Mother, daughter, filmmaker. Born on March 27, 1961, in Ottawa; died on April 29, 2014, in Toronto, of cancer, aged 53.
As a child, Marta was introspective and surprisingly creative, painting pictures before she had any formal training. At age 8, she informed me she planned to become a filmmaker and stuck to that until, at 17, she and I decided that instead of taking a course in film, she should apprentice with a brilliant sound editor, Bruce Nyznik, and his talented associates such as Peter Tilley, with whom I was then working.
Marta’s love of trains lead to the creation of her first film, Train of Thought, in 1991, prompted by the cancellation of Via Rail’s Canadian, the country’s last regularly scheduled transcontinental passenger train. After that transition from sound to film, she continued to direct and produce, as well as edit.
Her works include Shattered Dreams, a 2006 documentary about disadvantaged youth in Toronto; The Saviour of Ceylon, a film about the heroism of RCAF officer Leonard Birchall; and the seven-part television series Being 80 with Jean Vanier.
Marta was diagnosed with cancer nine years before her death and, as she said, the struggle “transformed” her. She came to see her cancer as something to be grateful for because it concentrated her attention on lasting spiritual realities, rather than the temporary passions and enthusiasms that define most of our lives, most of the time.
Her attitude was partially shaped and informed by the Healing Journey, a group of cancer survivors associated with Toronto’s Princess Margaret Hospital, started by Alastair Cunningham. And she found in Emmanuel-Howard Park United Church, and its pastor Rev. Anne Hines, more evidence that what Marta had to give by virtue of her suffering could help others, thereby giving purpose to her own life.
Marta had worked as an editor and director on more than 30 films with Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche, an international organization that assists the developmentally handicapped. So she came to her great trial with some hope that her physical distress could promote spiritual growth. She had had little contact with formal religious practice, so what changed her was having to cope and find meaning in the cancer that threatened her life.
Life is suffering, the Buddha said. Marta’s life demonstrated that the secret is not to flinch from that reality, but to face it with courage, make the very best of it, and share the wisdom that comes from that decision as widely as possible.
In her final year or so, she began to write about her experience with cancer and the enlightenment that came with it. Her interest was not an intellectual one, but meant to give purpose to her life by helping others. Above all, she wanted her friends and family to share the help she was able to give.
Those who loved her – including her son Liddell and his father, Peter Hastings; her sisters Camilla and Petrea; and her parents, Donna and Richard – must share her gratitude for the very thing that took her from us.
In a conversation shortly before Marta’s death, I expressed some discouragement with my life, and she admonished me to concentrate on something for which I was grateful. I didn’t have far to look. I was grateful for Marta; grateful that in my old age, I had found a spiritual adviser and confidante in my youngest child.
Richard Nielsen is Marta’s father.