Saturday, May 11, 2013

Best Documentary Short Highlight - The Colours of My Father: A Portrait of Sam Borenstein (1992)

In my last Saturday post about A Chairy Tale, I mentioned that there was an animated documentary that was nominated for the Best Documentary Short in 1992. My review of the nominated films of 1992 went up almost a year ago, but the film was nowhere to be found on the National Film Board of Canada website. I went back and checked periodically to see if it was posted, but it never was. By August I was desperate and decided to buy a copy from the NFB website. However, it never came and I decided to give up looking for it. If it ever gets posted then great, but I wasn't going to sit around waiting for it.

Well, when I was writing my thing on A Chairy Tale, I mentioned it when I talked about how I didn't always post these highlights in the year where it was made. After I made the reference I went and looked and lo and behold, there it was. Apparently the National Film Board posted it when I was wasting my time, money, and energy on futile interviews for programs that hated me the moment they saw my worthless obese self. Well, now that it's posted I might as well review it.

So here it is: The Colours of My Father: A Portrait of Sam Borenstein.

Sam Borenstein is one of the most celebrated expressionist painters in Canadian art history. His landscapes and portraits are full of vivid colors and his own distinctive brush strokes. He had painting for over 40 years before his death from prostate cancer in 1969, but it wasn't until the last decade of his life that he finally gained recognition for his work. His daughter Joyce had inherited his talent and became an artist and animator herself, and made this film to celebrate her father, his life, and his philosophy behind his art.

After a short beginning sequence where Joyce and the voice of Sam from beyond the grave talk about his art, the film proceeds to introduce Sam's life and his work, focusing on what art meant to him. It begins with Sam (or actor Paul Soler playing Sam) talking about his early life, from his difficult childhood being a Jew in the increasingly anti-Semitic Lithuania to his eventual emigration to the wonderful land of Canada. It was in Canada where he was introduced to the world of art. He showed talent, but also criticism for trying to get by with a frivolous activity in the midst of the Great Depression. However, he was able to meet a young woman who saw the passion in his artwork and eventually became the love of his life. Together they were able to start a family. While Sam tried out different more standard jobs, his interest always returned to his one true passion: that of painting. By the time of his death he had finally received formal recognition that had been denied him for most of his career, but it was the art itself that defined his life.

The Colours of My Father is both a film about the life of Sam Borenstein and about art itself. It delves deeply into his life and into what inspires him. It does this in a way where his story is presented from the inside out, in that it begins with the perspective of Sam himself before branching out to those that know him from his family members to various other artist and art critics. I feel that is an ingenious way of presenting a biographical documentary. That way you get to experience all sides of the subject in an organized manner. While it's a biography it is also a look into the idea of art itself. Much of the conversation is on the process behind the art; how Sam approached his artwork with comments adapted from his journal and also how family, art critics, and other artists felt when viewing his art. While the focus is on Sam, much of what was said can be applied to art in general. Or at least that's what I (in my uneducated and ignorant standpoint) feel.

The design itself combines live photographs, live action footage, animation, and actual works of art from Sam Borenstein. A scene can be seen first as a photograph before being converted to a piece of animation that can help build a scene around the picture, a technique that was used in John Canemaker's The Moon and the Son: An Imagined Conversation. Alternatively, there could be pictures of certain locations in Quebec that dissolve to the paintings they inspired. The film is visually dazzling whether or not you're a fan of the works of Sam Borenstein. Although it may be a bit slow if you don't like art in general. The film features audio footage of interviews with many of those that knew Sam Borenstein, although the words of Sam himself and the late art critic Robert Ayre have been replaced by Canadian actors Paul Soles and Griffith Brewer respectively. The music is good as well, featuring original music by Canadian composer extraordinare Normand Roger and some pieces of classical music, the most prominent being Alexander Borodin's Quartet No. 2 Movement 3, which also played a big role in Disney's The Little Matchgirl. For that reason the music gets me down, although I figure that particular piece was used to provide a more tender mood, so the choice of music is successful. Overall The Colours of My Father: A Portrait for Sam Borenstein is a great documentary, especially if you're a fan of expressionist artwork. Unfortunately, the Academy must not have been because they awarded the Oscar to Educating Peter, the inspirational film about the life of a child in Trisomy 21 and his experiences in a mainstream classroom. Oh well. Here is the film itself, after over 20 years. 

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