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Filmmaker Benji, left, and his brother Jono Bergmann deliver an intimate portrait of Canada's legendary designer Bruce Mau in their new documentary Mau, premiering at the virtual Hot Docs Film Festival starting Thursday.

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On a frigid day in late November, 2018, two young Austrian documentarians found themselves in a place colder and tougher than anywhere they had ever been: a snow-covered road in Northern Ontario.

In this unlikely spot, they were filming the famed Canadian designer Bruce Mau as he took them back to his roots; the man who travels the world telling entire nations how to redesign themselves grew up in the bush outside Sudbury, the son of a violent, alcoholic miner. Mau, who started out as a graphic designer in Toronto but now lives in Chicago, has built his career on the notion that everything can be designed and has often described this optimistic philosophy as a reaction against the chaos in which he grew up. Still, seeing the actual site of his hard-scrabble childhood is different from just hearing the polished story.

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“It informed everything that followed,” said filmmaker Benji Bergmann, pointing to the black-and-white palette he and his brother Jono Bergmann used for their interviews with the subject of their new documentary entitled Mau, premiering at the virtual Hot Docs Film Festival starting Thursday. Posing the white-haired Mau, who always wears black, against a stark white backdrop echoes those snowy Ontario woods with their dark spruce trees. But also the limited colours and the focused interview bring order and control to a sprawling story that takes Mau from Sudbury all the way to Mecca, where he worked on redesigning the Muslim holy site, and to Guatemala, where he launched a campaign to instill national pride in a country emerging from civil war.

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Diving into the roots of his childhood in Sudbury, Mau reveals the hardships he faced growing up and how those experiences inform his ways of seeing.

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The filmmaking brothers, half Israeli, half Austrian, educated in the United States and now located in Vienna, seem unusual candidates to be profiling a Canadian guru: Their current projects include an animated doc about a Second World War science program and a film for German TV about the Wirecard scandal, the infamous €1.9-billion ($2.8-billion) accounting fraud that brought down the German financial services company. But before either of those, Mau provided an irresistible subject.

“Our starting point was always that nobody knows who Bruce Mau is. It might sound strange to you as a Canadian but people we were around hadn’t heard of this person,” Jono said. “That was real interesting to us, to introduce this character to an audience outside of this [design] niche.”

Benji, the older Bergmann brother, had met Mau about eight years ago, when he was working as a communications consultant at the United Nations in New York and had invited the Canadian designer to speak at a conference there. Mau introduced his 24 principles which include “Work on what you love” and “We are not separate from or above nature.” The combination of micro and macro thinking intrigued the aspiring filmmaker.

“[It] resonated on a very human level. I had spoken to Jono at the time and said this guy is a really interesting character, who sees the world in a unique way, which is always very refreshing, a protagonist who sees the world through a very specific prism that makes you reconsider how you see the world.”

From creating Coca-Cola's global sustainability platform to reimagining a 1,000-year plan for Mecca to designing a social movement in Guatemala, Mau revolutionized traditional approaches to design.

Courtesy of Hot Docs

To those who might feel Mau’s 24 principles are mere aphorisms, the Bergmanns reply that they are powerful summaries of deeper thinking. For example, Mau says, “Think like you are lost in the forest,” but also traces his own acute visual sensitivity to the survival skills he had to develop in his violent family and in the surrounding bush.

“There’s profundity in the simplicity. It is not just an Instagram caption or calendar quote,” Jono said.

Despite, or perhaps because of, that difficult background, Mau is a relentless optimist, a position that challenged Benji to reconsider his own pessimistic nature, recasting it as an optimist’s disappointment when high expectations aren’t met. As COVID-19 hit, the filmmakers also had to assess whether Mau would just sound naive.

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“We didn’t need a cynical counter voice [in the film] because we have it all around us,” Jono said.

Indeed, as the film shows, Mau has often been met with skepticism: Crowds loved his Massive Change show at the Vancouver Art Gallery in 2004 but art critics were less convinced by the argument that technology now allows us to redesign the whole world for the better. Nonetheless, Mau was in the midst of doing a larger and more ambitious version in Beijing when the deteriorating diplomatic relationship between Canada and China got in the way, and the project had to put on hold. Similarly, a decade ago, his ideas for redesigning the pilgrimage site at Mecca ran into politics, when critics complained that a non-Muslim should not be touching Islam’s holy site. But Benji points out that Mau remains committed and engaged to projects over decades.

Mau, who started out as a graphic designer in Toronto but now lives in Chicago, has built his career on the notion that everything can be designed.

“We want instant results but these huge projects take time,” Jono added, noting that Mau’s work at Mecca inspired private developers to start working on similar plans to solve the over-crowding issues that have long plagued the site. “What is success or failure? Is success to have been the catalyst or is it to actually implement something?”

In one of the film’s most poignant scenes, Mau reveals the limits to his system in which everything is either accidental or by design: He has heart problems and concedes he has not been designing his health the way he should.

“It’s one of the few moments of cinema verité in the film,” Jono said. “In that moment of weakness, even in his musings, he kept coming back to that mantra. … A lot of people love it; a lot of people criticize it … but he genuinely believes that seven billion designed lives stacked together will make the world a better place.”

Mau is available across the country through the virtual Hot Docs Film Festival, which runs April 29 through May 9 (hotdocs.ca). On May 5 at 7 p.m., Bruce Mau and directors Benji and Jono Bergmann will participate in a live Q&A session

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