New Voices in Canadian Cinema: Montreal Edition — Aonan Yang, Diego Rivera Kohn, and Shahab Mihandoust in conversation with Federico Hidalgo.
Aonan Yang was born in Wo Long Quan, (Dragon Creek Village), Liao Ning Province, China. As a youngster, he wrote his own plays, stand-up routines for pairs (“in the Chinese style”), and poetry. His family was one of the first in his small town to own a VCR, and his house became a renowned venue for friends and neighbours to watch films on tape. He and his family moved to Canada when Aonan was 16. Despite his long interest in the arts, his parents encouraged him to study in a field that would give him greater security. He opted for Computer Engineering at the University of Toronto, a program so demanding that he completely disengaged from his Chinese friends and culture. After completing his degree, he moved to Montreal to help his parents run a group of corner stores (dépanneurs) and a bar in the east end of the city. Three years later, he enrolled in the Cinema program at Concordia University. In 2008, with former class-mates Andreas Mendritzki and Nguyen-Anh Nguyen, Yang founded GreenGround Productions, a cosmopolitan hub of creative activity now widely-admired in the independent film community. Aonan Yang is an award-winning cinematographer, producer, and director. His medium-length film A Winter Song will be released in Montreal in September, 2012.
FH: Aonan, do you remember watching movies in China when you were young?
AY: I was born in the northern part of China. My parents were munitions factory workers. They were sent to Dragon Creek Village in 1973 to make bullets, along with about 1500 other families. Because my family and these other families were not farmers, they had a department in the factory that organized all kinds of entertainment events, such as choirs and stage plays. My father was very involved and my mother was always pushing me too, when I was five or six, and very shy, to go to this department and participate. So I began dancing, singing, reciting poetry. In the summer, a troupe would come to project films in our schoolyard– mostly Indian musicals and Soviet films. We would bring our little stove and watch outside.
FH: And later on, when your family’s VCR became a local hot-spot?
AY: Kung Fu, Horror. Films from Hong Kong, Taiwan. Wong Kar-wai’s films: Ashes of Time, Chungking Express. A friend of mine and I were very excited by Chung-King Express, and we didn’t know why, we had no idea why, but we really loved it.
FH: Let’s fast-forward now to your film A Winter Song. The main character is Zhang, who was once an engineer in China and now runs a corner store with his wife in the east end of Montreal. The story begins with Zhang getting medical tests done on himself, concerned that he may have a recurrence of lymphoma. Throughout the film, we observe his daily life in the dépanneur, his relationship with his wife and child, and with his Chinese friends, who are also dépanneur owners. A fair description?
FH: I had the privilege of reading an early version of the script, and I know that it’s based on a real anecdote. Can you tell us more about the origin of your film?
AY: I heard so many stories like this from store owners like my parents. I also physically worked in the dép, moving beer, moving all kinds of things, and learning how you make 3 or 4 pennies profit out of a pack of candy. I learned about store owners’ mentality and way of working. During this time, I wanted to help my father, by working harder with him to make things better. Then I realized that these people, yes, they felt that they were getting better, and that they had happier lives, but they couldn’t get out of it, or beyond it. They couldn’t get past the boundaries between the Chinese community and the French and local culture. I wanted to make a film about this.
FH: You were inspired by your own ambivalence about this life, this work which is a source of improvement but also socially very limiting, very isolating?
AY: What’s particular to this group of people is that once they left China for a better life, China actually became better–on TV. That’s why there’s a scene in A Winter Song where they discuss going back to China now. Though I feel the film is not only about China, it’s about what happens once you’ve left a place. Your relationship between where you are now and your past.
FH: Are the characters in the film played by professional actors?
AY: No, they are all non-professionals. Though the lead actor did study and perform in the Peking Opera troupe.
FH: Did you write the scene in the film where the introverted Zhang sings for his friends only once you’d discovered that the lead actor had this experience?
FH: It’s a very touching moment. One night in the film, there is a “hot-pot” at the store, a dinner gathering of friends of the main couple, all store-owners. During this event, Zhang’s ten-year-old boy recites from an essay he wrote in Mandarin for his Chinese school. From this essay, we learn about Zhang and his wife’s past and about the difficulties they now face at the child’s French school. The boy’s essay expands the world of the film immensely. Tell us about casting for this boy.
