Book: Dear Guelda – The Death and Life of Pioneering Canadian Filmmaker Julian Roffman (2017)

February 9, 2018 | By

Book: Excellent

Author: Peter Roffman

Publisher: Amazon Digital Services / Kindle

Date:  December, 2017

Format / Pages / ISBN:  eBook / 430 pages / n/a

Genre: Biography / Film History / CanCon




To fans of 3D cinema, especially its pre-1980s renaissance, Julian Roffman is recognizable as the director-producer of what was in 1961 Canada’s first 3D feature and feature-length horror film. The Mask was also one of the most financially successful productions and the first Canadian film to be distributed stateside by a major studio – Warner Bros. – but that’s probably the limit of Roffman’s recognition factor to most, due in no small part to the country’s peculiar relationship between artists, government bodies with funding purses and regulatory powers, and Canadian moviegoers who for years held a stigma against anything produced locally for the big and small screen.

It’s not a love-hate relationship but a weird attitude and sense of inferiority passed on through older generations that’s easily distilled into a makeshift axiom ‘If it’s Canadian, it can’t be good,’ and Roffman was a figure who tried repeatedly to find a way to make movies and allow culture, artistry, and business savvy to flourish as it had stateside. The Mask is indicative of a step forward that was berated as step backward by critics because it was a B-movie that was commercially successful instead of a character piece rooted in the kind of social drama found in NFB documentaries.

The biggest irony is that Roffman wasn’t just a producer-director of commercial TV and feature works, but that NFB founder John Grierson invited him to return to Ottawa, Canada, and be among the first filmmakers employed by what the government soon branded as ‘our kind and the right kind of filmmaking.’

During the early 1940s Roffman was a successful newsreel director-producer and cinematographer in the U.S., but he chose to join the NFB after WWII erupted, and use film to inform the public and save minds and lives as the Nazis were ramping up their efforts to massacre Jewish Europeans. Roffman also had experienced anti-Semitism in Canada and the U.S., two countries he called home, and worked both sides of the border until he was blacklisted by the U.S. Government for not participating in the naming of names shenanigans of HUAC.

He was a man with many identities: cinematographer-producer-director for Canadian WWII propaganda newsreels, including on location during D-Day; an independent producer hoping the next project would finally allow him to direct a drama in Hollywood and Canada; an industrial filmmaker who took on shorts designed to promote institutions like the United Nations; a TV producer-director moving from pilots to episodic half-hour and hour-long indie and network shows; and during his return to Toronto during the 1950s, co-founder of Meridian Films, which became not only the most important commercial production house for assorted adverts in Canada, but the first in the country to offer videotape production and post-production under one roof.

When he passed away at age 84 in 2000, Roffman the perpetual deal-maker, film lover and hustler left a legacy of credits few knew existed until son Peter Roffman found a trove of letters, tucked safely in some drawers – evocative of a cinematic sequence that ignites a mystery-drama.

These were primarily correspondences between father Julian and mother Guelda, and these saved thoughts spanned roughly the years 1942 to 1954, but as detailed in a lengthy podcast interview, it took some time before Peter could re-approach the words of his parents, and slowly piece together a narrative and fill in a lot of time gaps, detail some career surprises, and process a few shocks.

The edited collection of letters within Dear Guelda is initially a poignant narrative of a twentysomething kid traveling between London and Belgium and Paris during WWII. It’s packed with period slang, witticisms, and argot of a writer influenced by American and British pop culture, but in classic Canadian fashion, Roffman took his favorite elements and interpolated our own cultural fusion of dryness and grasp of absurdism, and added hysterical Yiddish terminology and more than a few French Canadian bons mots.

In both his lengthy intro text and bridge material for the edited but grammatically uncorrected letters, Peter Roffman points out the shift in his father’s tone from snappy kid to colder professional in the postwar letters, but the elder Roffman’s use humour to temper being stuck among film industry morons and crooks, and the love for Guelda and kids Peter and Tina are constant.

The edited narrative in Dear Guelda shares the same ups & downs of that textbook masterwork Memo from David O. Selznick, Rudly Behlmer’s 1972 tome that offered rich slices of production details when the memos were at their most interesting and formed mini-dramas during often chaotic productions like Gone with the Wind (1939) and Duel in the Sun (1946).

Like Behlmer’s book on producer Selznick (for whom Roffman would also work in 1948 on Portrait of Jennie), when the dates between prosaic installments become less frequent, there are time-jumps which force the editor to not only explain details of Roffman’s shift in locations and film gigs, but offer additional and more personal biographical material to keep the narrative interesting.

Behlmer’s book sort of winds down after the peak years and big productions are over and done with, but Roffman’s letters cover WWII, film work, and family life, so there’s arguably a broader, richer narrative where son Peter steps in and offers personal anecdotes and thoughts. Like the opening WWII and NFB chapters, the book is also a son’s private discovery of a father’s different sides, and a hunger to understand the decisions, personality quirks, behaviour, and strains in relationships that still haunt adult sons & daughters. It’s also a reflection on the long-lasting effects of a parent often away from family life, which forms part of Peter Roffman’s touching coda to the book.

Dear Guelda is also a highly amusing snapshot of life as a struggling filmmaker, battling against production overlords (Roffman frequently refers to Grierson as God); the bureaucracy within the NFB that didn’t differ from amajor studio or independent, such as American International Pictures, with whom Roffman co-produced a few works (A Spy in Your EyeExplosion); drunken has-been directors (the debacle that is Sarumba is fascinating and colourful); and the perpetual headaches of indie filming (camera gear issues, location issues, shitty screenplays, funding shortcomings).

Julian Roffman’s constant hunger to direct his kind of classy, commercial, socially conscious drama remains a contemporary if not timeless dream; what’s remarkable about Roffman is that he consistently refused to give up. As son Peter points out repeatedly, father Julian would always look for the next gig, hustling for work, using contacts and associations to keep working not only to support his family, but  hope The One would finally come, and he could have the career he’d been hungering to enjoy.

To 1960s and 1970s Canadian film critics, Julian Roffman was perhaps a minor figure – a former NFB golden boy whose taste for commercial projects didn’t ‘reflect’ the national character; he went astray, came back from the U.S. singed, but never learned his lesson and kept trying to make a career hit that wasn’t proper by the standards established by government bureaucrats.

But to fans of CanCon – the moniker applied with bittersweet affection towards indigenous / non-Hollywood films regularly swept under the rug by snooty cultural tightwads – Roffman’s a hero; unlike the layers of nameless cultural apparatchiks who left little of lasting value, Roffman left us with more than a few movies, and a number of industry firsts.

The effects of bad governmental policies certainly linger – American chains still control what’s seen on the big screens, and we’ve lost the digital battle to preserve and disseminate CanCon features, shorts, and TV series due to corporate apathy and American giants Google, Netflix, and Facebook – but it’s heartening to read firsthand of one filmmaker aware of the bullshit, fighting to make his own films, and succeeding in ways the government couldn’t meddle as extensively as they wanted – namely in the commercial production of ads, promos, and industrial films.

Each reader will take away different meaningful impressions of Roffman’s multi-facted career, but his two key feature films – The Bloody Brood (1959) and The Mask (1961) – represent attempts to make movies with subtext aimed at cinemas beyond Canada, because whether or not they’re tailored for domestic audiences, they shouldn’t exist exclusively within any nation’s borders. Movies are meant to be seen everywhere using the most accessible distribution platforms – a goal not actually stated, but one resonating from Roffman’s private letters.



© 2018 Mark R. Hasan



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