Passings: Amnon Buchbinder, filmmaker, director and screenwriter

A bright light in Canadian cinema and screenwriting has gone out with the death of York University film production, screenwriting and cinema studies Professor Amnon Buchbinder. The prolific filmmaker and professor died on Saturday, Nov. 30 surrounded by family and friends. He was 61 years old and had cancer.

A Genie Award-winning filmmaker, Buchbinder was a gifted screenwriter, director and teacher. He started teaching at York University in 1995, received a tenure stream appointment in 1996 and was recently promoted to full professor. He was a former Chair of the Department of Cinema and Media Arts (CMA) and played an instrumental role in developing the curriculum in the production and screenwriting programs.

Amnon Buchbinder
Amnon Buchbinder

Buchbinder’s influence on the department, and on the Canadian filmmaking community, is described by colleague Howard Wiseman, associate professor of screenwriting: “In many ways, Amnon Buchbinder felt like the heart and the soul of department of Cinema and Media Arts. He loved the cinema from a young age, perhaps its most devoted fan. Amnon loved all film, from Tarkovsky to Miyazaki to low-brow B horror movies. He loved experimental film equally.

“For Amnon, all genres had special value; same for all colleagues. He appreciated everyone for their specific gifts, and he was the epitome of a devoted teacher. The students always came first. His work on all levels will continue to reverberate for years to come. We once saw Tarkovsky’s Stalker at his then-home on Hornby Island, followed by Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe, capped off with a 1940s era B gangster movie, and a talk about adapting our favourite western into a sci-fi remake. This was Amnon. A brilliant intellectual and the farthest away from a film snob you could ever be. He could see the brilliance and the joy in everything. He was also a wonderful administrator in our department and formed a critical bridge between the various areas of specialization in CMA, since he was comfortable and accomplished in each realm, such a rare thing. The loss of Amnon Buchbinder to our department, to the Canadian film industry, and to his friends and loving family will resonate for years to come. His living and his dying have been and will continue to be a beacon to so many of us.”

Another colleague and close friend in CMA, Manfred Becker, who had previously also been a graduate student of Buchbinder’s, reflects on Buchbinder’s lengthy illness: “Amnon profoundly touched the lives of many, in so many ways – as an academic, a creative, a spirited colleague, and for some, a personal friend. Throughout his eight-year illness, I witnessed the ever-changing phases of his battle with health, first as the tumours attacked his colon, then his lungs, and finally, his brain. For many cancer patients, their illness is defined by the limitations it imposes on how they live their lives (and understandably so). Not so with Amnon – rather than succumb to limitations, he stood his ground to confront this ‘emperor of all maladies’ as an opportunity to understand himself differently – a time to deepen his awareness of what it is to be human, both consciously and unconsciously. Amnon’s response to his health challenge was to ‘reframe’ it, accept what he could not change, and redefine what he did have control over by seeing the possibilities in it. Yes, like most, I had read and thought about the intellectual idea of ‘reframing.’ But to actually experience someone living it… His courage and tenacity will stay with me, and for that I am forever thankful to Ami.”

Amnon Buchbinder, photographed on Hornby Island, B.C. (image: Caleb Buchbinder)

The author of numerous screenplays, Buchbinder had a storied career. He served as story editor on more than 100 feature film projects in funded development. He was also an accomplished author. His book The Way of the Screenwriter (House of Anansi Press, 2005), which reinterprets the craft from both a philosophical and practical point of view, has been widely acclaimed by working screenwriters.

Buchbinder taught professional screenwriting workshops in a dozen countries and served as a curator and film programmer for several organizations, including the Vancouver International Film Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival. His most recent novel, Mortal Coil (Resounding Media, 2015), grew out of an unproduced TV series he developed with one of Canada’s major production houses. A thriller and love story, intimately and speculatively exploring the roots of human and planetary crisis and transformation, it was described by author and teacher Philip Shepherd as “unprecedented, visionary, compelling, affecting … a novel for our times.”

From an early age, Buchbinder was an accomplished filmmaker. Oroboros (1983), one of Buchbinder’s early short films, tells the story of two couples who seek to find their way out of a wasteland after the Central Agency experiment goes wrong. The film was described by Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan as “seductive, disturbing and overwhelming.”

Buchbinder’s directing work can been seen in three narrative feature films: The Fishing Trip (1998), Whole New Thing (2005) and Travelling Medicine Show (2015). The Fishing Trip was written by a student in one of his classes and made with a crew comprised largely of his students, on 16mm film. It was picked up by distributor Mongrel Media for a 35mm theatrical release across Canada and was nominated for three Canadian Academy (Genie) Awards, winning one. The Fishing Trip tells the story of two sisters and a friend, settling scores with one another on a road trip to a remote cabin where they intend to confront the stepfather who sexually abused them there as children.

Buchbinder’s Whole New Thing tells the story of a precocious, homeschooled 13-year-old boy who is sent to the local, rural school for the first time and develops a crush on his closeted gay teacher. A comedy, Whole New Thing was written by Buchbinder and playwright Daniel MacIvor in two weeks to take advantage of a funding opportunity, then shot on 35mm in three weeks in Halifax. The completed film was screened at more than 100 international film festivals, receiving a dozen best picture awards. It was acquired by ThinkFilm and distributed theatrically in Canada, the U.S., and other territories.

