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Ron Mann

Director, Producer, Screenwriter, Editor
(b. June 13, 1958 Toronto, Ontario)

A true wunderkind, documentary filmmaker Ron Mann made his first feature, the celebrated Imagine the Sound, at the age of 21. He began making short films while in high school and studied briefly at Vermont’s Bennington College before receiving a B.A. in film from the University of Toronto. His 1973 student film, The Strip, remains one of the best and most cheerful records of Toronto’s then notoriously tawdry Yonge Street strip. In the DIY spirit of the 1960s, Mann learned much about his craft first-hand or through experience. (For instance, he has cited an unplanned and largely unfinanced trip to the Cannes film festival – when he slept on the beach – as a particularly inspiring, watershed event in his career.)

Funded on the basis of his award-winning, claymation short film The Only Game in Town (1978), Mann’s feature debut, Imagine the Sound (1981), focused on avant-garde Free Jazz legends Paul Bley, Bill Dixon, Archie Shepp and Cecil Taylor. It is difficult to overestimate the importance and impact of Imagine the Sound within the Toronto film scene. Its release at the tail end of the notorious tax shelter period helped galvanize what many considered a moribund industry. (Originally, Mann had planned to make an account of the new wave concert Heat Wave, but licensing agreements fell through. Mann became interested in jazz while working as a record store clerk at Sam the Record Man’s, where he was punished for bad behaviour by being demoted to the less popular department.)

Imagine introduced the key elements of Mann’s aesthetic. The film’s elegant visual style distinguish it from most other documentaries (Mann’s films are usually shot on 35mm, as opposed to cheaper, less lush mediums like 16mm or video). Mann’s emphasis on a particular “look” for a film — especially evident in the elaborate graphics and animated sequences of later works like Grass (1999), Tales of the Rat Fink (2006) and Know Your Mushrooms (2008) — also separates him from a more conventional documentary approach.

More significantly, Imagine established the predominant focus of his work: marginalized or neglected cultural movements. Subsequent subjects range from beat poetry and its influences (Poetry in Motion, 1982) and comic books (Comic Book Confidential, 1988) to dance crazes (Twist, 1992), marijuana (Grass), customized cars (Tales of the Rat Fink), and fungus (Know Your Mushrooms). Mann’s work is profoundly involved with social and cultural issues, and, as filmmaker Jim Shedden once pointed out, operates on the principle of synecdoche, with a part or aspect of something representing the whole. 

The characteristic focus of Mann’s work is typically on profound, problematic issues, such as racism and repression (Twist) and revisionism and fear mongering (Grass). Mann has devoted much of his career to critiquing the ongoing conservative campaign to turn back the advances of the 1960s. As Mann has said, “I’m spreading my own disinformation.” In this sense, his work clearly bears the mark of his mentor, the radical American documentary filmmaker Emile de Antonio.

That said, there are some obvious exceptions. Several of Mann’s films address their subjects more directly, including the made for television production Dream Tower (1994), an account of Rochdale, an experimental Toronto college; Go Further (2003), about actor Woody Harrelson’s tour promoting green living and a sustainable lifestyle; and the TV production In the Wake of the Flood (2010), which follows celebrated Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood on a book tour designed to alert people to the plight of migratory birds in North America.

Indeed, his visual style and the fact that all of his documentaries have been distributed commercially make his work unique not only within Canada but the documentary tradition as a whole. Mann has developed a regular crew with whom he works, including the editor Robert Kennedy, whose films Mann has produced. Unlike many Canadian documentarians, he has had no real involvement with the National Film Board; instead, he has developed relationships with private broadcasters (most notably Toronto’s Citytv) and distributors, while also financing his own projects. In this respect, his career path shares certain similarities with filmmaker Allan King. Mann’s career and approach are genuinely independent, although in the mid-1980s, he did work briefly in Hollywood for Canadian expatriate Ivan Reitman.

Interspersed among his features, Mann has made numerous short films, including the lovely Echoes Without Saying (1983), about the innovative publishing and printing company Coach House Press and its founder Stan Bevington, and Marcia Resnick’s Bad Boys (1985), about the New York based photographer. In 1984, he made his lone fiction work to date, Listen to the City. A story about shady developers, the film stars Sandy Horne (from the successful New Wave band The Spoons) and iconic New York writer Jim Carroll. Less universally admired than Mann’s documentary work, the movie is ripe for reappraisal, at the very least for its ability (similar to Alex Cox’s Repo Man and Slava Tsukerman’s Liquid Sky) to capture the sense of paranoia and helplessness that arose during the 1980s, a period characterized by the domination of right wing governments in Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom.

Mann has also produced or executive produced a number of intriguing television series and documentaries, including Jim Shedden’s Brakhage (1998), a biography of the acclaimed experimental filmmaker, and Astra Taylor’s exhilarating Examined Life (2008), which engages with key modern philosophers like Daniel Singer, Slavoj Žižek, Judith Butler and Cornell West.

Mann has concentrated primarily on American, or as he prefers to call it, North American culture. He served as mentor to many of the filmmakers who became known as the Toronto New Wave, including Peter Mettler, Bruce MacDonald, Jeremy Podeswa and Atom Egoyan. Mann has also emerged as a pioneer in the realm of digitization. In the early 1990s, he re-issued de Antonio’s Painters Painting (1972) on CD-ROM, and Poetry in Motion was one of the first films to be released on DVD. In 2002, Mann launched a distribution company called Films We Like, which specializes in smaller, marginalized titles, including many works by highly respected filmmakers like Jia Zhang-ke, Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Guy Maddin.

Film and video work includes

The Strip, 1973 (director; producer)
Flak, 1976 (director; producer)
The Only Game in Town, 1979 (director; producer)
Feels So Good, 1980 (director; producer)
Ssshh!, 1980 (director; producer)
Imagine the Sound, 1981 (director; co-producer with Bill Smith)
Poetry in Motion, 1982 (director; producer)
Echoes Without Saying, 1983 (director; producer)
The New Cinema, 1983 (executive producer)
Listen to the City, 1984 (director; co-writer with Bill Schroeder; producer)
Marcia Resnick’s Bad Boys, 1985 (director; producer)
Comic Book Confidential, 1988 (director; co-writer with Charles Lippincott; producer)
Special of the Day, 1989 (executive producer)
Twist, 1992 (director; co-producer with Sue Len Quon)
Dream Tower, 1994 (director; co-writer with Len Blum, Bill Schroeder; co-producer with Sue Len Quon; TV)
The Beat, 1998 (director; TV)
Brakhage, 1998 (executive producer)
Grass, 1999 (director; co-producer with Sue Len Quon)
SXSW X 8, 2001 (director)
Go Further, 2003, (director; co-cinematographer with Alan Barker, Andrew Black, Robert Fresco, Rob Heydon; co-producer with Sharon Brooks)
Blue Rodeo In Stereovision, 2005 (director; TV)
Mighty Dark to Travel, music video, 2005 (director)
Tales of the Rat Fink, 2006 (director; co-producer with Bill Imperial)
Jezebel, music video, 2007 (director)
Know Your Mushrooms, 2008 (director; writer; co-producer with Bill Imperial)
Examined Life, 2008 (executive producer)
In The Wake of the Flood, 2010 (director; TV)
Mighty Uke, 2010 (executive producer)
Pure Pwnage series, 2010, eight episodes (executive producer; TV)

By: Steve Gravestock