Jane Austen and Emily Brontë. In Canada, Margaret Atwood. They're some of the biggest names in female literature. What about Mazo de la Roche? Despite being one of the most famous women in the world in the early 20th century, you'd be hard pressed to find someone that could name her as an influential Canadian author on the streets of today. Her Jalna series of novels made her famous, with CBC adapting the series into television theatre back in the mid-1950s (and again as a television series in the '70s):
Maya Gallus, the award winning documentary maker, was fascinated by the story of de la Roche, about how she created a different life for the media and why few can name her as an influential figure in Canadian literature today. Gallus' new documentary - The Mystery of Mazo de la Roche - debuts at this year's Hot Docs festival in Toronto. Featuring archive footage, interviews and dramatisations, Gallus tries to get behind the mystery of Canada's forgotten literature superstar.
Gallus and her Red Queen Productions partner Justine Pimlott have both worked with CBC in the past. We got together with Pimlott - who also serves as Producer and Executive Producer on the project - to find out more about the art of documentary making and The Mystery of Mazo de la Roche.
As well as producing The Mystery of Mazo de la Roche, you're a documentary maker in your own right. You've worked with CBC in the past?
JP: Yes I have. Yes, I directed a documentary on international women's hockey for CBC Sports - Chasing the Dream - and Maya's also directed many Life and Times documentaries in her past. She did one on the Dionne quintuplets; one on Barbara Ann Scott, the figureskater; and one on the Dale sisters, Cynthia and Jennifer. Maya's film this year at Hot Docs, The Mystery of Mazo de la Roche, is a documentary about de la Roche who was so famous at the time that it's shocking nobody knows who she is today! CBC did a series based on her books - the Jalna books - called The Whiteoaks of Jalna. They did a miniseries on CBC in the '70s and it was hugely popular. Kate Reid played Granny Whiteoak.
Tell me about what made you want to make documentaries.
JP: I want to make documentaries because I've always been interested in social issues and I've always been interested in real peoples' lives. I studied sociology in university but then I was always so passionate about film. I felt like documentaries - when they're made really well - can really reach a wide audience and actually sometimes make a change in the world, you know?
What's it like to be accepted into a festival like Hot Docs?
JP: First of all it's our home town festival so that's wonderful to be celebrated here. And secondly this is the most important documentary festival in North America. Premièring your film here just sets the tone for the life of the film and helps it reach a really wide audience, it's just a wonderful launching pad. We're very proud and honoured to be part of it, to be selected. It really makes a statement about the quality of the film that Maya directed.
How do you decide on an idea for a documentary, does something just come to you?
JP: It depends. I did a documentary called Cat City about cat people who rescue feral and abandoned cats. The idea literally came to my door - somebody dumped a cat on my doorstep and I had to find a home for it. It led me in to this whole world of these people who do this and these amazing activists. That's how that came to me. I also made a film called Fag Hags about women who love gay men that was made for CBC's The Passionate Eye. It was like looking at the whole idea of what a "fag hag" is and deconstructing it to sort of say, "what kind of relationships are these? What is the relationship beyond the sort of stereotype that we have in our minds?" I knew people in my community who could be called "fag hags" - really close to gay men. I was naturally interested in going beyond these stereotypes about the label.
Maya wanted to make a film about Mazo de la Roche for many, many years because she read an article about her a long time ago and found out that de la Roche was a very private person but hugely famous. She wondered why nobody knows about her now? Maya went and started to research this amazing woman. In 1928 she was incredibly, internationally famous - bigger than or at least equal to Margaret Atwood today - but had this private life which was very intriguing. She lived with her cousin/sister in a "Boston marriage", which was a domestic relationship with two women. She was one of the early people who basically - before Madonna, Lady Gaga and all these artists - protected her private life but constructed a kind of persona that she felt was fitting to how she imagined herself. In researching Mazo's story Maya found out all these amazing things about her. She was a trailblazer, she wrote seventeen books in the Jalna series. She was enormously successful, enormously wealthy... we know about Lucy Maud Montgomery and the Anne of Green Gables stories, but people today don't know Mazo de la Roche and the Jalna stories.
For people who aren't really documentary watchers... what can people see in The Mystery... that they're going to connect with?
JP: Each film finds its audience, right? I'm not saying that this film has an audience with everybody but some people are adventurous and say "oh, I didn't know that... I'm curious... I'll go and see that film..." then they come out and they know more about the world than they did before they went into the theatre. In terms of our film, what would you discover? An important part of Canadian history that most people don't know about. We need to put Mazo de la Roche back in her rightful place in history in terms of Canadian literature. She was somebody who really broke ground for the future of female writers in our country. If you love books, if you love Canadian history, if you love really excellent filmmaking... it's a beautifully executed documentary. It's a hybrid, we actually have dramatizations as well as documentary footage. An actor plays Mazo, Severn Thompson. I would say that if you care about literature, our history, our culture and if you care about excellent filmmaking, come and see our film.
The Mystery of Mazo de la Roche screens on Sunday (April 29 - TIFF Bell Lightbox) and Monday (30 - Isabel Bader Theatre). Buy tickets at the Hot Docs website.