The tranquility of wide open blue skies and endless prairie fields can belie the turmoil of giving up the family farm, and it is this dichotomy, of beauty and struggle, which is depicted in a new documentary film written by a York University professor.
Political science Professor Clark Banack of the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies wrote the screen play for The Auctioneer, which will have its world premiere as part of Hot Docs, the Canadian International Documentary Festival in Toronto. It will screen Thursday, May 2 at 7:30pm in TIFF Bell Lightbox 4 and Saturday, May 4 at 3:30pm in TIFF Bell Lightbox 3, 350 King St. W., Toronto. For tickets, visit the Hot Docs box office website.
“The film is really just a window into the life of a pretty unique character in prairie agrarian life: the individual that presides over an event that is very much akin to a funeral, the death of a family farm, regardless of the particular circumstances behind the farm’s demise,” says Banack. He acutely remembers as a teenager his family selling their farm and holding their own auction. Banack has gone on to research and teach topics related to religion and politics, Canadian and provincial politics, Canadian political thought and rural-urban issues.
The Auctioneer gets inside the life of prairie auctioneer, and town undertaker, Dale Menzak, who helps families part with century-old farms. As an auctioneer, he sells off bits and pieces of agricultural life, a symbol of rural culture facing obsolescence if ever there was one.
“The fact that Dale’s second job is that of an actual undertaker, and that he values more traditional ways of tending to the land in his spare time, like raking hay with his horses, just added that much more depth to the film and allowed us to play with the themes of change and progress and death in subtle ways.”
Directed by Banack’s long-time friend Hans Olson, both grew up in Alberta, the 58-minute documentary is approached with an implicit understanding of the subject matter. Rather than waxing nostalgic, the filmmakers kept their distance allowing the film to unfold naturally.
“While The Auctioneer grew out of our preoccupation with ‘the death of the family farm’, we decided not to make a research-based issue film,” says Banack. “Instead, our hope was that the changing nature of rural communities would create the backdrop for a more personal portrait of the auctioneer – the individual who accompanies the process of letting go.”
Olson’s most recent short film, Champagne, was produced by the CFC, screened at the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival and has been broadcast on CBC and TMN. Previously, he directed two narrative shorts set on the Canadian prairies, Bronwen’s Ark (2006) and Baby Boots (2008), and a short documentary, Where Credit Is Due, shot in Guatemala in 2008.
A screenshot from the documentary The Auctioneer
The Auctioneer is produced by National Film Board of Canada producer Bonnie Thompson whose work includes the 2011 Genie Award-nominated feature documentary Wiebo’s War (SuperChannel); the Genie Award-winning and TIFF Top Ten Canadian Films theatrical documentary Radiant City (CBC); the NFB Gemini Award-winning Two Worlds Colliding (CBC and APTN); and the Academy Award-nominated NFB short animation Wild Life.
The Auctioneer will screen with Packing Up the Wagon: The Last Days of Wagon Wheel Lunch.