From onsite to online: Lunenburg Doc Fest streams from Sept. 24-30

The seventh Lunenburg Doc Fest goes virtual from September 24-30 to give viewers extra time to curate their at-home viewing experience, with a lineup of films designed to warm hearts and stretch minds.

Nova Scotia filmmaker Chin-Yee in the spotlight with No Ordinary Man documentary

The seventh annual Lunenburg Doc Fest goes virtual from September 24-30 to give viewers extra time to curate their at-home viewing experience, with a lineup of films designed to warm hearts and stretch minds. 

We asked Lunenburg Doc Fest Executive Director Pamela Segger to weigh in on a few topics:

GREATEST CHALLENGE GOING FROM ONSITE TO ONLINE: "Our greatest challenge is elevating what could be a passive viewing experience to an interactive event with some of the same energy and impact that our audience and filmmakers appreciate. To help preserve some of that 'festival feel', we're hosting livestream Filmmaker Q&As as well as an online "social" or two, plus collaborating with local businesses and partners to add themed treats to the mix, like themed cocktails and special menus to complete the experience."

BEST KEPT SECRET ABOUT THE LUNENBURG DOC FEST:  "Most people don't know that Lunenburg Doc Fest supports a concurrent industry lineup during the festival called The Dock Market. Now in its fifth year, The Dock Market lineup is 4 days long, free for filmmakers with the purchase of a pass, and consists of Hot Docs Doc Ignite workshops as well as panels, round tables and 1-to-1 meetings and more. Check it out here."

THAT INTIMATE LUNENBURG FEST: "Aside from a full conversion from onsite to online in year seven, the most notable change has been the growth of the film program and the reach of support. We consistently and proudly receive feedback that the intimate setting, personal touches, access to filmmakers, and our beautiful destination make Lunenburg Doc Fest a festival to remember." 

HOT TICKETS: Each documentary will undoubtedly resonate in viewers' minds. To highlight just a few:

  • "We anticipate the opening night film (viewable in Canada & USA) Bloodless: The Path To Democracy exploring the astonishing non-violent "Velvet Revolution" in Armenia will astound."

  • "Of particular regional interest, Fish & Men (viewable in Canada & USA) reviews the stakes and sustainability of the fish stocks."

  • "SpiderMable will have us cheering an unstoppable four-year-old superhero battling villains and cancer."

  • "Champions takes us to the Special Olympics World Games with a pair of ambitious middle distance runners." 

  • "We have great diversity across our 5 insightful short film programs, which are sure to move and inspire." 

  • "Finally, our closing night Meeting The Beatles In India offers us an opportunity to transcend our social distance and celebrate another festival together, apart."

Halifax-born filmmaker Aisling Chin-Yee, right, worked closely with co-director Chase Joynt, left, and co-writer Amos Mac to lens the documentary No Ordinary Man, about the life of jazz musician Billy Tipton. (Parabola Films)


In no ordinary film festival season arrives No Ordinary Man

The feature documentary, creating a buzz on the film fest circuit, tells the timely story about Billy Tipton, a piano playing jazzman from the U.S. Midwest who after his death in 1989, was outed to the media that he was a transmasculine person. 

Halifax-born Aisling Chin-Yee co-directs No Ordinary Man with Chase Joynt. She shares a writing credit with Amos Mac and is also an editor.

Born to a Jamaican-Chinese father and an Irish mother, Aisling recalls growing up in Cole Harbour and then Dartmouth, "on the other side of the Macdonald Bridge," in a "culturally curious family" with her two brothers. 

Aisling left Nova Scotia to study communications and film studies and Concordia University in Montreal. Today she is regarded as an active change maker for equality and diverse representation on and off screen, as she balances her career between Montreal and L.A.

No Ordinary Man debuted on Sept. 10 at the Toronto International Film Festival, and streams this month at FIN: Atlantic International Film Festival and Lunenburg Doc Festival.

Her curiosity about Billy Tipton's life and story was sparked by producer and friend Sarah Spring of Parabola Films.

"Sarah approached me and quickly we brought the team together. The team just clicked. We jumped into the story, I said, 'Let's find out more about Billy because of the way he was treated in the media in the late 1980s and early '90s.' His family was getting vilified and he was getting painted as this deceiving woman who was lying to people to pursue a career in music," she said over the phone from Montreal.

"And it became very clear that is not a reason somebody changes their gender, or commits to living their life in a way they decide to live their life. It's not usually out of deception and malice." 

What they discovered was everyone who knew Billy had said nothing bad against him.

 "He was a loving father, a loving husband, a great friend, a true artist, all of these things," she said. 

With no archival film footage of Billy Tipton to work with, Aisling, Chase and the team had to come up with different narrative techniques to tell Billy's story. 

There had been a 1998 book Suits Me: The Double Life of Billy Tipton, by Diane Wood Middlebrook.

Aisling said Middlebrook's biography unveiled a lot of the people in his past, going to all the places that he played, digging up photographs, finding musicians, girlfriends, wives and friends. Aisling and her team combed over this research that was donated to Stanford University, where Middlebrook taught as well.

"In her book she had done all this research and then she kept putting her own lens on it and kept painting (Billy) as somebody who was doing this because it was too hard for women to work in jazz in the '40s and '50s. Which is simply not true though," she said. "There were women. There were big bands that were all women, there were many, many, musicians that were working in jazz that were women. It wasn't a plausible argument."

