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Chelsea McMullan and the filming of Crystal Pite: Angels’ Atlas.Maya Bankovic.

Rarely have I seen a documentary about an artist that takes you deep inside their process and shows you their work as it’s being made in real time.

This week, the Vancouver International Film Festival will showcase two: Ever Deadly, which includes a full, 60-minute improvisational throat-sing by Tanya Tagaq, shot with one Steadicam in a single take; and Crystal Pite: Angels’ Atlas, which takes us from the rehearsal hall, as the titular choreographer works with her dancers, to the stage, where we watch the entire piece. And get this: Both documentaries are made by the same director, Chelsea McMullan.

McMullan, who uses they/them pronouns, grew up in Langley, B.C., grabbing the family camcorder from about age seven to make short movies, and later attending film school at Toronto’s York University. They also direct for television and commercials, to give themself the economic opportunity to devote time to their films.

“The films tell me how long they need to take,” McMullan said in a recent video interview. They were sitting in a car; they wore their silver hair long and loose, and laughed a lot. “I need to relinquish myself to the process. I never want to feel I have to end a film, and I do everything I can to protect that.” Interestingly, Ever Deadly took six years to make; Crystal Pite: Angels’ Atlas, only four months.

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Director Chelsea McMullan.Luis Mora

Both Pite and Tagaq are renowned for their artistic rigour, and for fiercely protecting their processes. So the intimacy in both films was made possible only by the atmosphere of trust and collaboration McMullan creates. For Tagaq, who shares writing and directing credits for Ever Deadly, that meant a lot of meetings. “Tanya would say, ‘I see exploding musk ox, I see the sand animations I grew up with, I see ice floes, throat singing on the land, I want to interview my mother in Inuktitut,’” McMullan recalls (all of which ended up in the film). It also meant leaving space for improvisation, and passing editing suggestions back and forth.

With Pite, collaborating included standing side by side on shoot days gazing into one hand-held monitor – Pite directing the dancers, McMullan the cameras – plus a lot of impassioned discussions about whether it would honour the choreography more to shoot onstage among the dancers, or from the audience, to view the entire proscenium. (The answer? Both.) As well, Pite sent notes on McMullan’s first cut – 300 of them. “Which is the most Crystal thing ever,” McMullan says, chuckling. “But also terrifying to receive.”

What’s impressive about both films is that they capture each performance from the inside, without getting in its way. “That’s what cinema can bring to live performances – to be allowed in these spaces you don’t normally get to be in,” McMullan says. A Steadicam operator stood on stage with Tagaq, while McMullan called shots from another room, to echo the live, “this happens once and never again” intention of Tagaq’s improvisations. McMullan used seven cameras to shoot a full performance of Angels’ Atlas, and four cameras to capture rehearsals and added performance material. One day a Steadicam operator roved amid the dancers; on another, a Technocrane soared above them. “Expensive!” McMullan says. “But that’s where you get those swoopy shots.”

Filming a live performance is like shooting a sports event: If you miss a moment, you can’t get it back. But McMullan was the opposite of nervous about that. “Honestly, it’s my favourite thing in the world,” they say. “I’m like, ‘Have I missed my calling? Do I need to call the Oscars live?’ I get a high off the pressure of it.” During Tagaq’s concert, the National Film Board urged McMullan to use two cameras in addition to the Steadicam – one for a wider shot and one tighter. “I was like, ‘That’s fine,’” they recall, laughing. “‘I’ll do it, if it makes you feel safe. I’m not going to use it.’ And I didn’t use it.”

To capture Pite’s kinetic energy, and her extraordinarily communicative head and hand positions – she expresses myriad emotions with minuscule tilts of her head; I honestly could watch her all day long – McMullan used tight lenses with a shallow depth of field, getting “as close to her as we could be, so she bursts out of the frame.” That makes the camera follow the subject, and it achieves McMullan’s goal: to capture the essence of an artist, through their working process. “That says so much more to me about who an artist is than, say, learning where they grew up,” McMullan says. “Seeing how they do a thing reveals everything about who they are.”

Pite’s work is about ephemerality and grief; Tagaq’s is about pain, healing, colonialism and resistance. Both use repetitive action to create a profound tension that leads to transcendence. McMullan echoes that, too, holding shots until you think they’re going to break. “I like to make bold decisions,” they say. “It’s boring to me otherwise. I believe that a thing is interesting, but how you get to that thing is sometimes even more interesting.”

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An inside glimpse as Crystal Pite and the company go back into rehearsals after the two-year pandemic shutdown.Nigel Tang/Handout

They believe the old-school documentary approach – that a director controls the subject – is “really antiquated. I think if an artist isn’t happy with the way they’re represented, you’re doing it wrong.” That doesn’t mean McMullan is a pushover. “I will go to every length to tell you why I think it should be a certain way,” they say. “But we’ve got to make the decision together. For me it’s all about revealing who the artist is, where their work comes from, and why it matters. Ultimately that’s the question I’m trying to get closer to, to peel away: Why does this matter?”

Along with McMullan’s 2013 feature doc, My Prairie Home, about musician Rae Spoon, Ever Deadly and Crystal Pite: Angels’ Atlas represent a trilogy of sorts. Now McMullan is ready to try something different. “It’s too early to say what, but I’m going to do a fiction feature,” they say. “I’ve learned so much from working closely with these artists. Watching Crystal convey emotions in her body, watching Tanya totally let go and let her art breathe, I would remind myself, ‘Take this in!’ And remember that the work it takes to get to that place is rigorous and incredible. Those things, moving forward, are inside me now.”

Ever Deadly screens Oct. 1 and Oct. 9 at VIFF; Crystal Pite: Angels’ Atlas screens Oct. 2 and Oct. 9 at VIFF (

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