AY: A few kids came to the audition, but very few weren’t shy. This child was very communicative, not only in speaking but in his actions.
FH: How did you explain the role to him?
AY: I explained the idea of this family and told him that he would be reading from an essay. I asked him if he could write an essay about his own family. But the boy was born here and his Chinese writing was not at the level I needed. So I adapted some elementary school essays by children born in China, including one from my little sister when she was studying here. I gave the boy the essay, but didn’t let him memorize it so it would sound natural when he performed.
FH: At this party, the adults really celebrate the boy’s ability to use Mandarin.
AY: This is a reflection of how it really is. The adults have a hard time communicating in French and English, so the language they can use to communicate with their kids is Chinese. They want to be able to educate their kids in their own way. Otherwise it would be completely out of their hands.
FH: By celebrating the boy’s achievement in the language, they’re celebrating the survival of their own identity?
FH: Affirming a connection to their past and to the hopes they initially brought with them.
AY: They came here in their middle age, and they identify themselves as Chinese. And even if they don’t, other people will, or the environment will. It’s very specific to that generation of Chinese immigrants.
FH: In the film, we watch Zhang busily stacking the shelves, fixing the plumbing, taking care of the customers. But you also give time to his “in-between” moments. Your observational approach includes silence and stillness.
AY: It’s the stillness that allows you to appreciate things. The longer duration of a shot allows certain things to land. This is connected to aspects of Chinese philosophy that I’m interested in.
FH: So it’s an aesthetic or philosophical view that you’re expressing?
AY: I was thinking about how I would be able to portray the character’s daily routines in the store. He does the same thing over and over again, 365 days a year. I decided not to show him repeating the same action many times. Instead, I show his action once all the way through, so we really understand it. The actor was able to find his own pace. He had already worked in a real store as a cashier, and it came naturally to him. His silence and concentration allows us to get into his world.
FH: You show Zhang’s store as a social space, an economic space where transactions happen, but you also show it as a private space. Some difficult and intimate conversations between Zhang and his mother (on a long-distance call), and between Zhang and his wife, take place in this store.
AY: Just the other day, a friend of mine who had watched my film told me he’d walked into his local dépanneur and the owner’s kid was practicing piano in the store. They spend a lot of hours there, and the store doesn’t generate enough money so they can hire somebody to take care of the children. So all of their life is in that space.
FH: You also convert the store in your film into a performance space. When they have their “hot pot,” the child recites for the gathered friends. And when Zhang sings, we become aware of the acoustics of the store as his voice fills it up. This space has so many dimensions beyond what we might think of as a corner store. This reminded me of my experience in Latin America, where people also spend a lot of time in their small stores. Things get bought and sold, of course, but a lot of family events, private and community gatherings, announcements and parties also happen there. Everything overlaps.
FH: Would you like Montrealers to see A Winter Song as a Montreal film?
FH: To discover something about their city through your film?
AY: Yes, very much. I think the audience for the film is here. The audience really is Quebec. People who’ve seen the film want to know more about these stores, and often tell me stories about the stores they know.
Aonan Yang is currently producing Xiaodan He’s “The Pear Tree Blossoms In Silence,” a feature film set in Montreal and Dazu, China. Yang’s previous accomplishments as writer-director include A Winter Song and In the Depth of Summer, and as producer, Tao Gu’s award-winning film about survivors of the 2008 earthquake in Wenchuan, China: On the Way to the Sea. For details, please visit GreenGround Productions.
Diego Rivera Kohn was born in Mexico City. He studied film in Argentina, where his parents are from. In 2001, he returned to Mexico and began making social documentaries with both local and European producers. Seven years ago, Rivera Kohn moved to Montreal to do his Master’s in Film Production at Concordia University. Recently, he completed the Interactive Media Program at the Institut National de l’Image et du Son (INIS). Now based in Montreal, Rivera Kohn works as a producer, director, writer, and editor in variety of visual media. Though he continues to develop social themes and approaches, as in Engineer, the formal scope of his work has expanded. He is an accomplished director of uniquely textured, award-winning works of experimental documentary and short fiction, such as Ex-voto para tres ánimas (Ex-voto for Three Souls, 2008), and The Drought, to be released in Canada in 2012.
