Return to tiff.’s home page

Canadian Film Encyclopedia

Shopping Cart

Peter Mettler

Director, Screenwriter, Editor, Cinematographer
(b. September 7, 1958 Toronto, Ontario)

A renowned director, producer, cinematographer, editor and sound designer, Peter Mettler is among Canada’s most critically acclaimed contemporary filmmakers. His work is notable for its innovative incorporation of diverse genres and approaches into cohesive new hybrids. In Salome Pitschen and Annette Schönholzer’s book Making the Invisible Visible, Mettler describes his work as a search for “a balance between intellect and intuition, order and chaos, action and perception.” Elusive and meditative, his films are a compelling blend of personal inquiry, experimental and documentary form, metaphysical rumination and narrative drama. 

Mettler was part of a circle of filmmakers that emerged as a vital force in Canadian cinema in the 1980s (which has come to be known as the Toronto New Wave). The list of directors he collaborated with as a cinematographer early in his career constitutes a who’s who of the Canadian film industry: Atom Egoyan (Next of Kin, 1984; Family Viewing, 1987), Patricia Rozema (Passion: A Letter in 16mm, 1985), Bruce McDonald (Knock! Knock!, 1985), Ron Mann (Listen to the City, 1984) and Jeremy Podeswa (David Roche Talks to You about Love, 1983).

After his parents emigrated from Switzerland, Mettler was born in Toronto in 1958 and attended the prestigious Upper Canada College high school. In 1977, he entered the film school at Ryerson Polytechnic Institute (now Ryerson University), and before graduating in 1982 took a year-long leave to observe patients in a drug rehabilitation centre in Neuchâtel, Switzerland. His experiences formed the basis for his thesis film, the experimental narrative Scissere (1982), which garnered great acclaim when it premiered at the 1982 Toronto Festival of Festivals (now the Toronto International Film Festival). The film also received the Norman McLaren Award for best film from Le conservatoire d’art cinématographique in Montreal. The film journalist Geoff Pevere described Scissere as “a highly impressionistic rendering of the twilight zone between rational thought and pure sensation.”  

Mettler founded his Toronto-based production company, Grimthorpe Film, in 1985. In 1987, he began production on the commercial, semi-narrative feature The Top of His Head, which was completed and released two years later to polarized critical reactions. He then went on to direct the drama Tectonic Plates (1992), based on the play by Robert Lepage and Théâtre Repère. The film was screened at several international film festivals and won three awards.

In 1991, Mettler travelled to Churchill, Manitoba with Swiss meteorologist and artist Andreas Züst to film a personal documentary on the aurora borealis. The six-week shoot in sub-zero conditions resulted in Picture of Light (1994), a meditative, spiritual journey that crystallized Mettler’s trans-genre approach to filmmaking and affirmed his command of and original approach to the documentary form. The film won a dozen awards at international film festivals, including the La Sarraz Prize at the Locarno International Film Festival and awards for best film, best cinematography and best writing at Toronto’s Hot Docs festival. As Rick Groen noted in the Globe and MailPicture of Light’s subject matter perfectly suits Mettler’s preoccupation with the abstract and unquantifiable: “He’s found in the northern lights an objective correlative that perfectly matches his interests — the lights, too, are real and chimerical, palpably present and apparently illusory.”

Ten years in the making, Mettler’s next work, the three-hour long Gambling, Gods and LSD (2002), was filmed in various locations around the globe, and is part exploration of culture, part travel diary, part quest for the ineffable. Like most of his work, it defies easy categorization and continues his visionary project of documenting the outside world through intense introspection and the pursuit of near-mystical experiences. The film won the Genie for Best Documentary as well as prizes for best documentary at the Vancouver International Film Festival and the Festival du Nouveau cinema in Montreal. In Nyon it won the Grand Prix and the Prix du Publique.

As a cinematographer, Mettler also made a key contribution to Jennifer Baichwal’s acclaimed documentary Manufactured Landscapes (2006), a portrait of artist Edward Burtinsky. The Toronto-based photographer is known for large scale prints focusing on how industrial activity has ravaged our planet, and which acknowledge the sometimes eerie and unsettling beauty of this devastation.

Mettler’s next solo directorial project, the medium-length work, Petropolis: Aerial Perspectives on the Alberta Tar Sands (2009), was commissioned by the environmental organization Greenpeace. Although the politics of the film (and its intelligent and painstaking delineation of the costs of the tar sands enterprise) are upfront, the filmmaker is very conscious of the bizarre beauty of destruction – an awareness that only strengthens the film’s opposition to the project.

In 2006, Mettler was honoured with a retrospective on his work at the Toronto International Film Festival. In addition to film screenings, TIFF mounted two gallery exhibitions (of Mettler’s photographic work and a series of lightboxes entitled “Teledivinity”), published Jerry White’s book Of this Place and Elsewhere: The Films and Photography of Peter Mettler (which included colour prints of a selection of Mettler’s photographs), and “Elsewhere”, an evening-long mixed media performance including live visual mixing, an art form in which Mettler is an internationally celebrated pioneer. Mettler’s musical collaborators on the project included Martin Schutz, Fernando Coronoa, Marc Wesier, Telefunk SoundSystem, DJ/live duo Adam Marshall and Tom Kuo, while his visual collaborators included Toronto-based artists, designers and software developers Greg Hermanovic, Elysha Poirier and Blaine Seigel. Mettler also frequently collaborates with other musicians in his live mixing presentations, including guitarist Fred Frith.

