Sincerely: Kelly O’Brien (Toronto, 2017)


Sincerely: Kelly O’Brien movies and Facebook performance
February 18, 2017 at CineCycle
Pleasure Dome

For the past two decades local treasure Kelly O’Brien has been making documentary shorts, usually shot on super 8, remapping its typical home movie subjects to include first person missives on bad habits, gender and heartbreak. The work is driven by her intelligent and compassionate voice, and carries an unflinching emotional wallop. For the past half dozen years she has art-hacked Facebook, posting luminous family snaps with accompanying texts that are part philosophical aside, part family-stand up. Please join us for a mini-retro of the artist’s movies along with a brand new Facebook performance.

Stars 2.5 minutes 2005
“This is the first super 8 footage I ever shot,” says the filmmaker, opening her memory vault to recover a moment of friendship with Laura Cowell and Christina Zeidler. She remaps the “burn burn burn” of Kerouac’s On the Road onto a kid’s playground with her very own dynamic duo just gassing around. Every frame assures us that memory lives in the bodies of our pals, if they leave us, they take with them our former selves.

Suck 4 minutes 2000
Made for a themed program at the Splice This! fest, the film is divided into ten brief segments, each offering an incisive punch line. While the artist begins with her own experience of thumb sucking and nail biting, this quickly widens to include a voice-over narration that describes shoplifting, eating disorders, self image, and the construction of femininity. The work is rooted in the artist’s face, shot up close to fill the frame by her pal Gillian. Insistently cross-cut with nail salon signage, it is hard not to read the artist’s face as another territory of signs. This face is also a construction zone, a symptom, the question mark of gender meeting the camera again and again, wondering why.

Don’t Leave Me 18.5 minutes 2011
In this hybrid anti-war doc, the artist mashes up interviews with (American) Iraq war resisters (and their families) with the august recollections of A-bomb scientist Joseph Rotblatt (the Noble Peace prize-winning scientist who left the Manhattan Project). Cindy Sheehan (“the peace mom”), speaks movingly about her son Casey who died needlessly in Iraq, Jill Hart joined her husband in Canada after he fled the army, Christopher Magaoay and Darrell Anderson also went AWOL and came to Canada. They testify to war crimes committed in Iraq, debunk the myth that began the war (weapons of mass destruction) and reminds us just how young these drafted state killers are. In place of war zones the artist deploys home movies from the Prelinger Archives and a swoon of electronica. It’s her first and (so far) only found footage movie. “I never saw an enemy to shoot at.” A carefully composed, thoughtfully edited song of protest.

High School Senior 2.45 minutes 2014
Part of a longer work about the American poet of intimate family life, Sharon Olds, the camera grazes over flowers and dreamy imaginings, as the artist and her daughter Emma recite a poem of generational parting, as if rehearsing for the moment when they too will have to say good-bye, like all of the others.

Walk With Me 4.5 minutes 2016
Nicki Campbell is a special needs teacher in Toronto’s Beverley Public School. Among her many charges is the artist’s son Teddy, whose endless good humour and easygoing patience is accompanied by severe brain damage. Nicki’s out on a stroll with her fellow teachers and a half dozen of Teddy’s comrades. She brushes away commonplace assumptions about mentally challenged kids as a line of strollers re-marks the neighbourhood. Photographed in 16mm by John Price.

In the Trees 1.5 minutes 2016
A lyric short, set on a forest of a sidewalk. The shadows speak in the voices of the artist’s two young daughters, reciting a poem, in refrained lines, call and echo, by Canadian poet John Terpstra.

How Does Life Live? 3 minutes 2017
Based on philosopher-daughter Willow’s questions which reliably puncture and transform reality.

Unknown-2 images

Postings From Home (performance) 30 minutes 2017
This will be the artist’s third iteration of her performance for projected stills and live voice narrations. Snapping pics from the most personal moments of her life, Kelly began posting them on Facebook as “a sketchbook of my life.” But like her movies, these pictures asked for the accompaniment of words. She began the work of narration by recounting conversations with her witty smartful kids, who are also her most frequent subjects. Amply furnished with quotes from her deep readings into contemporary feminism and eco-philosophy, these everyday encounters form an ongoing investigation that is humorous, strange and deeply moving.

Kelly O’Brien: “I never referred to it as an art project. It was more of a daily experiment, a way to make sense of what was happening around me, share a little beauty, some poignant bits of conversation.

This Facebook project has had some interesting side effects. I notice the world around me more. I pay more attention to things my kids, friends and strangers say. I look for nature in the city in ways that I didn’t before. Facebook has given me a creative life that I never could’ve anticipated. It’s been like my art school.” (interview with Leah Collins)


Kelly O’Brien intro
Good evening and welcome to Pleasure Dome. This is the second show of our winter season, we have shows on each of the next two weekends. In only six days we’re going to show local artist Wrik Mead, who has so often turned to super 8 as a machine of magical reinvention, often working frame by frame to reimagine narratives of coming out and queer desire.

The week after Wrik we will host Nathalie Bujold, a Quebecois artist who is having her first Toronto show. The work is formal, meticulous, feminist; forms of visual music.

I would like to acknowledge this sacred land on which CineCycle operates. It has been a site of human activity for 15,000 years. This land is the territory of the Huron-Wendat and Petun First Nations, the Seneca, and most recently, the Mississaugas of the Credit River. The territory was the subject of the Dish With One Spoon Wampum Belt Covenant, an agreement between the Iroquois Confederacy and Confederacy of the Ojibwe and allied nations to peaceably share and care for the resources around the Great Lakes.

Today, the meeting place of Toronto (from the Haudenosaunee word Tkaronto) is still the home to many Indigenous people from across Turtle Island and we are grateful to have the opportunity to work in this territory.

In gatherings large and small, it is a commonplace when Indigenous folks are present, to name the place where each is from. It’s as if we can’t really be here, in this room, in this moment, tonight, unless we can acknowledge where we are from. The question of the land, the question of home lies at the very heart of tonight’s program.

Kelly O’Brien began making movies in the mid-90s with She-TV, a feminist movie-making collective that took advantage of this strange and beautiful provision, that in exchange for space on the TV dial, cable TV had to give access to local folks who wanted to make their own programming. She used her time there to transition from tree planter and short-order cook to a media maker at City (TV network), working at SexTV, BookTV, and finally adding a political charge to MTV. Her day job was not enough though, so in 1998, together with gal pal Laura Cowell, they made sure that a new festival arrived in Toronto called Splice This! dedicated to the joys of super 8 film. Each festival featured a program of new works made for the fest on a particular theme, and this gathering of friends and outliers, this community portal became a place where the promise of exhibition led the hope of production. Kelly made a short super 8 movie each year of the festival and we’re going to look at a couple tonight.

Alongside her more public work, she has made classroom videos for her daughters Emma and Willow on several occasions. They are heartbreaking, beautiful, fully accomplished, each of them shown exactly once to the kids and parents at the school. Could we call them community service vehicles?

Like many of us who need to work but can’t stand jobs, she went back to school, where she made the found footage doc about war resisters that we’re going to watch tonight, and she began a movie about her son Teddy called Softening, which stretched out her forms, deepened her commitments.

After finishing an MFA in film, she stepped right back up to the plate and got an MA in Environmental Studies, just like all the other cool kids, and made some shorts along the way. Tonight we’re going to look at a survey of her single-channel movie work, it will run about half an hour, then we’ll take a ten-minute break, then watch her Facebook performance, the tearjerker hit of last year’s Images Festival. I hope you brought your handkerchiefs, I know I brought mine. Please join me in welcoming our friend and comrade Kelly O’Brien.