FH: Voces de la Guerrero (Voices from Guerrero Metro Station) is the earliest of your films that I’ve seen, Diego. In it, you and your crew hand the video camera and microphone over to a group of homeless youth living in a metro station in Mexico City. The work that emerges is an intricate collaboration between you and these kids, in which you allow their own curiosity about their city and its citizens to guide the film. The tone is sometimes accusatory and indignant; images of their poverty and substance-abuse are unvarnished. But we are also pulled in by the candid humour and vitality in these young characters. Film seems to allow you to engage very directly with society.
DRK: I think so. When I started making documentaries, I was working with visual anthropologists. Their techniques taught me a way to approach people, to record people. Like for instance by giving the camera to the “other”, giving a voice to the “other”. I really liked the connection that I made with people, to try to see the world the way they see it. I translated that experience also into fiction. That’s why I work now with non-professional actors.
FH: You deliberately choose non-professional actors?
DRK: Yes. There are many reasons. The most superficial one is that it’s pretty hard in Mexico to get actors that look like real people. Many actors tend to be white, middle class people. But the more important reason is that when I work with non-actors I need to get to know them as people. I spend time with them. Then I go back to my script and I adapt the script to that person I met. So it’s like an inverse process. Instead of working with the actor to adapt him to my character, I’m adapting my character to someone real that I met. This process requires a lot of time.
FH: One of your more recent films is the visually captivating Ex-voto para tres ánimas, which you’ve called an experimental documentary. It presents three Mexican individuals: a poor boxer reflecting quietly on the challenges of his career; an elderly woman preparing for heart surgery; and an isolated fisherman trying to sustain his family on scant means. I sense in your work a shift from an interest in social dynamics to a concern with solitude.
DRK: When I was working on Voces de la Guerrero, I was more interested in the social aspect of street children and giving them a chance to show what they were feeling or the way they were seeing their situation. One day, one of these kids invited me to go on one of the most popular pilgrimages in Mexico.
FH: The children invited you?
DRK: Yes, because they were going. It was my first pilgrimage. We spent five days walking. There were old people, kids, all walking. I became interested in what they were thinking as they walked, in what they were hoping for. They were walking to ask for a miracle, to ask for something to change, thinking that there was another life that was possible. Little by little, I started moving from the more social approach to a more spiritual one. In order to do this, I felt I had to isolate characters in my films. I became more interested in emotion, affection, and the way you yourself perceive things around you.
FH: There are several references in Ex-voto para tres ánimas to the physicality of endurance.
DRK: In a pilgrimage, you spend five days walking. It’s very physical, but in that physicality there is a lot of spirituality as well. It’s a connection of the body and hope. Everything is through the body. At the beginning you talk to people, you joke around, but after five or six hours, you just walk in silence. And then it’s just your body, the rhythm. You get into a sort of trance. It’s an internal voyage, though you’re travelling outside as well. That connection between the body and the spirit led to what I tried to do in Ex-voto for Three Souls, and later in The Drought. I began to use very formalistic framing, lighting, colours, and sound. I felt the physicality of the medium of film could connect to the spirit and hope of the characters. A little bit like art used to be before: the form used to express that which is not expressible.
FH: Do you feel that living in Canada has affected your filmmaking in a significant way?
DRK: Actually, when I came to Canada, I discovered a greater interest in form. I started shooting Ex-voto after I came here. It’s my master’s thesis film. Documentary in Latin America was not so centred on form; until recently it was more focussed on showing what the media was not showing.
FH: As an aspect of reportage?
DRK: Yes. And I was coming from that school.
FH: There is an intensity to your work in Mexico. A visual, tactile intensity. Do you imagine being able to transpose that stylistic and personal approach to a subject here in Montreal or Canada?