American jazz musician Billy Tipton's life story is re-imagined and performed by trans artists as they collectively paint a portrait of an unlikely hero in the documentary No Ordinary Man. Tipton is shown here performing in 1946. (Parabola Films)
What the team had was Tipton's music, his two albums, a tape and old recordings from the '30s, a rehearsal that he had done, a Christmas card that he had recorded and there were photos of him. 

"We realized we would be contributing to the first moving images of Billy Tipton to culture. There was a lot of responsibility of who is representing. How are they representing, obviously, and my co-director Chase and my co-writer Amos, we would be coming at it with our own 2019 bias," she explained. 

Aisling Chin-Yee and Chase Joynt, co-directors of No Ordinary Man, use innovative techniques to bring Billy Tipton's story to life. (Parabola Films)
"They would be coming from their own personal bias of being trans people. I would be coming with my bias as a mixed-raced woman from Nova Scotia. All of those layers still mean something.

"There was lots of responsibility in representing that and because Billy's story is so meaningful and encompasses so many people from so many walks of life — whether they are trans people, whether they are LGBTQ people, whether they're musicians, there are so many entry points of trying to understand Billy —  just trying to be witness to his story." 

To conquer their storytelling method they used a very explicit casting call in New York and Los Angeles, looking for transmasculine actors to be part of a documentary that would be exploring the life of Billy Tipton. 

In that process Aisling and Amos had written three scenes from BIlly's life  —  one included an encounter with Duke Ellington, one was him trying to get his first job as a 19 year old and another was a meeting he had with a transmasculine person at a radio station that had given him his first break.

"All of the actors came with these scenes memorized and ready to go and we were very clear we were not auditioning for an actual fictional film. This casting room was part of the documentary we were making," Aisling said.

No Ordinary Man features leading voices in the trans community, including Marquise Vilsón. (Parabola Films)
What transpired were conversations around all these trans men and their personal experiences and how they discovered Billy Tipton themselves.
Billy's story was much bigger than just being a biopic. It was all of these other things and all of these other voices that gave colour, such intellect and such beauty to understanding a life,- Aisling Chin-Yee, co-director No Ordinary Man

'We showcased all of this amazing transmasculine talent across the U.S. in a way that makes how this whole film is trying to interpret Billy Tipton from different lenses as part of the actual movie, rather than just trying to cast and do recreations with just one guy who looks like BIlly. We use the opportunity to talk to lots and lots of people from the trans community," she said.

The collaboration with all of these trans voices was so important to the story and the team took responsibility to be sure they represented Billy's life thoughtfully and truthfully. 

"Billy's story was much bigger than just being a biopic. It was all of these other things and all of these other voices that gave colour, such intellect and such beauty to understanding a life," Aisling said. 

American jazz musician Billy Tipton's son, Billy Jr., has taken it on himself as the defender of his father's legacy and name. He is featured in No Ordinary Man, a documentary about his father. (Parabola Films)
Billy Tipton adopted three sons and one of them, Billy Jr., adds the family voice to the film.

Aisling and the team spent three days interviewing Billy Jr. at his home in Spokane, Washington.

"Billy Jr. is an incredibly generous person," Aisling said. "He was there holding his father when his dad passed away (in 1989). And then the media took his dad's story and was changing it to be something that it wasn't. He and his mother Kitty went on the talk-show circuit to defend their father. And to defend themselves as well, because they were all being treated like freaks."

Aisling said Billy Jr. has always upheld the truth. He remembers his father as a loving dad and wonderful musician. 

"He doesn't see his father any differently now than he did than before his father passed. He's really taken it on himself as the defender of Billy's legacy and Billy's name," she said.

In a pandemic year, Aisling said she would love to come home to Nova Scotia for the film festivals. She's always been home this time of year to attend. 

"It's like my old excuse to head home and see my family (her parents still reside in Dartmouth) and it's September —  the best time to be in Nova Scotia, so that's a little sad," she said. "But I have no problem with this movie reaching people in their homes, you know. You're there with your family and friends and you are able to watch this film and discuss it with family members, which is important."

After streaming in Halifax and Lunenburg, No Ordinary Man will also play at virtual festivals in Calgary and Vancouver. It will have its theatrical release in February 2021.

A shout-out to Rich Aucoin

Aisling said "to throw some more glory over to the East Coast," they hired Halifax-based indie alt-pop musician Rich Aucoin to be the hands and music of Billy. 

"He did the original music in the movie. It was a combination of piano and synth and we contemporized it with his own kind of sounds like synth and electronic treatments of the instruments and the piano,"  Aisling explained.

"He is such a collaborator. We needed the music to be wonderful and we also needed it to be jazz music. Billy's music is in there that we treated very well. We also needed the emotional impact and to keep it like in respect with the piano sounds of Billy and to bring it to 2020. This is the world we are living in, not 1940s jazz," she said.

"Rich worked really hard finding that balance and finding that sound. And we were doing this in the last few months and I was obviously unable to go back to Halifax, so we were doing all of this during COVID with calls and Google docs." 


Watch it at Lunenburg Doc Fest
Available to stream from 7:00 PM, September 27 to 11:45 PM, September 30

Watch it at FIN: Atlantic International Film Festival
Available to stream from 12:01 AM, September 17 to 11:59 PM, September 24.
Ticket holders have 24 hours to complete the stream once they start a particular presentation.

Directors: Aisling Chin-Yee, Chase Joynt
Writers: Aisling Chin-Yee, Amos Mac
Producer: Sarah Spring
Cinematographer: Léna Mill-Reuillard
Editor: Aisling Chin-Yee
Running time: 84 minutes