The War At Home

I’ve spent almost 3 decades making films on human rights and conflict, largely focused on violence against women. I’ve made documentaries on rape camps in Bosnia, and on the civilian (largely women) toll of small arms.

I’ve made films on so-called honour killings in Jordan and the West Bank. I’ve filmed in Iraq, Gaza, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, Iran... So many places where women suffer unimaginably from conflict and violence. I always thought of Canada and home as a safe haven. But that idea was shattered when I realized that for thousands of women in our own country, “home” is the place where most violence occurs.

“Home” for some women is a place of personalized terrorism. This past year has been full of news on this topic, from the Ray Rice elevator video, to Bill Cosby, to Jian Ghomeshi. Violence against women has become a dinner party topic, anecdotally it feels like an epidemic as more and more women speak out telling the personal stories they have long kept hidden. The numbers are staggering. Nine times the number of deaths as civil wars, globally.

One in three women have experienced violence in their lifetime. In Canada, in the same ten year period, three times more women were killed by their partners than all our troops killed in Afghanistan. Every six days, a Canadian woman dies this way. 

What is perhaps more shocking, in a country like ours, is that we have no National Strategy to prevent violence against women. Aboriginal women have been murdered or gone missing at unimaginable rates. And women of every background and economic strata suffer alone, ashamed to speak out, terrified to leave.

When they do leave, the first 18 months are the most dangerous. Even if they have a place to go (many do not) they face stigma, and a justice system that often feels like re-abuse. They live through all this in fear and anger, knowing their partner is unlikely to serve time, or be held accountable.

Making a film on the subject is a challenge. Women are afraid to speak out, lawyers are afraid you will get sued. Courts issue publication bans, filming is not allowed in courtrooms. There are many layers of silence around this story. We were lucky to find a group of women whose courage in speaking out is astonishing. They let us into their lives and their battles. They did so because they want the message out there – loud and clear.

Domestic violence can happen to anyone, and it does.

Society is failing to keep them safe. In a “he-said, she-said” story that unfolds behind closed doors, “proof” is hard to come by. It is often not until a woman is killed that we acknowledge the violence, or the crippling fear they have been subjected to. We learned, making this documentary, that there are inescapable patterns of behavior behind this violence that if understood by authorities, could be used to stop it.

“Control” is a word all the women used, as their stories echoed each others. No matter the background, or economic strata, we witnessed similar patterns. We learned that the Justice system feels like re-abuse for many women, exposing them to intimidation and fear. Restraining orders often don’t keep them safe. Family and Criminal Courts have different mandates, and often seem to contradict rulings.

Police and Judges reflect society’s over-arching prejudice. Most often the perpetrators serve no time, and they re-abuse. In cases of domestic murder, sentences are shorter than for all other murders. The system, according to women survivors, is simply broken. We hope that by telling the stories of a handful of incredibly brave women, we will shed some light on this dark story, and start a conversation. It seems that our country, like everywhere, still has miles to go in finding a way to stop this violence, and the attitudes that fuel it.

Not all men who have grown up in violence perpetuate it. It is a choice. It should be considered for what it is: unacceptable.

Violent men should be held accountable,

and our women should be protected and kept safe. Like MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Drivers) we believe its time to end the silence, and promote zero tolerance. Home should be a safe place, for all of us.

Shelley Saywell

LOWDOWN TRACKS now streaming on TVO!

Following its massively successful world premiere at Hot Docs this past spring – 3 sold out screenings, 3 standing ovations, #2 Audience Choice – Emmy-winning director Shelley Saywell brings Lowdown Tracks, her awe-inspiring documentary, to television, for its world broadcast premiere on TVO.

Music is an expression of the spirit for everyone. But for some who survive on the periphery of society, it can also be a life-saving coping mechanism and the last stand of their dignity. Director Saywell’s moving and mesmerizing film was created with singer/activist Lorraine Segato.


Filmed over 18 months, it captures the music and stories of five musicians who are homeless or on the margins. Inspired in part by the famous Depression Era recordings of Allan and John Lomax, the film is a look at our society from way down low, the place where people who have been forced or opted out of the mainstream find themselves.

Recorded in the streets, under bridges, in shelter rooms, or in places that have special meaning in their lives, the songs combine passion, talent, misfortune and despair.

