Michael Ondaatje 1943
The Clinton Special: A Film About the
Chronicles a group of actors who in 1972 went into an Ontario farming community to build a play of what they saw and learned. This famous experimental collaborative `grassroots` play by Paul Thompson and Theatre Passe Muraille brought to that community a sense of awe, delight and reflection of their own language and culture.
In 1972, a group of theatre folk from the Big Smoke of Toronto got it into their heads to head out into farm country of Southern Ontario to create a play about what they found there. Michael Ondaatje, Can-Lit god and Booker-Prize-Winning author of The English Patient, documented the play and made this film, “The Clinton Special,” which is, like the play itself, both a documentary and a performance. Amazingly, I can’t find any coverage or reviews of this recent release on the web; that’s too bad, because it’s really worth checking out. 70’s activist theatre is where it’s at.
It’s not hard to tell at any moment whether you’re seeing actors in performance, farmers in interview, or plain documentary footage. The farmers’ faces are weathered, their manner subdued, voices quiet, speech confident. The players are quite the opposite: loud, projective, exaggerated, they shout lines to the back of the hall. Armed with the confidence that we, the viewers, are capable of distinguishing these two, Ondaatje plunges in and combines live footage from the stage production of the Farm Show, re-enactments of scenes from the play, reactions of the Farm Folk themselves to the show and its production, and interviews with the actors about their experiences. Though politics as such never comes up, the slow accumulation of anecdotes about hard work, accidents, and eked subsistence add up to a powerful and useful map of southern Ontario’s socio-political situation.
The Farm Show started from this vague liberal feeling, a benevolent charity in which the actors would “go to the people” and “tell their stories,” and the “The Clinton Special” is more an extension of the premise than a separate doc about it. The farmers, it appears, gave it their full cooperation, and later, the film shows us, gave standing ovations and happy feedback. But, more significantly, the process didn’t seem to include any kind of farmer’s choice in the matter. Sure, a documentary about an important subject cannot be created only with permission of the players involved. And as each individual was approached and interviewed, they no doubt had full knowledge that they could refuse to participate, thus being left out of the final production. This one-way creator-spectator and creator-subject process leaves a little something to be desired in terms of participation.
The top-down control of the actors, coupled with their cozy relationship with the farmers, does distort reality in a tangible way. But in the doc, one of the actors raises another issue: he worries that their parachuting into the community for only six weeks isn’t enough time to really get below the surface. Ondaatje could have investigated this further, done his own research and compared the play with his own information, if he really was interested in interrogating the Farm Show; instead, this actor’s statement is the only hint that the process might be flawed, and Ondaatje is essentially a creative collaborator in the Farm Show’s national celebration. Ondaatje’s interviews with the farmers hardly scratch a surface. Again, it would be unlikely for anyone but a supporter to jump the hurdles of making a doc about the Farm Show, so this isn’t all that surprising. But a critical approach could have set the stage for others to build on the Farm Show and improve on the idea, instead of simply producing a propaganda piece. That would have been truer to the play’s stated objectives: examining the reality of farm life itself, rather than celebrating a bunch of city kids for being so noble as to bother about farmers. I am reminded of the 19th century Russian nihilists, who condescendingly went about in shabby garb to mix with the rural peasants, often being chased out of town by suspicious locals.
That being said, the emotion I felt after watching “The Clinton Special” was amazement. As much as I can critique the film and the play, the Farm Show is certainly more innovative and progressive than almost anything gracing the mainstream stage or screen today, and as a snapshot of a historical moment when theatre was breaking its conventions and reaching out for ways to be socially relevant and politically useful, this doc should be required viewing in theatre and film classes everywhere.