What does it take to carve out a career as a poet? Why on earth would anyone attempt it? Al Purdy Was Here is the portrait of an artist driven to become a great Canadian poet at a time when the category barely existed. Al Purdy is a charismatic tower of contradictions: a “sensitive man” who whips out a poem in a bar fight; a factory worker who finds grace in an Arctic flower; a mentor to young writers who remained a stranger to his sons. Purdy has been called the last, best and most Canadian poet. “Voice of the Land” is engraved on his tombstone. But before finding fame as the country’s unofficial poet laureate, he endured years of poverty and failure.
Born in Wooler, Ontario in 1918, Al was a high-school dropout who hopped freight trains during the Great Depression. He lived all over the country, working in mattress factories. After two decades of writing what he admits was bad poetry, in 1957 he and his wife build an A-frame cabin on Roblin Lake in Ontario’s Prince Edward County. There he finds his voice, and surprising success. The A-frame soon becomes a mecca for the early pioneers of Canadian literature, writers like Margaret Laurence, Dennis Lee, Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje. And in this rustic salon, irrigated by Al’s wild grape wine, a cultural community takes root.
Now, 15 years after Purdy’s death, artists and patrons have rallied to restore his shambling cabin as a writers’ retreat. It’s a quixotic enterprise. But as the A-frame comes back to life, it generates a Purdy revival, and an album of original songs inspired by his life and work. The film features performances by artists including Leonard Cohen, Bruce Cockburn, Gord Downie, Gordon Pinsent, Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, Sarah Harmer, Tanya Tagaq and Joseph Boyden. The narrative, meanwhile, moves between Purdy’s story and the compelling characters bound up in his legacy. They range from his 90-year-old widow, Eurithe—who reflects on their turbulent marriage while overseeing the cabin’s restoration with a vigilant eye—to the A-frame’s first resident poet, a spirited young feminist who finds herself conversing with the ghost of an old-school male.
Director / Producer Brian D. Johnson
Brian D. Johnson is one Canada’s leading film critics and cultural commentators. He is also an author, filmmaker, musician and broadcaster. He is president of the Toronto Film Critics Association, where he created the annual TFCA Awards gala in 2008, now home to the $100,000 Rogers Best Canadian Film Award. Johnson is Contributing Editor at Maclean’s, where he was a Senior Writer from 1985 to 2014. He is the author of three non-fiction books, including the TIFF history Brave Films, Wild Nights: 25 Years of Festival Fever (2000)—as well as a book of poetry, Marzipan Lies (1974), and a novel, Volcano Days (1994). He has directed two Bravo!FACT short films, Tell Me Everything (2006) and Yesno (2010).
Executive Producer Ron Mann
Toronto director Ron Mann is one of Canada’s foremost documentary filmmakers. Mann established his international reputation while in his twenties with a series of award-winning theatrical documentaries, including Imagine the Sound (1981), Poetry in Motion (1982), Comic Book Confidential (1988), Twist (1992), and Grass (1999). Ron’s other films include GoFurther (2003), TalesoftheRatFink (2006), KnowYourMushrooms (2008), In the Wake of the Flood (2010), and Altman (2014).
Director of Photography Nicholas de Pencier
Nicholas de Pencier is a director, producer, and director of photography working in documentary, performing arts, and dramatic film. He is President of Mercury Films Inc., the Toronto-based production company he shares with his partner, Jennifer Baichwal.
Writer Marni Jackson
A Toronto writer who has won numerous National Magazine Awards for her features, humour and social commentary, Marni Jackson is the author of three nonfiction books: The Mother Zone,Pain: The Science and Culture of Why We Hurt and Home Free: The Myth of the Empty Nest. The bestselling Mother Zone was nominated for the Stephen Leacock Award, and her book on the nature of pain was a finalist for The Writers’ Trust Pearson Nonfiction Prize. Marni’s stories have appeared in The Walrus, Brick, Eighteen Bridges, Toronto Life, Explore, Saturday Night, Outside, Rolling Stone, The London Times, Utne Reader, and others.
Al Purdy Was Here is a Purdy Pictures Film, produced in association with the Rogers Documentary Fund, the Rogers Cable Network Fund, the CBC Documentary Channel, and the Canada Media Fund (CMF). FilmsWeLike will distribute the film theatrically in Canada. Copyright Purdy Pictures Inc. All rights reserved.