At home with Markham StreetFilms


At home with Markham StreetFilms
At home with Markham Street Films
By Noelle Elia
Noelle Elia is a street-wise
synthesist and purveyor of the
positive. Au courant: doc on a
Toronto ‘human landmark’ and
personal hero named Franco.
12 POINT OF VIEW 54 | 2004
Here’s a scenario to consider: What if, instead of
spending hours commuting to a job environment
you didn’t like, you were just seconds away and your
partner in work also happened to be your partner in
life? And what if the things you most cared about
were the very subjects of your films? To top it all off,
you were a successful part of a creative community.
For many, that’s a doggedly elusive dream in these
tough economic times. This, however, is a story of
two people who have made it a reality.
A stone’s throw away from the hullabaloo of the
Annex in downtown Toronto, past assorted falafel
shops and the campy glitz of Honest Ed’s discount
emporium, is an old Ontario house with bikes and
Muskoka-style chaises on the porch. Cottage
country right in the heart of the city. Welcome to
the headquarters of Markham Street Films and the
home of Michael McNamara and Judy Holm.
Michael answers the door; he’s affable and softspoken. Judy, slim and blonde, appears and we
settle in with fresh cafés au lait. Their living room is
lined with bookshelves stacked with obscure first
editions, vintage pulp fiction and poetry collections.
Antique store and yard sale treasures fill the space
like artifacts of comfort. Upstairs are the offices and
edit suite, and, somewhere beyond, their bedroom.
When Michael met Judy reads a little like a
fairy tale, all danskin and destiny. In the ’80s, after
years of being a fashion model, Judy opened an
aerobics studio aptly named ‘The Sweatshop.’ One
day Michael came in for a class and a friendship
was formed. Over several years they crossed paths,
would make plans to collaborate, but something
always came up. Judy went from fashion and
fitness to publicity at The Toronto International
Film Festival, then onto distribution at Norstar and
C/FP (now Lion’s Gate), then over to marketing and
distribution at PolyGram Filmed Entertainment.
Meanwhile, Michael immersed himself in
television production at different stations in Toronto.
From TVO to CBC, from Global to CTV, he’s worked
the gamut thematically and structurally: writing
and directing award-winning music specials (Holly
Cole; Jane Siberry); children’s programming—166
episodes of Polka Dot Shorts for TVO; Just For
Laughs comedy specials; Life and Times
documentaries for CBC (Rich Little; Robert
Munsch). His first foray into narrative filmmaking
was the critically acclaimed, indie feature The
Cockroach That Ate Cincinnati (1998). Gemini
Awards and film fest prizes mingle with books and
photos on the shelves of their living room.
Documentary writer Michael Rabinger suggests
that when you find your life issues, “exploring
them sincerely and intelligently will deeply touch
your audience and keep you busy for life.” Some
may be drawn to do a film on Chiapas or Vietnam
while others are compelled by magicians or drag
queens. Judy and Michael’s interests are not so
singular—they have a rich repertoire of subjects to
choose from. As Judy sees it: “There’s the Michael
thread and there’s the Judy thread. Michael was
born in Windsor, across the lake from Detroit, and he’s
a huge music, art and pop culture freak/aficionado.
When I started getting involved with making films,
the first one we did was about getting old, because
I am. Both of us are just exploring our lives and the
things that we know.”
Radio Revolution
Radio Revolution
At the core of Radio Revolution is Rosalie
Trombley, a former switchboard operator and
single mother of three, who became the tastemaker
of rock and soul music with an ear for hits that was
unparalleled. Bob Seger wrote a song about her
called ‘Rosalie’ and Tony Orlando was ready to cast
his vote for her induction into the Rock and Roll
Hall of Fame. For years Michael wooed Rosalie with
letters and requests. She’s publicity shy and hadn’t
talked to the press since the ’70s. To get her out of
hiding they put on a big reunion, securing free
hotel rooms and creating a whole weekend event.