Buchbinder’s film, Travelling Medicine Show takes viewers on an emotional, imaginative journey. The “docu-myth” weaves together three short films (Creation [2008], Apocalypse [2011], and Travelling Medicine Show [2015]). The film features an unscripted narrative in which the filmmaker and some of his family members perform as themselves. It playfully explores the narrative folding that happened between art and life.

Buchbinder’s interactive documentary Biology of Story (2016) was made in collaboration with Helios Design Labs. Launched in 2016 at the South by Southwest (SXSW) Festival, Biology of Story was selected by programmers as an event highlight. Described by narrative scholar Brian Boyd as “internationally significant in a host of fields, as research, as art, as story,” it has been viewed online more than 700,000 times. The documentary illustrates Buchbinder’s theory of story and anti-story in art and life. The project was undertaken as research-creation and funded with a major Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) Insight Grant. Biology of Story is now a highlight of the School of the Arts, Media, Performance & Design’s (AMPD) eLearning courses, having been turned into an online course, which in turn formed the basis of a book.

Dean Sarah Bay-Cheng of AMPD commented on Buchbinder’s remarkable contribution to the department and the faculty as a whole: “Professor Amnon Buchbinder was the consummate storyteller and, in my too-brief interactions with him, an exceptionally good listener. This is part of what made him such an excellent writer, artist and teacher, and it is a quality that his colleagues and students will miss. His loss is deeply felt throughout the Faculty, but his memory will live on through the stories he fostered and the community that he built here. He was an extraordinary person whose influence will endure for a long time.”

Amnon leaves behind a loving and engaged family: his mother Judith Weisman, partner Elyse Pomeranz, sons Ishai and Caleb, daughter-in-law Dana, grandsons Samuel and Morris, brother David, sister-in-law Roula Said, niece Laila.

A public shiva will be held Wednesday, Dec. 4 to Saturday, Dec. 7, daily from 3 to 9 p.m. at 204 Perth Ave., Toronto (main entrance).

Buchbinder’s extensive filmography includes:

  • 2016       Biology of Story – online interactive documentary; writer/director/producer
  • 2015       Travelling Medicine Show – feature film; director/producer
  • 2014       Mortal Coil – novel; author (self-published)
  • “Sensitivity is Infinite: An Interview with Philip Shepherd” – in The Sun: a Magazine of Ideas (Chapel Hill, NC), April 2013 issue.
  • 2011       Travelling Medicine Show: Apocalypse – film (21 min.); director
  • 2010       Mortal Coil – TV series (bible and pilot); writer – Frantic Films (Winnipeg)
  • 2009       “You Can Get Out: Herostratus Now” – article, in Herostratus and the Short Films of Don Levy, (DVD: British Film Institute, London)
  •               Eugene – feature film screenplay; co-writer with Daniel MacIvor
  • 2008       Travelling Medicine Show: creation – film (27 min.); writer/producer/director
  • The New Worlds of Celebration Theatre: A DVD; writer/director/producr
  • 2007       Ghosting – feature film screenplay; co-writer with Guy Maddin
  • 2006       The Little Men – feature film screenplay; writer
  • The Pit – feature film screenplay; co-writer with Jeff Watson
  • 2005       The Way of the Screenwriter – book; author, publication Sept. 1, 2005; House of Anansi Press, 2nd Printing, December 2007
  •               Whole New Thing – feature film, 92 min., 35mm, Dolby Digital; director/co-writer, distribution (Canada): ThinkFilm; distribution (U.S.): Picture This Entertainment; distribution (Germany, Austria, Switzerland): Pro-Fun Media; distribution (Australia, New Zealand)
  • 2004       How to Succeed in Screenwriting – feature film screenplay; co-writer
  • 2003       Come Back, Paddy Riley – feature film screenplay; writer
  • 2001       A Traveling Medicine Show – feature film screenplay; writer
  • 1998       The Fishing Trip – feature film; producer/director, 84 min., 35mm, Dolby Digital – distribution: Mongrel Media (Canada), Panorama Entertainment (United States), BuzzTaxi (International)
  • 1995       Catchfire – feature film screenplay; writer
  • 1994       Big Back Yard: Everyone Welcome Video: 11 minutes, S-VHS; director/producer/camera/co-editor
  • 1994       Frances Hyland: Acting Video: 5 minutes, 16mm/Betacam; director/writer; commissioned by Toronto Arts Awards
  • 1990       We’re All Related/Alle Brider; video: 5 minutes, 16mm/Betacam; director/producer/writer; commissioned by Flying Bulgar Klezmer Band
  • 1989       Upon A Time – feature film screenplay; writer
  • 1988       Seed – 16mm film: 10 minutes; director/producer/writer/editor
  • 1987       The Hideaways – feature film screenplay; writer
  • 1985       Seed – feature film screenplay; writer
  • 1983       Oroboros – 16mm film: 58 minutes; director/producer/writer/editor
  • 1981       Criminal Language – 16mm Film: 35 minutes; co-director/writer/producer/editor
  • 1980       Consumed: A Tragicomedy of Supply and Demand – U-Matic video: 40 minutes; director/writer/producer/editor/camera
  • 1979       About Just This – 16mm Film: 3 minutes; director/writer/producer/editor
  • 1978       Son of… –  16mm Film: 13 minutes; director/writer/producer/editor
  • 1976       The Way to His Heart – 16mm Film: 14 minutes; director/writer/producer/editor/camera