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'There's a new culture," Ron Mann says, scanning the streetscape of Toronto's King Street West from the lip of a sidewalk café. There's a blur of cars; a wall of billboards; a moving fence of pedestrians. "That may be stating it strongly, but it's a new generation, a new millennium."

One thought chases the next through his mind. He jiggles in his seat, his intellectual agitation about it all as wild as his whitish mop of curly hair. "This is a generation that wants the world to be a better place," he says, leaning in for emphasis, splaying his legs so his chest leans against the table, his eyes magnified behind clear round glasses. "But Hollywood movies are all referential! They are movies about other movies! Or some director is reliving his childhood [by doing remakes.]They're not about what's really happening!" he continues, getting more excited by the minute. "And because of that gap, there's a real thirst for new documentaries."

He is on his sixth double espresso. That could be why he's so frenetic. Or maybe not. He is always like this: a tad obsessive about ideas.

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It could be because his new doc, Go Further, which follows actor/activist Woody Harrelson and friends on a 2,000-kilometre road trip in a hemp-fuelled bus (Harrelson goes on bike) down the Pacific coast from Seattle to L.A., will make its debut tonight at a sold-out special presentation in the Perspective Canada program at the Toronto International Film Festival.

In the film, Harrelson, a longtime environmental activist who rose to fame as the bartender on the hit television series, Cheers, is on a speaking tour to promote Simple Organic Living. Along the way, they drop in on Ken Kesey, the legendary sixties icon who died unexpectedly soon after; a farmer who makes organic fertilizer on his worm ranch; and solar-living experts, among others. There are many funny moments. At one point, they encounter skeptical crystal-meth addicts who are told they should clean up their act by gorging on fruit dipped in seaweed goop.

"It's a road movie, like The Wizard of Oz or Easy Rider with bicycles, and you meet all these people along the way. It's loopy," says Mann. The surprising star of the film is Steve Clark, a goofy everyman who joins the bus trip in an attempt at self-conversion. Go Further got a standing ovation at the South by Southwest film festival earlier this year.

"You can either launch a film at a festival or sell it," Mann says. "We're here to sell ours," he adds with a wide, sheepish grin. He was going to show it in New York, but decided to hold off, so he could entertain all distribution offers at once. He has received "calls of interest" from many people in the industry, from Miramax to HBO, he says. "And Woody told me that out of all the films he has done, he is most proud of this." Mann pauses for emphasis. "Wow," he exclaims more to himself than to me, as though he has just now realized the significance of that statement.

Mann, 45, used to smoke two packs of cigarettes a day. But he has given up his non-healthy ways -- the coffee addiction notwithstanding -- ever since he decided to chronicle Harrelson's speaking tour on "how to live with a light footprint on the planet." (The two men first met when Harrelson narrated Mann's Genie Award-winning documentary about marijuana laws, Grass.)

Mann is one big Rolodex of passions. Healthy living is his latest. "I'm trying, really trying," he says. He practises yoga and eats organic food when possible. In two years, he has lost roughly 23 kilograms.

Just as he is telling you about one passion, another pops into his mind. "Everyday, there's a new idea," he says, staring out into the street as if there's something in the air he wants to grasp. Why, just the other day he was talking to the owners of the Downward Dog yoga studio in Toronto, and he started thinking about the filmic possibilities. He is also musing about documenting the story of value-led businesses -- companies that mandate themselves to put a percentage of their profits toward good causes.

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Each of Mann's films takes about four years to complete, although Go Further was a two-year project. Currently, he is working on a film about Ed (Big Daddy) Roth, the American artist and designer (creator of the repulsive anti-Mickey Mouse rodent icon, Rat Fink), who died in April, 2001.

Over the course of a career that has spanned more than 20 years, Mann has chronicled one popular culture craze after another. Firmly on the fringe, he has made films about jazz ( Imagine the Sound in 1981), poetry ( Poetry in Motion in 1983), comic books ( Comic Book Confidential in 1988), sixties dance fads ( Twist in 1992) and marijuana ( Grass in 1999). "I make films for subcultures. I'm interested in visionary artists and hidden histories," he says in an attempt to encapsulate his many fascinations.

That the world now seems willing to embrace documentaries delights him. (At the start of his career, after graduating from the University of Toronto with a degree in political philosophy, Mann would not have been making films if it weren't for the support of CITY-TV producer Jay Switzer, he says.) He certainly never imagined that his genre would become mainstream.

But it has. There was the huge Academy Award-winning success of Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine. "It made $100-million!" Mann crows. Such recent releases as Winged Migration, Jacques Perrin's study of the lives of migrating birds, confirm the trend. "I'm still a pretty underground guy," Mann maintains, even though he lives with his wife, Patricia, a nutritionist, and their four children, aged 5 to 13, in a house in Toronto's upscale Moore Park neighbourhood. "Well, there are small houses in Moore Park," he offers.

A documentary about Mann -- call it the Master of Fringe -- would include a scene in a small house in the east-end suburbs of Toronto, where he grew up. His father, Harold, was a struggling television repairman for 25 years until he opened an audio/video store. His mother, Amy, was a painter. He had one older brother, Don, a poet and musician, who died of heart failure at 47. He was a precocious child. In Grade 6, he got upset that Kraft had come out with individually wrapped cheese slices. What a waste! As a project, his class petitioned the company and set up a boycott of the convenience product.

That same prepubescent year, he was making his first film with a small camera he had been given as a present. "It was about going downtown," Mann says now, smiling at the memory of it. "Just an impression of downtown." His amateur film was styled after Very Nice, Very Nice (1961), the experimental first film of Arthur Lipsett, a National Film Board photographer and director. Lipsett's six-minute effort was "a send-up of social mores," Mann explains. And Mann knew about all this at 12? "Yeah, yeah," he confirms, looking down at his hemp-cloth T-shirt and Gap pants.

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The pivotal moment in Mann's life happened at 20. He had made a film about poker called The Only Game in Town, which was screened at the 1978 Toronto International Film Festival. But unable to secure funding without someone more seasoned and senior involved, he took his film to New York to show the legendary Emile de Antonio, one of the greatest independent filmmakers in the United States.

He liked Mann's work and agreed to get involved in his next project, a film about a New Wave rock concert, called Heatwave. The film never got made -- in their enthusiasm for the project, Mann's financial partners neglected to get permission to film the various bands -- but the friendship between the two men was cemented. (Later, de Antonio became executive producer of Imagine the Sound.)

"He was my mentor, my father. He taught me how to drink, how to gamble. All the important things," Mann recalls with relish. "He taught me in film that I had to trust my own voice," he says. His most important lesson was simply that documentaries are important to the culture.

"I see myself as a cultural historian more than as a filmmaker," Mann says. Why? "Because what we document is what's in the air. And if we don't, it doesn't exist. It's gone."

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