear friend,” she said. O’Faolain had tackled her art, but here she was faced with a fight none of us can win – not the world’s most visionary director, or greatest animator, or most eloquent writer.

“I’ve been a lot of places, I’ve loved lots of people, usually unwisely,” O’Faolain said in that final interview. “And what’s the point? What’s the point of all I know? It seems such a waste of creation. With each death, all that knowledge dies.”

The Vancouver International Film Festival runs Sept. 27 to Oct. 12 (viff.org).

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