DRK: I hadn’t found anything until I went up north last year when I was hired to teach video workshops to Inuit and Cree children. It was similar to what I’d done with street children in Mexico. The production house that hired me had a romantic idea that we were going to go up there and teach them video and how to express themselves. But I was concerned. Good things and bad things can happen. I’ve seen the bad things that can happen when you do something without foreseeing the consequences. So I started giving them advice to be careful with what subjects would be raised– unless they were prepared to do a follow-up afterwards. The camera can trigger a lot of psychological issues in kids, especially toward people they consider foreign. After you spend a lot of time with them, you become someone they can tell their problems to, a confidante. So certain things in their minds are open. And if you open these, you need to know what to do with them. You can’t just leave it open and that’s it.
FH: So you went north and what you saw inspired you for another project?
DRK: It was my first time up north. From the moment I got to the airport and started spending time with these people, I was fascinated. There was something in the physicality of these people, and what I was interpreting from their faces, hands, gestures, and bodies. So one of the projects that I’m working on now happens in the north.
FH: You’ve just completed The Drought, which is set on the coast of Mexico. It’s about Domingo, an old man, a widower, who lives by himself in extreme poverty in the hills near a seaside resort. We observe him as he wanders around in a derelict way. He carries a machete. He seems frustrated and very close to committing a violent act of some kind. He finds a few minutes peace with a woman, a North American tourist, whom he stumbles upon as she sun-bathes on a rocky beach. Surprisingly, this woman manages to create a brief relationship with Domingo in which neither feels threatened. He confesses some of his life to her. For a moment, a sort of equilibrium is achieved.
DRK: In the film, it’s the end the dry season. I had thought of this woman as a sort of goddess of the rainy season. That’s partly why I chose this actress. When I saw her, she was embedded in the rocks near the ocean, in the foam. Domingo is the God of Drought, all dried up. You can see it in his skin. The film shows the end of the dry period and the beginning of another one. Initially, the woman wasn’t supposed to understand any Spanish, and that’s why old Domingo opens up to her, to the only person who doesn’t understand a word of what he’s saying.
FH: In fiction, you adapt your script to your actors. In documentary, you prepare for the risky effects your camera, a foreign element, may have on your subjects. In The Drought, you introduce a foreign character, the woman, that could on some level represent you, the filmmaker. When Domingo arrives at her solitary spot on the beach, she fears her presence might trigger something violent in the brooding man. But she doesn’t panic. She listens to him, and with patience and courage is able to calm him. Can I connect this woman’s character to your experience as a social filmmaker who understands his work can be psychologically or spiritually destabilizing to his subjects or actors?
DRK: I try not to break the balance.
FH: Right. I feel in your film work a double pull. A desire not to leave things worse than they were. But also a kind of magnetic pull towards exploring (or staging) intense physical, emotional, and spiritual endurance with non-actors who seem not that far from this type of suffering themselves. How to balance those two dimensions of your work?
DRK: The inspiration for The Drought happened when I was in Mexico. I was walking alone, by the ocean, under this hot sun. I saw an old man, much like the one I portray in the film, walking towards me with his machete in his hand. The first thing I felt was fear. I realized I was in a very isolated place. But I’m always attracted to that type of character. So instead of saying, ok, I’m going to avoid this person because I don’t know if he’s drunk or whatever, I decided to go and talk to him. He ended up showing me a bit of his life.
Diego Rivera Kohn is currently developing several films and media projects in Canada and Mexico. To get a full appreciation of Rivera Kohn’s wide range accomplishments, projects, and interests, please visit his website. His film can be see at
Shahab Mihandoust was born in Tehran, Iran. With his close friends, he developed an early interest in the arts as a means of personal expression. Nevertheless, he and his parents decided that he would study Computer Science in university, as way of assuring him some stability. This is a decision he now recognizes as conservative but understandable, given the many upheavals faced by his parents in his native country. After graduating, Mihandoust became restless at the prospect of a career as an engineer in Iran. He wanted to travel. At 22, he emigrated to Canada, a country he believes is more welcoming than others. Once in Montreal, he did his Master’s degree in Computer Science and soon found work developing software and business applications in a large company. Still, his desire to work in an artistic field resurfaced. Mihandoust enrolled in Cinema at Concordia University. He has since made two remarkable short films set in Montreal, A Family Portrait and a cOmMon InciDent He is also producing and directing a documentary set in rural Iran called Black Tent, a demo of which is available to see online.
FH: How did you finally make the decision to go into filmmaking?