“The radio station did a live three-hour broadcast
and we had a fabulous, upscale dinner for them
afterwards.” Michael says. “And it was my chance
to meet Alice Cooper!” This story is emblematic of
the way they work. They put their hearts into the
process and the end result is richer for it.
Sometimes it’s more than just heart. In Flatly
Stacked (2004), Judy, with the right dash of
vulnerability and her signature lightness, puts
herself into the very centre of the story. The film
asks the question, ‘Can a hooterless girl find
happiness?’ It’s a humorous look at women who
are less than well endowed in a world fixated on
big breasts. Acclaimed Canadian animator Ann
Marie Fleming adds her playful touch to the mix
with sweet stick-figure girls and snappy sound
effects. Flatly Stacked ends on a high note with
Lorraine Segato, of Parachute Club fame, leading a
group sing-a-long full of clapping and irreverent
lyrics. Great for young girls at summer camp and
viewers at home.
Making docs for television comes with its own
limitations. Work must fit a certain structure,
contain obvious Canadian content and have subject
matter that neither shocks nor rocks the boat.
Michael almost always directs and they both write
and produce. He tends to be more the creative
producer and she tackles the financial end. While a
Radio Revolution
Indeed, their tastes are varied. The tone of the
stories mirrors the subjects themselves: from gritty
and grainy for an impassioned mixed-media artist
(John Scott—Art & Justice, 2000), slick and
claustrophobic for a group of determined law
students (The Genuine Article, 2003; produced by
Markham Street Films (MSF), directed by David
Bezmozgis), to funky and upbeat for a bunch of
former radio DJs (Radio Revolution, 2004).
Projects are born from their lives—things they
know and situations they find themselves in.
Michael’s first concert experience was at age
twelve; his dad Eugene took him to see Roy
Orbison. After the death of this love-song crooner,
Eugene McNamara, an acclaimed poet, wrote For
Roy Orbison. Michael later turned the poem into a
Bravo Fact! short in 2000 with his dad reciting on
camera, sitting on a barstool alongside other
literary notables like Alistair MacLeod. Oh, and
Michael’s brother Chris shot it and Judy’s son
Aaron did the music. Truly a family affair.
Out of Judy’s modeling days came Wrinkle
(2001). It took aim at aging and the beauty myth.
She gathered up a bunch of former top models to
delve into their feelings about getting older and to
“test their theories about beauty, power, age,
menopause, gray hair and the media.” She also
scoped out techniques and remedies to stave off
that horror of horrors, sagging skin. “When we
were pitching Wrinkle, we’d go to a broadcaster
saying we wanted to do something on older
women and we’d hear, ‘Oh that’s a bad idea, we
don’t want to think about dying.’ But once you see
the film, something positive and exciting comes
through. It was fun to do and exploratory as well; I
don’t think we’d do anything where we don’t find
something out at the end.”
Several years ago, Aaron married Saira, a
Pakistani woman, and as a wedding present,
Michael’s brothers videotaped the happy event.
Later, Judy, Michael and the newlyweds travelled to
Pakistan to visit the bride’s family and along the
way an idea emerged: why not tell the story of our
cross-cultural experience? From this comes Meet
the Sumdees (2004). Soundtrack courtesy of the
groom, confetti not included.
Markham Street Film’s recent offerings are
Radio Revolution—the Rise and Fall of the Big 8
and Flatly Stacked. Radio Revolution is the story of
a little radio station that could. Michael literally
grew up with this story, listening to CKLW as a
teenager in Windsor. During the ’60s and ’70s,
CKLW pumped out loud rock music, feverish
tabloid-style news and was a happening place to
work. The image was rock and roll with an edge.
Interviews of CKLW alumni, music critics and
cognoscenti are spliced with stock and archival
footage and toe-tapping graphics. Variety magazine
calls it “exuberantly nostalgic…McNamara displays
a fan’s warm zeal and a historian’s sharp eye.” The
film takes us down memory lane to a time before
corporate takeovers and formulaic pop songs.