In 2012, Mettler completed the trilogy which began with Picture of Light and continued with Gambling, Gods and LSD when he unveiled The End of Time, a visually stunning tour de force which explores different perspectives on time. Like its peripatetic predecessor, The End of Time ranges around the globe, speaking to everyone from scientists working at a particle accelerator in Bern to Buddhist pilgrims visiting the tree where Buddha achieved enlightenment; from electronic musicians to abandoned factories in Detroit, once the hub of American capitalism, to the lone remaining inhabitant of an area which is being slowly consumed by a volcano. The later two sequences offer up some of Mettler’s most redolent images. A shot of the abandoned Ford factory recalls Shelley’s “Ozymandias” while footage of the lava consuming and pouring over land boasts a primordial beauty. The film was named one of Canada’s Top Ten feature films in TIFF’s annual list.

Film and video work includes

Super 8 #1, 1976 (director; cinematographer; editor; producer; sound)
Reverie, 1976 (director; writer; cinematographer; editor; producer; sound)
Poison Ivy, 1978 (co-director with Greg Krantz, Wendy Ord, Cary Smart; co-writer with Krantz, Ord, Smart; co-cinematographer with Krantz; co-editor with Krantz, Ord,Smart; producer; co-sound with Krantz, Ord, Smart)
Home Movie, 1979 (director; writer; cinematographer; editor; producer; sound)
Lancalot Freely, 1980 (director; writer; cinematographer; editor; producer; sound)
Black Rage, 1981 (sound)
Gregory, 1981 (director; writer; co-cinematographer with Henry Jesionka; editor; producer; sound)
Open House, 1982 (cinematographer)
Potsdamer Platz, 1982 (cinematographer)
Rememberance, 1982 (cinematographer)
Scissere, 1982 (director; writer; cinematographer; editor; co-producer with Ron Repke; music)
Second Chance, 1982 (actor)
David Roche Talks to You about Love, 1983 (cinematographer)
I.I.I. Amsterdam, 1983 (cinematographer)
Resurrected Fields, 1983 (cinematographer)
Coming Apart, 1984 (cinematographer; TV)
Dedication, 1984 (director; cinematographer)
Georgetown Boys, 1984 (cinematographer)
Guardian Trust, 1984 (director; producer; promotional video)
Making a Difference, 1984 (co-cinematographer with Steve Deme)
Nelligan, 1984 (cinematographer)
Youth and Unemployment, 1984 (cinematographer; TV)
A Trip Around Lake Ontario, 1984 (cinematographer)
Listen to the City, 1984 (co-cinematographer with René Ohashi)
Next of Kin, 1984 (cinematographer)
Eastern Avenue, 1985 (director; cinematographer; editor; producer; co-sound with Judy Dryland)
Knock! Knock!, 1985 (cinematographer)
Passion: A Letter in 16mm, 1985 (cinematographer)
You Don’t Need, music video, 1985 (cinematographer)
Looking for Martin Lavut, 1985 (co-cinematographer with John Kevin Wright, Pat Clune, Tony Garin)
Divine Solitude, 1986 (co-cinematographer with Kemp Archibald)
Nion - In the Kabaret de la Vita, 1986 (cinematographer)
Kingdom Hall in Two Days, 1986 (co-cinematographer with Andy Mikita)
Vladimir, 1986 (co-director with Jane Siberry)
Artist on Fire: The Work of Joyce Wieland, 1987 (co-cinematographer with Babette Mangolte)
Family Viewing, 1987 (co-cinematographer with Robert Macdonald)
Walking after Midnight, 1988 (cinematographer)
The Top of His Head, 1989 (director; writer; co-cinematographer with Tobias Schliessler, Gerald Packer; co-editor with Margaret van Eerdewijk)
The Life is the Red Wagon, music video, 1990 (cinematographer)
The Flying Bulgar Klezmer Band, music video, 1990 (cinematographer)
Standards, 1990 (co-cinematographer with David Makin, Doug Koch)
Tectonic Plates, 1992 (director; co-writer with Robert Lepage; co-cinematographer with Miroslaw Baszak)
Picture of Light, 1994 (director; writer; cinematographer; co-editor with Mike Munn; co-producer with Andreas Züst, Alexandra Gill)
Balifilm, 1997 (director; cinematographer; editor; producer; sound)
Leda and the Swan, 1998 (co-cinematographer with Alexandra Gill; co-producer with Gill, Ingrid Veninger)
Bin Ich Schoen?, 1998 (co-cinematographer with Theo Birkens, Werner Penzel)
Krapp’s Last Tape, 2000 (co-cinematographer with Paul Sarossy)
Les Chasseurs d’ombre, 2000 (cinematographer)
Divine Solitude, 2000 (cinematographer)
Gambling, Gods and LSD, 2002 (director; writer; cinematographer; co-editor with Roland Schlimme; executive producer; co-sound with Peter Bräker)
The Ring (a.k.a. A Journey Through the Sun), 2004 (co-director with Angus Reid; cinematographer)
Streetcar, 2004 (cinematographer)
The Giant Buddhas, 2005 (English narrator)
Into the Night, 2006 (cinematographer)
Manufactured Landscapes, 2006 (cinematographer and creative consultant; co-sound with Roland Schlimme, David Rose, Jane Tattersall, Dan Driscoll)
Away, 2007 (director, cinematographer)
Shostakovich/Notes in Silence, 2007 (director; cinematographer)
Memorizer, video installation, 2009 (director)
Petropolis: Aerial Perspectives on the Alberta Tar Sands, 2009 (director, cinematographer) National Parks Project: Gros Morne, 2009 (cinematographer)
The End of Time, 2012 (director; co-writer; co-cinematographer; co-editor; narrator; executive producer)

By: George Kaltsounakis
Additional notes by Steve Gravestock