SM: It took some time. It was after I’d been working here, after I went back to Iran to visit. A couple of personal things, among close friends, happened. I began to feel it’s really not worth it to wait. Because you never know what happens tomorrow. And if you cannot live happy right now, there is no guarantee of there even being any tomorrow. So I just thought, ok, whatever. I should do it.
FH: So you were looking for something else besides your job, but you weren’t sure what it was?
SM: No, I had developed an interest in film a long time ago. But I’d never thought about it as something that I could do, for life. I had tried other things. Painting. Music. I wanted to do something in relation to art and self-exploration, reflecting my emotions.
FH: Your documentary film Black Tent depicts traditional yarn spinning by the Qashqais, a group of nomads who live some 200 kilometres from Shiraz, Iran. The tripod-like spinning instrument we see used in your demo, though functional, is rarely used anymore. Yet the black yarn the Qashqais spin is still used to weave the iconic tent of the title, and this sturdy, heat and cold-resistant black tent is still the moveable home of these people. What drew you to this project?
SH: One thing I feel strongly is–and perhaps it’s a stupid word for it–road fever. I want to travel and explore. I feel that I did not travel enough in my own country. I think I saw something parallel to my own life in the nomadic life of the Qashqais. They are moving every year, and I also have started to move. I really don’t know where I’m going to land. I don’t know where I’m going to be in five years. Maybe that’s where the idea for the film comes from.
FH: You’ve decided to explore your country of origin through film.
SM: Iran has one of the strongest traditions of nomadic life. But for some reason you don’t see a lot about it. I travelled about 5000 kilometres in the country. I learned that all these nomadic traditions are deteriorating and disappearing because of the difficulties that nomads have, from lack of support, the dryness of the weather, scarcity of food for their animals.
FH: What do you need to continue with this film?
SM: I’ve pinpointed the main themes. The film will start when there is no black tent and go on until it’s set up. I need to spend time with these people for at least the duration in which they move from one location to another.
FH: Which is how long?
SM: Twenty to thirty days. Because when they move, they stop in the middle of the trip. They stop to sell milk. Or to rest, or to wait for the right climate at the destination. So I need time, and the help of some local people. That’s it. It’s not that complicated. What I feel is that I, as the person producing this, should be the most invisible element over there, otherwise you’re just destroying the purity of it. I’m thinking about it for next summer.
FH: Will there be an element of fiction in it?
SM: Maybe in the non-traditional sense. Because there is a main storyline, which is the creation of a black tent. Everything will be centred around this tent. Making it, setting it up. Resting in it, eating inside it. Having your guests there. One entire side of this tent is open. There is no wall. It’s like having the whole world as your backyard.
FH: You want us to understand the complexity of this space.
SM: Or the simplicity of it.
FH: In your fiction films, A Family Portrait and a cOmMon InciDent, you likewise use an apt formal approach to tell your story. What is a typical starting point for one of your fiction projects?
SM: Images that I have in my mind, from my own life. These might be real memories– absolutely real with precise details. Or they might be transformed images based on my own memory, a dream-like memory.
FH: In A Family Portrait, you present a family of four and a portrait photographer. Initially, each person in the family is busy with an activity. The photographer asks them all to stop what they’re doing for their portrait to be taken. He ends up a little frustrated because he can’t get the family into poses that are both natural and appropriately formal. Why does the photographer use an old camera in your film?
SM: (laughing) That’s my father’s camera!
FH: Shahab, I can’t help but connect this photographer character to your documentary film Black Tent, especially to what you said about your role in it. As the filmmaker, you must confront how “invisible” to be versus how much to intercede in order to give shape to the film. You speak of crafting a storyline for the nomadic people in the film. Perhaps you’ll ask them to move or do things when you’re filming, so that they will fit into your “family portrait” of them.
SM: I hadn’t thought about it. In A Family Portrait, we never see the photographer and the family in the same frame together. There is no space that shows them together. Which might make you think this photographer is intruding on the family’s space. He’s looking at the picture, not the family. From the family’s point of view, many years later, they don’t remember anything about all the fights or things that were happening just before or after the photo was actually taken. It’s just a nice memory of the family together.
FH: You found an elegant way to distill many human feelings from one “simple” event. And you’ve done it with an admirable lightness of touch.