2004 | POINT OF VIEW 54
Flatly Stacked
Flatly Stacked
certain conceptual spunkiness may be sacrificed,
the stories draw you in and are entertaining rather
than highfalutin’. Even better, “With TV, there’s
something really quite wonderful about making
work that people are going to see. It’s accessible.”
Accessible for the public, but not
always for the producers. Michael is
constantly frustrated by the fact that
the best pop culture documentaries
come from the BBC. “We’re
geographically a hell of a lot closer
(to the United States) and in a much
better position to offer our own
unique perspective; but there seems
to be this desire to fly in the face of
that and ignore the obvious
connection.” The inherent obstacles
of funding and licensing add to the
problem, for unless there’s some
direct application to Canada,
“they’re stories we can’t tell.” To
emphasize his point, Michael
describes moving to Toronto in 1977
when there wasn’t as great a selection of ethnic
restaurants as there is today. “If the same rules
were applied to the restaurant industry as the ones
applied to the television industry we’d all be eating
And projects don’t always work out as planned.
Go Ask Alice, a film about women and drugs, had
65% of the financing in place in the fall of 2003
but the project didn’t get through Telefilm. MSF
was encouraged to re-submit; then the Federal
Government took $25 million dollars away from
Telefilm and all of the financing fell through. With
Life and Times of Rush, it looked like a slam-dunk
but then one of the band members got into an
altercation on New Year’s Eve and charges were
pending. The production ground to a halt.
14 POINT OF VIEW 54 | 2004
Even a half million dollar, fully funded
documentary isn’t a sure thing, so they’re
conscious of having a lot of things in development.
When one project is finished another is ready to
go. “On a funding level, it’s becoming more
possible and necessary to co-produce and
complete your financing with chunks of money
from outside the country,” Judy explains. “The
whole entertainment industry is topsy-turvy these
days.” Case in point, MSF had started to build
relationships with some broadcasters in the States
when suddenly, there was yet another wave of
Though MSF is only two years old, Michael and
Judy have thirty-five years combined experience,
and they’re now ready to tackle a big-budget
documentary. 100 Films and a Funeral is a juicy
saga about the glory days and subsequent nosedive of PolyGram. Judy has an insider view of the
story; she'd been a VP of Distribution at a time
when there were millions of dollars earmarked for
Canadian productions. Hugh Grant, Mr. Bean, Jodie
Foster and Robert Redford are all real-life players in
what MSF describe as a “breathtaking tale of multimillion dollar ambition, greed and betrayal.”
This time, their timing may be perfect: “Genres
are colliding, squidging back and forth,” as Judy
says. “Feature-length documentaries on interesting
subjects are becoming the new indie films, without
the ‘stink of the serious’ tag docs had before.
People are looking for stuff to see that’s engaging,
intelligent and unexpected, like Spellbound and The
After spending time with Michael and Judy, I’m
most struck by a kind of circularity: who they are
as people affects their work and in turn their
community. At this year’s Hot Docs, they
participated on several different levels: as audience
members, filmmakers and industry facilitators. On
a rainy Sunday night, Michael, Aaron and Judy
caught the Australian doc, The President versus
David Hicks. The following day Judy moderates a
panel discussion of local commissioning editors;
Aaron and Michael are in the audience. Beneath a
gortex jacket, Michael is sporting a Radio Revolution
t-shirt; he waves to Michael Burns, of The
Documentary Channel, who’s producing 100 Films
and a Funeral. All three are delegates at the Toronto
Documentary Forum where Michael and Judy also
serve as mentors to first-time pitchers.
Being independent cultural producers in
Canada is a challenge during the best of times, but
Michael and Judy undertake it with grace, humour
and a lot of hard work. As Rudy Buttignol, TVO’s
commissioning editor, expressed on the panel Judy
facilitated, “Documentary is a relationship-based
industry. You can look around and say, ‘These are
the people that make up my community and I’m
going to spend the rest of my career around them.’”
That’s a sentiment which takes on deeper meaning
with Markham Street Films. POV