Underground (2017)

book cover

Special thanks to Kilby Smith-McGregor, the wondrous designer of this book


Underground: The untold story of the Funnel film collective

The best-kept secret of the Canadian film underground remains the Funnel, a muchly rumoured experimental film collective that remapped fringe practice in Toronto for a decade. 25 years after it folded its tents, the inner sanctums have remained shrouded in a haze of banishments and dark rumours, there have been almost no attempts to tell the story, no retrospective screenings or anniversary toasts.

For the past half dozen years I have been working on an oral history book about the Funnel. It tells the story of a Canadian fringe film collective that built its own movie theatres, re-versioned home movie equipment to produce avant-garde art and published its own articles of faith. The Funnel created a distinct economy based on volunteerism, a shared set of historical codes and aesthetic benchmarks derived from artists’ films, all fueled by a radically egalitarian decision-making process. Curiously or not, it was run by hippies who had turned into punks, all bound by a communal ethos. It is laid out in three chapters with an introduction.

In 1516 Thomas More built a perfect city out of words and named it Utopia. It was a clockwork palace, a delivery vehicle for the happiness of each of its citizens, and this city would become a touchstone for anyone who occupied a street or participated in a march believing that another world was possible. The word utopia has Greek roots meaning “no place,” as if it conjures a home too perfect to be recognized in a world like this one, or else that home is everywhere you look, too nomadic to be tied down to an architecture, erupting instead out of every encounter whose outcome is radically unknown. As queer utopianist José Muñoz wrote, “We have never been queer, yet queerness exists for us as an ideality that can be distilled from the past and used to imagine a future.”[i]
This book is about a utopia called the Funnel. It was a Canadian fringe film collective that built its own movie theatres, re-versioned home movie equipment to produce avant-garde art and published its own articles of faith. It created a distinct economy based on volunteerism, a shared set of historical codes and aesthetic benchmarks derived from artists’ films, all fueled by a radically egalitarian decision-making process. Curiously or not, it was run by hippies who had turned into punks, all bound by a communal ethos. The Funnel was a proto-queer, post-family structure, deploying a pre-Internet web of internationalist contacts and micro-scenes.

The collective aim was to produce an autonomous state opposed to capitalism, first by revising the role of the public theatre. The Funnel’s three theatres, built between 1977-1988, were a projection of its audience. They were constructed, staffed and maintained by volunteers; converted during off-hours into movie sets, recording studios and private party palaces; and maintained in their public display mode as screens strictly dedicated to experimental films that took aim at the very heart of a neo-liberal consensus. The blank screen was the no-place that made this utopia possible, the gathering point of a collective that became artists by carefully attending to the accumulating projections.

Experimental film is an art of attention. Each movie might be as long as a single frame or run for days. It encourages viewers to keep the frame of attention front and centre, because the way movies are made changes what is being seen. Form is also content. The hope is that new forms can be invented that will allow new subjects to emerge, along with new kinds of pleasure. These fringe/avant/independent movies are usually made by a single artist, though exceptions are the rule in this microverse. They invite a return to a developmental stage where curiosity is the keynote; they can encourage deep listening and new receptivities.

After many fringe screenings — and the Funnel was no exception to this — the artist is typically invited to hang out with their audience, restoring a new democracy where visitors might become part of a tribe, one which allows itself to be touched and transformed, subtly enlarged. Discussions can continue well after the screening. These casual debates, swirling around the no-place of the screen, were at the very heart of the project of the alternative modernist utopia known as the Funnel.

Fringe histories are notoriously difficult to track because they emerge from local scenes. They often leave little trace in official media; even the more specialized back pages of the artworld rarely embrace fringe media projections. Whether it is Yann Beauvais and Miles McKane beginning the first experimental movie distribution in France out of their bedroom, or the backyard screenings that started up Canyon Cinema in San Francisco, or the friendship of Keith Lock and David Anderson that resulted in a landmark film series called Freud Signs sprung from their downtown Toronto loft, the fringe is often a story of local inspirations amidst makeshift conditions. Some of these initiatives have endured, while others have shape-shifted into different organizations, or become part of a necessary media compost for new directions. How might these scenes become part of the larger history of Canadian cinema? How could a media archaeologist begin to mine the layers of conversations, once-only screenings, handmade posters, movie performances and visiting guests? Often the only way is to interview the artists who were present, those who could bear witness; and while memory can be an unreliable resource, the cinema is necessarily a collective project, so one person’s account can be checked against another.

This book took shape as an elaboration of fringe media’s oral culture traditions. Having been steeped in the fringe movie codes of artist confessionals, I’ve undertaken a two-decade-long project of interviewing Canadian moviemakers in the hopes that artists might be both seen and heard. Two oversized books of interviews have already been published, with a third in preparation. These volumes unwrap in-depth encounters; they are primary documents of a multi-generational Canadian media art scene.

I am not a disinterested observer of these mostly forgotten and left behind moments. I started going to the Funnel in 1980 and retained membership for most of its operation, which meant, like everyone else, I sat on the board, projected movies, took tickets at the door, put up posters and swept the floors. I worshipped at the altar of committees. I learned the value of everything money couldn’t buy, and how ideals could build community one volunteer hour at a time. What follows is an insider account. After a quarter century it’s past time to gather the documents, make a scrum of the witnesses and lay down some tracks so that others can see where we had found the good light, and where we lost our way.

The many voices in this book are a formal projection of the Funnel itself, a horizontal organization that tried to give weight to every member. While there were directors and programmers, individual members were encouraged to pipe up about everything from hoped-for guests to the state of the toilets. If the admittance fee was an inhuman amount of volunteer labour, the reward was having a say in every decision that mattered. More than once, faced with yet another crisis at the doorstep, the entire membership would be summoned for a meeting that no one imagined ducking.

Many of the events described in this book were carried on by twentysomethings. Blame it on our youth. Through it all we tried to hold space for a minor cinema, and the thousand undreamt worlds that these new pictures might make possible. Along the way there were censorship mountains, personality divides, film-versus-video head scratchings and the flowering of community. I’m not exactly sure why the story of the Funnel hasn’t been told before. We burned out, we grew older and had children, or else became children. We got real jobs or else we continued the drift at home. It’s harder to imagine now, this fiercely first-person cinema relying on a collective architecture and shared gear. Today, all of that can be contained in a computer the size of a pocket book. But you can’t get naked with someone inside your computer, at least not yet, never mind feel the collective gasp of wonder as homegrown magics flicker across a blank wall for the first time. Was the Funnel a necessary prelude, a final analog embrace before the digital flood tide, a tribal summons? Where had we been all those years anyway — the underground?

This book is divided into three parts. The first section explores the complex swirl of relationships that helped create the Funnel, including the resistance to the Vietnam War; gay liberation; the back to the land project called Buck Lake; early exhibitions of fringe film in Toronto; and the calamitous rise and fall of CEAC (Centre for Experimental Art and Communication), the gay Marxist collective that first housed the Funnel. The book’s midsection examines the organization’s operations, its contentious relationship with the provincial Censor Board, and its vertical integration of production, distribution and exhibition. Finally, the book’s third section details a story that has eluded even most insiders up until now: the reasons why the dream ended.


[i] José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (New York: New York University Press, 2009), 2.