SM: One of the reasons that I really like cinema is the collaborative nature of it. I can work with other people. To me it’s very important, who’s doing it. It’s very important that I can share the process with my friends while doing it. This helps me a lot. The actors who play the father and son really are a father and his son. They are Montrealers. The mom and the daughter, as well as the photographer, are from the same culture as me, from Iran.
FH: Was there ever a point when you had to tell the actor playing the frustrated photographer, wait, you’re getting too angry?
SM: I didn’t like to stop and tell them do this or do that, or give commands. If it was far from what I liked, we would just talk and practice with the camera off. As soon as it was getting close, I would start to shoot without necessarily alerting them.
FH: Your second fiction film is a cOmMon InciDent. You’ve written the title in a peculiar way, with lower case and capital letters in odd places.
SM: Extraordinary things come from common incidents. In these common incidents, we can start to find elements that give us hope. The small letters in the film’s title are about commonality. Then the capital letters, put together in Farsi, mean “hope,” which was also the name of my closest childhood friend.
FH: The film depicts a love-triangle between a young woman and two young men. We see them interacting at a café, a park, and in the apartment where they live in Montreal. Near the end of the film, we discover that these characters share an uncommon pastime as a trio of pickpockets! The film has a challenging structure: we see the same incidents repeated from different visual and emotional perspectives. We gradually put the story together like a puzzle. The pickpocketing is quite intriguing. Why did you choose this “career” for them?
SM: To me, it represents the sense of adventure in their life, and this sense affects other parts of their life, such as their relationships.
FH: One of the male characters seems to be realizing that the woman he loves in fact truly loves his friend. He seems to have held some hope that she might someday turn her affections toward him. But in the course of the film we see this hope die.
SM: Sometimes it happens that we’re very confused about the relationship we have with people. We don’t know what is the dimension of it, how to measure it or how to define it. This is the main thing about this character. He’s confused about how to position himself in this triangle, in this community.
FH: I’m drawn to the film’s distinctive tone, what I referred to earlier as your “light touch.”. The quick pace of the film never becomes burdened by the sadder, more solitary elements within the film. How did you get, even in the voice-over, this physical energy and romantic spirit into the performances?
SM: One of the longest phases of doing this project was when I was thinking about how to communicate with the actors. They are all my friends. One of the actors is a Montrealer, one is Iranian, the woman is English. We had a lot of meetings. We went much beyond the story, expanding the characters even into moments that don’t appear in the final script. The actress built up a very personal connection to the character, and only some this could be communicated to me. Their mood was real.
FH: If someone called this a Montreal film, would you understand it that way?
SM: I think so.
FH: Does it connect to something you associate with this city?
SM: I’m interested in exploring architecture in my image, creating a frame with other frames inside it. Not just to make the image complicated, but to add information and details about the space where the story happens. I tried to do this in the apartment where the characters live. The typical Montreal corridor is the central place in this apartment, where much of the overlapping action happens. I’m trying to do something similar using the frame and space in Black Tent.
FH: Are there elements of Montreal that you’d like to explore through film the way you’re exploring nomadic culture in Iran?
SM: For some reason, Montreal is triggering a lot of memories for me. They are memories of another time and location, and everything in them is different from here, but for some reason I can re-locate those memories to here. For example, one of the ideas I’m working on is related to war. Montreal has not been in any contemporary war. But I can see my film happening in Montreal. I can see the characters being from here. Maybe the multiculturalism that exists here–all these people from everywhere–brings this timeless characteristic to this city. You can relate to it in many different ways: in a very contemporary or modern way, or in a more classical or nostalgic way. In two words, I would say “Montreal”…”Memory.”
Shahab Mihandoust is currently preparing for his next fiction film and planning his return to Iran to complete Black Tent, his film about the nomadic Qashqai people. He works as a software and business applications developer in Montreal and attends Concordia University.
A note by the author: I want to extend a very warm thank you to the three filmmakers who so graciously shared with me their insights and personal experiences. In speaking to them, I’ve grown to understand and value their films more deeply and heard in their eloquent words echoes of my own life and work. — Federico Hidalgo
Click on the links below to see Federico Hidalgo’s work: