An interview with Midi Onodera by Elysse Leonard and Katrina Lagace (for Local Film Cultures, Cinema Studies, University of Toronto, December 2011.
Elysse and Katrina: Briefly describe your involvement with the Funnel and, if applicable, the Centre for Experimental Arts and Communication (CEAC) (e.g., duration, how you became involved, particular contributions).
Midi: I worked at the Funnel from 1984 to 1986 as the Equipment Manager. Before that I was an associate member while attending OCA. I continued as a member until the early 90s. The Funnel was the hub for experimental film – exhibition, production and distribution in Toronto and one of the main centres for experimental film in North America.
Elysse and Katrina: How would you define the philosophy of the Funnel (i.e., its cultural/ideological aims and objectives)? How did this philosophy translate into the organization’s methods and practices?
Midi: The Funnel was an artist-run centre. We depended on volunteer support from our membership and government grants. Our board was involved and committed to the practice of experimental filmmaking. In those days film was very separate from video. We did not have specific guidelines or definitions about what constituted “experimental” but it was clear that traditional narrative storytelling was not supported. LIFT was focused on independent filmmaking and served that community. We also had a “gallery” space in the theatre lobby where the odd film-related work was exhibited.
Elysse and Katrina: Broadly speaking, how did being a publicly funded organization impact the Funnel?
Midi: Some of the Funnel directors, such as Anna Gronau and Michaelle McLean were very active in the anti-censorship battle. As a result our members were very supportive of this cause and politically informed. Available funding for artist-run centres was a bit more diverse than it is today. Since I was in charge of the equipment, I recall there was a fund operated by the Ontario Lottery Corporation. Non-profit organizations could apply for equipment purchases. This was beneficial for us and enabled us to have a minimal arsenal of super 8, regular 8, 16mm production and post-production equipment. There was also a provincial program for hiring young people and the Funnel took advantage of this to support their office staff. (I was hired by the Futures program).
Elysse and Katrina: What made the Funnel distinct from similar organizations at the time within Toronto or North America more generally (e.g., the Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre, the Film-Makers’ Cooperative)?
Midi: The Funnel was the centre for production, exhibition and distribution of experimental films. We had a catalogue of titles that housed works by Canadian and international filmmakers. We had screenings on a weekly basis and held public workshops on film production. There was no other artist-run centre in the city that had such a broad mandate.
Elysse and Katrina: How would you characterize the relationship between the Funnel, the larger art community, and the general public? Would you describe the Funnel as an inclusive/exclusive environment?
Midi: During my time at the Funnel we were located in the east end of the city. Most of the other artist-run centres were in the west end. By sheer geography we were cut off from the larger arts community. As I mentioned before we were exclusively involved in filmmaking rather than video art, which at that time had a very distinct aesthetic. Like all artist run centres our membership was diverse, eccentric and committed.
Elysse and Katrina: Describe a typical spectator experience at the Funnel (e.g., attendance, audience demographics, physical qualities of the space, supplementary materials and discussion).
Midi: There was no “typical” spectator at the Funnel. Because our programming was international, diverse and unexpected, our audiences varied with the exception of our core membership. Some nights were packed while others, almost empty. We were located in warehouse space that had barely functioning toilets, minimal heat in the winter and no AC. Our theatre was small, (perhaps 50 seats? I don’t remember for sure). The theatre seats were old and were from a burlesque theatre on Spadina (I think it was the Victory Theatre at Spadina and Dundas, which closed in the 1970s). We had 2 state of the art 16mm projectors as well as super 8 and a fairly good audio system that could play double system (audio tape tapes: reel to reel and cassette, a mixer, microphones, etc). We would hold projection workshops for our volunteer projectionists and practice the lost art of the seamless reel changes. I am sure there are hundreds of stories that could be told about the projection booth alone. I shot Jack Smith’s performance in time-lapse super 8, and recall many a card game while we played Michael Snow’s Wavelength.
Elysse and Katrina: How would you characterize the demographics of the artists involved with the Funnel (e.g., education, gender, race)? Do you feel gender and race were salient concerns within the group?
Midi: As with most artist-run centres at that time, our membership was primarily white, lower to middle class, and broke. However I worked with Anna and Michaelle who were strong directors and encouraged women to become more involved. In the mid 1980s, New Narrative filmmaking was just taking off (much to the distain of the male structuralist filmmakers) and there seemed to be a strong feminist influence in programming and production. This was a very exciting time and a great influence in my own practice. Race and sexual orientation were invisible aspects of the community.
Elysse and Katrina: How did the Funnel evolve over the years (e.g., in terms of philosophy, demographics, politics, practice, funding)?
Midi: I think, unfortunately the Funnel didn’t evolve after the late 1980s. The glory days of experimental film were over and I don’t think that the philosophies or politics expanded with the times. More and more video and film were merging, technology was changing and the leadership was lacking in new ideas to continue to attract membership. I wonder if the Funnel could have made it into the 21st century. Somehow I doubt it. It was a product of its’ time.
Elysse and Katrina: Describe the surrounding area of any/all of the Funnel’s various sites (e.g., surrounding businesses and other cultural institutions, demographics). Describe the relationship between these spaces and the Funnel’s operations, self-definition, etc.
Midi: Joyce Wieland lived nearby and I think she also had a studio in the building. She was a great supporter of the Funnel and she and Kay Armatage did some work on “Artist on Fire: The Work of Joyce Wieland” there. Kay hired me to restore some of Joyce’s prints since the original negatives were either lost or the work was shot on reversal. Other than that, there were two bars, great, old working class bars that we used to frequent. The east end of King was mostly photo lab country, there were no art galleries or Distillery District like today.
Elysse and Katrina: How did the Funnel impact Toronto film culture then and now?
Midi: There is no doubt that for many of the core membership at the Funnel, this community played a major role in our filmmaking lives. Although there are only a handful of ex-Funnel filmmakers continuing to make work, its’ existence has become somewhat mythical. There is no singular history on the Funnel. Everyone has their own perspectives and memories and I suppose this is how it should be.