"Any documentary filmmaker worth his salt has to become obsessed by his subject," said Stefan Avalos, director of Strad Style, which arrived in Toronto for its Canadian premiere at Hot Docs.
There are two cases of obsession involved in Strad Style. The subject of the movie is Daniel Houck, an eccentric guy living in rural Ohio, who is obsessed with making violins. But when Avalos visits Houck, he becomes obsessed with Houck and his story, too.
Strad Style arrived in Toronto with impressive credentials, having won the Grand Jury Award and the Audience Award for best documentary feature in January at the Slamdance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. (Slamdance is a parallel festival for small-budget movies, running in Park City at the same time as the larger, more mainstream Sundance Film Festival.)
The jury honoured the film for "capturing a journey of passion and commitment, honesty and the triumph of one vision against all the odds."
Avalos, who is based in Los Angeles, had been working on a more general doc, which was going to be serious and dry. He had been shooting in Los Angeles, New York, Indianapolis, and Cremona, Italy, interviewing great violinists, scientists, collectors and violin makers. But then he heard about Houck, and drove to Laurelville, Ohio, to meet him.
Houck's home was on an estate on the edge of a cornfield. His family had once lived in the main house, built in 1853. He occupied the barn. It was cold and damp, and he didn't have enough money to fix anything.
"I had a friend who was a violinist," Houck said in a phone interview. One day, this friend informed Houck he had told Avalos about Houck's plan to make a replica of the Il Cannone by Guarneri del Gesu, one of the most famous violins in history.
Houck, 33, wanted to recreate the instrument, though he had never seen one. And he wanted to use "candle magic", which he had been studying. It is based on the mystic idea that, through certain rituals, you can be guided toward your goal. (The theory behind candle magic is that, by using certain materials, such as short candles, oil, or a certain kind of paper, and by visualizing the result, you can earn guidance.)
The cost of materials Houck needed to make the violin was about $1,000, and it took him eight months to make the violin.
Houck also learned from this friend that Avalos was working on a documentary about the history of violins, and wanted to interview Houck. It would be a short segment, just a few minutes, in the doc Avalos thought he was making. After meeting Houck in Ohio, Avalos said he realized, "I've got a whole different movie here." So he discarded two years' worth of work.
Key to all this was the enthusiastic support of celebrated solo violinist Razvan Stoica (best known by his first name). After catching a Razvan performance on YouTube, Houck contacted him through Facebook. Razvan told Houck he would love to play the new instrument at a prestigious concert in Amsterdam in June, 2016. Razvan did indeed play it, and Houck flew to Amsterdam. The day after he delivered the instrument, Razvan used it to play the Paganini Violin Concerto No. 1.
What Avalos realized is that Houck is such an entertaining character. Avalos saw the movie as a human-interest story, not a mere music documentary. "What made him fascinating," Avalos said, "was that unlike most people, he was willing to wear his dreams on his sleeve."
In the course of the shoot, Avalos, working alone, felt obliged to cross the usual barrier between director and subject. "There were a couple of situations when I had to put the camera aside and fix problems in the house," he said. The moral to this tale, he said, is that "to compete with the masters, you've got to be a little crazy."
Avalos also felt a kinship with Houck because, like many doc film directors, Houck was working with an inadequate budget, without enough equipment, and without expertise in his subject.
"These problems are all too well known in the doc film world," said Avalos. "What really intrigued me was that Danny's dreams and foibles are the same ones we all have ... especially people who want to create."
Strad Style runs at Hot Docs April 28, April 30, May 5 and May 7 (hotdocs.ca).