Christopher Heron and Whit Stillman

Film craft with The Seventh Art

by Manori Ravindran

A flash of red socks punctuated an impeccable suit as director Whit Stillman took the stage at Toronto’s Royal Cinema last December. He was about to address an audience which had just watched his 1998 film The Last Days of Disco–the second feature in a two-night event honouring the American filmmaker–and seemed jarred by the beaming faces filling the College Street theatre.

The curious thing was not that Stillman was in Toronto, on the cusp of a bitter winter, but rather what had brought him here. It had not been the Toronto International Film Festival, Hot Docs or even the National Film Board, but rather a small collective of cinephiles called The Seventh Art.

Until then, the monthly video magazine was a strictly virtual effort. But an idea to have influential directors take part in a live series had finally come together in the last few weeks of November, and now here was Stillman, seated primly beside the magazine’s founder, Christopher Heron.

“It fit for us because we wanted someone who was accessible, funny and a good personality to interview, but also [whose] films are interesting and complex and worthy of discussion,” said Heron, a recent cinema studies graduate from the University of Toronto.

The year-old Seventh Art films in-depth interviews with diverse filmmakers and compiles the high-quality videos in online issues. Unlike most content online, however, you won’t find two-minute clips on this website: Interviews–or “sections”–can run up to an hour long, and are more like video essays, with introductions and footnotes providing context.

“Our sections err on the longer side because they are like a magazine, which you can pick up and put down at your leisure–never requiring that you consume all sections, or even each section, in its entirety in one sitting,” the website reads.

The Seventh Art–a reference to cinema by film theorist Ricciotto Canudo–was created as Heron wrested with the application of his film degree. He was weary of the constrained settings filmmakers were subjected to during press junkets, and envisioned a platform for long-form discussions about cinema.

Heron had recently met Brian Robertson, who then worked at a local video store, and the pair had struck up a friendship over Heron’s impressive rental choices. After Heron broached the idea of a video magazine, Robertson, also a U of T cinema studies graduate, immediately signed on.

“From working at the video store I was sort of in touch with some of the local filmmakers in the area,” Robertson says. “Like Bruce McDonald would come in and I just had a bit of a rapport. So Chris pitched this idea of sitting down with local people and just talking about their work in local bars, and I was on board for sure.”

The duo soon approached Pavan Moondi, a friend of Robertson’s, and The Seventh Art started its inaugural issue.

“[Canadian filmmaker] Guy Maddin agreed to do the interview when we didn’t even exist,” explains Moondi. “We cold-emailed him–I think we guessed his email address–and he agreed to it and was just completely down for it and he had nothing to go on.”

To date, the magazine has released 11 issues and filmed over 30 interviews. The matter of funding such an enterprise, however, has been a struggle. Because The Seventh Art defies any clear-cut category in terms of medium, locating grants has been frustrating.

“We’re not ‘art’ and we’re not an actual institution that you can go into, and we’re not a film,” Heron says. “We can’t even be qualified as educational because it’s not in schools.”

So how does the trio manage the ambitious project? Largely through in-kind sponsorships and the good graces of camera-savvy friends, Heron explains. Many bars and studios where interviews are filmed are accessed for free, in return for credits in the issue. Although The Seventh Art wasn’t accredited for TIFF, the organization provided film vouchers, and festival programmers connected the team with filmmakers.

Despite limited resources, The Seventh Art slowly built a reputation among Toronto’s film community in the last year, even taking on a fourth member, Hilary Hart. It wasn’t until last December, however, when things came to a head.

Stillman had just finished promoting his latest film Damsels in Distress in Barcelona, and agreed to come to Toronto. Sure enough, the first event in The Seventh Art’s Live Director Series boasted packed audiences, drawn by the accessibility of the Royal and also curious about the young organizers.

“If you see a director at the Lightbox, they’ll make you stay seated as they exit,” Moondi says. “And we kind of deliberately had Whit be accessible. Before the event, he was across the street drinking for 20 minutes and people were coming up and saying ‘hi’ to him.”

Following the final screening, the team invited audience members to an afterparty, where fans continued mingling with Stillman.

“People would come in with VHS copies of Metropolitan and so it was nice to see that Whit was responding to that,” Robertson says. “I think he really enjoyed the fact that he had that connection to his audience.”

Indeed, mediating this connection between its viewership and with the world of filmmaking is what The Seventh Art always had in mind.

“There’s a mandate to be as accessible as possible while not reducing the level of discourse,” Robertson says. “[The videos] are no different from essays you would read in any journal of cinema, but the fact that you can see it really does open it up. Because whatever the person is arguing, you are immediately given the example. You don’t have to have seen the film to follow along.”

Telling by a slew of upcoming projects, the group’s efforts aren’t going unnoticed. The team is in charge of producing a live feed during the Canadian Screen Awards, and is currently organizing a second live director event–no names yet but it’s “an established auteur,” assures Heron–which is in the works for April.

The magazine, however, only stands to get better with time, says Robertson. Twelve issues in, and with no discernible fatigue among its editors, things are looking up. Moreover, the thrill of speaking with filmmakers they admire–the impetus behind the whole project–is still very much alive.

“It’s crazy to hear someone talk about John Cassavetes and Orson Welles on a first-name basis,” Heron says of his interview with director Peter Bogdanovich.

“That’s the real reward: being in the same room as someone like Bogdanovich and hearing him talk about those people.” adds Robertson. “It’s great. It’s the reason we started doing it in the first place.”

Photo courtesy The Seventh Art.

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