5 Questions with Millefiore Clarkes

By Andrya Duff

P.E.I based Millefiore Clarkes is an award-winning director and the visionary voice behind multiple music videos, commercials, experimental shorts and feature length documentaries. This year, in partnership with Lawnya Vawnya, we’re hosting a special screening of Millefiore’s award-winning National Film Board documentary The Song and The Sorrow to kick off Lawnya Vawnya’s jam-packed music festival. We’re excited that Millefiore is able to join us at the Rocket Room for a post-screening Q+A about this poignant film described as “...a great history lesson on the life and times of Gene MacLellan and his place in music history”. In anticipation of our event I contacted Millefiore to discuss her thoughts on the evolution of a filmmaker, the idea of legacy and what she’s learned (or not) about self-care.

We hope that you can join us as well Wednesday, May 22nd at 7pm. The Song and The Sorrow is “An intimate and inclusive conversation on mental illness” and not to be missed!

Recently you were quoted as saying "I am ready to pool all my learnings and insights and funnel them into the next film. I want it to be something truly of me, something clearly in my own voice." As a creator that seems to have a strong signature and aesthetic style particularly with your use of lyrical drama and your ability to cultivate intimacy between the work and the viewer, what parts of you feel hidden when reflecting on your previous films or is this a reference to your evolution as a filmmaker and the stories that feel important now? 

I think perhaps every creator has one or two truths that they work and rework throughout a lifetime... drifting away, and then coming back from a different angle. Sometimes when your art is also your livelihood - it's easy to get caught up in work that is not entirely of your essence. It's probably healthy to do that as well. And one learns and grows from the practice. But for me, I think I'm in my purest filmmaking state when I am wandering solo with the camera, out into the world to simply observe. My first films sprang from that. Then I got settled and adult and it's hard to wander as much. But I'm ready to wander again. To observe. And then to edit those observations into something (hopefully) meaningful. 

The act of creation can be associated with an attempt to create something of yourself that will live beyond yourself, a hope for impact or legacy when in reality we can rarely choose what our legacy will be. How did Gene's relationship to his music and in turn Catherine's relationship to him through his music influence your own understanding of what you want your work to communicate about you?

Gene MacLellan was a deeply private person. And in that privacy lay a deep struggle. He yearned to communicate and yet was somehow often at a distance. As Catherine says in the film about her father - "He's there in his music. He's never not there." I think that is what made Gene's songs so timeless and universal - because - perhaps ironically - they were entirely of himself. I certainly aspire to that, though I can't say I achieve it. But it's a goal of mine. Because the world is full of really talented, brilliant people. The only thing I have to contribute is my own specific perspective and sensibility. So I try to funnel everything through that. And maybe it will speak to people. Maybe. 

Director Millefiore Clarkes and musician Catherine MacLellan

Director Millefiore Clarkes and musician Catherine MacLellan

Of difficult or challenging experiences you have said 'You can use the crack in your comfort to let a little light in. To grow a new root. To become stronger and wiser and hopefully more kind'. What cracks in your own comfort revealed themselves during the making of The Song and The Sorrow and how did you use them to grow new roots while making the film and after the project wrapped?

The Song and the Sorrow was the first larger production that I've directed where I really and truly accepted the gift of a team of collaborators. I tend to work fairly independently/solo. It's where I'm most comfortable. But with The Song and the Sorrow I had such a strong team of people working with me on every level. Over the years I've developed relationships with artists from many disciplines and we've established trust. That paid off hugely in this film. The Song and the Sorrow is the result of a collaborative effort by Rohan Fernando (at the NFB), and the entire NFB Atlantic team, along with my DP Kyle Simpson, Sound Recordist Adam Gallant, Composer Devon Ross, Sound Designer Simon White, and Story Editor Andrew MacCormack (to name a few). I'm really proud of the work and vision everyone put into this film and I think it shows. So, I have indeed learned that there is strength in the space between minds, when those minds work for a common goal. 

You have said you don't pay enough attention to self care which is not uncommon, notably amongst women. Was this a practice you had to be more conscious of prioritizing while peeling away the layers of The Song and The Sorrow, especially in regards to Catherine and everyone else working on the film?

Catherine is certainly an inspiration when it comes to self care (amongst other things). She has made a very conscious and determined effort to be well, mentally and physically. She carves out time for her mental health and prioritizes her family and peaceful actives that keep her grounded. It was not always easy for her to make this film, and I saw her struggle with it on many occasions. But she believed in the message of the film and its potential to reach people and make them feel perhaps a little less alone in their own struggles, so she persisted. She has demonstrated that sometimes the best self care is pushing through outside of yourself to reach others. I have to admit that I still spend most of my days hunched over a computer and not stretching often enough. Or blinking really. So - I think I could probably still use a few lessons in self-care. 

What were your perceptions of mental illness prior to creating The Song and The Sorrow and how did your journey into the story of Catherine and Gene solidify or shift those previous ideas? In what ways did your own experience as a parent inform your approach and did that ever make it difficult to empathize with Gene's choice? 

Working with Catherine over the three years it took to make this film, and contemplating her journey and the enigma of Gene MacLellan over that time certainly forced me to look deeper into the issues of mental illness. I can't say that I'm any clearer on precise definitions or answers except for one simple message, that Catherine repeats: talk about it. Sharing mental health struggles, feelings of sadness, alienation, depression etc. is absolutely the first step towards letting a little light in.