The view from the ground is a troubling one,

“because you have to know pain and heart ache to be out there,”

says Katt Budd, one of the musicians in the film who became a runaway street kid at age 13.



The film features Hole in the Wall, a track from Lorraine Segato’s latest CD, Invincible Decency, along with a soundtrack of music never heard or recorded before, from people who should be listened to. From folk, punk hobo, Americana, and blues, their music resonates with hard times, eerily resembles past times, and throws a new perspective on our times.

“The songs they’ve written come directly from their experiences – the hell of their lives,”

says Segato, who was first exposed to the caliber of street music at a benefit concert for homeless relief.

“As our homeless crisis grows, life on the margins threatens more and more people,”

adds director Saywell.





“The causes, from abuse to mental health to simple bad luck, are all touched on in the stories in the film, but at its heart Lowdown Tracks is about bringing into focus the heartache and the beautiful potential we should see when we walk by someone on the street. In the end, it is a celebration of the power of music and survival.”

Lowdown Tracks was written, produced and directed by Shelley Saywell 

produced and also partly shot by Deborah Parks 

cinematography by Michael Grippo CSC and John Tran CSC 

sound recording by Peter Sawade and edited by Deborah Palloway

commissioned by TVO, Executive Producer Jane Jancovic

To hear more music please visit:


Lowdown Tracks - UPDATES!



We are so excited to support the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness 20,000 Homes Campaign. CAEH sees homelessness as a problem that can be solved and so do we. Our film Lowdown Tracks will screen at the CAEH conference to launch their campaign on November 3 in Montreal and we will be there! We will partner with the organization to hold grassroots and community screenings wherever they want to promote this campaign.




Please join us in person at the Regent Park Film Festival Screening Saturday November 21 at 12 noon. Daniel Spectrum at 585 Dundas Street East. Hear some great music and meet the stars of the film!

Lowdown Tracks World Premiere

We are very excited to announce our new feature documentary Lowdown Tracks is having its world premiere at Hot Docs International Festival April 25, 2015. This has been a long journey coming….

Lowdown Tracks is a documentary that celebrates music, survival and those living on the outside. PLAY trailer here.

We started conceiving this film eight years ago. It all started when I went to a benefit concert that my friend Lorraine Segato (Parachute Club) was putting on for the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee. Lorraine did something amazing that night – Parachute Club was the house band but the headliners were homeless musicians, street poets, and dancers whom she’d discovered with the help of organizations like SKETCH in Toronto. It was a magical night, and I kept wondering about the stories behind the songs. Who were these talented people, and how did they end up on the street?

A few years later I was part of the inaugural CFC-NFB Feature Documentary Lab, and Lorraine’s concert was part of an idea I was developing. I realized it should be a separate film, and began to raise money for it. It started off as an attempt to replicate the original concert, but widen to film the search for the musicians. Lorraine and Deb Parks and I spent hours sitting around trying to figure out how to do this, because you really can’t go back. But we also knew there was an idea there – a way to reframe the way we see homeless people through music.



As we started to look for people to film, we realized that the “concerts” were already happening – right out on the street. We found some incredible people, whose stories were so complex and compelling, that their music became part of the story telling. It was all about recording them properly. We’d go out with our sound recordist who’d use up to seven microphones, hidden in leaves or garbage bins…all to get the real feel, but do the music justice. We filmed and recorded where they busked, where they lived, or at places that were meaningful to their stories in some way. The field recordings would be used in constructing the film.

I’d been reading a book about Allan Lomax, who had done field recordings across America with his father John, during the Great Depression. Those recordings are now iconic – Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie among them – but what fascinated me were the stories of the washerwomen, the unknown rhythms of the poor and the dispossessed. Those recordings came to symbolize the era, and so many of the stories we were hearing had the same feeling. Even the imagery, dogs and boxcars, tracks and bridges, shelter rooms, along with the re-emergence of folk, hobo music echoed those times. Allan Lomax’s archive was a huge inspiration as we kept struggling with how to tell these stories.





But of course 2015 is not the Great Depression, when one out of four people were out of work and migrant camps were overflowing. In those days everyone shared the pain, but today it seems that people on the “outside” are pushed into the shadows. