For over 40 years, James MacSwain has been a touchstone in the local filmmaking community through the Atlantic Filmmakers Cooperative, the Centre for Art Tapes, and as an animation instructor at NSCAD. His body of work is comprised of short experimental animation, often narrated (and sung) by the filmmaker, exploring tenets of life as a gay man (though an iconic Halifax resident, he was born in Amherst) with irreverent humour, surprising poignancy, and a delicious edge.
Since 2014, artist (and NSCAD instructor) Eryn Foster and filmmaker Sue Johnson have been filming MacSwain at home, on his annual visit to the Bay of Fundy, making art, and in his life. The result is Celestial Queer, making its world premiere at the Atlantic International Film Festival on September 18. “He’s such an iconic person. His work is so unique,” says Foster from her home in Dartmouth. “I was asking everyone I knew who was a filmmaker: ‘You should make a documentary about Jim!’. And a lot of people wanted to but had too many things on the go, you know how it is. Then I thought, maybe I’ll do it, even though I had no experience in film.”
A biopic that shows James MacSwain's many lives: creative, activist, social, and domestic
Foster connected with Johnson, another Halifax arts worker—they’d worked with MacSwain at Centre For Art Tapes while Foster ran Eyelevel Gallery—and they began what would become a decade-long process of shooting, cobbling together grants for production and post, and tweaking the edit. (Their subject was game: “Once your ego’s involved,” says MacSwain, “you have to do it.”)
“Essentially it’s a biopic,” says Johnson from Toronto, where they teach in the Cinema and Media Arts program at York University. “But that immediately makes people think of the History Channel—in terms of how memoir or bio is usually structured, often there’s this start of ‘he was born in this year’ and we don’t really do that at all. We always envisioned it as a verité space. There are certainly details about Jim’s life in there that you learn but it’s how that life has shaped perspective and artistic sensibility that we’re interested in.”
MacSwain stopped making films a few years back in favour of visual art; the documentary also offered a chance to track that arc. “I wanted to translate my retirement into something softer,” he says from his Dartmouth home. “A softer vision of whatever I wanted to do creatively.”
“Both Sue and I felt from the very beginning a great sense of responsibility to present the life of Jim in a way that would not only speak to who he is as a person, which is obviously a very dynamic human being who has lots of parts to himself,” says Foster. “But his creative life also has all these different parts and pieces, and his activist life, and his social life, and his domestic life—there are so many things that make up this person in front of us on the screen.”
“I also felt like because of our [pre-existing] relationship, throughout the filming process we were always, in a way, on the same page,” adds Johnson. “It can always happen but I wasn’t as worried about it. I feel like because of the footage we were getting back, and it felt like how Jim is, I wasn’t worried.”
'Jim [is] a model for all the possibilities, all of the things that NSCAD attempts to and wants to represent as an institution.'
Celestial Queer is a 72-minute distillation of a long, rich life filled with art, activism, and queerness—a loving tribute to a living icon.
“I teach a class called Professional Practices [at NSCAD] and one of the ways I teach it is to provide models of how to live as an artist,” says Foster. “I often talk about Jim as an example of someone who’s found really experimental and alternative ways to exist on this earth, whether it’s through living in a communal house or working in an incredibly interdisciplinary way. Jim being a model for all the possibilities, all of the things that NSCAD attempts to and wants to represent as an institution. He was there teaching these things; I think even just through his existence, he offers the rest of us a model for what life can look like as an artist.”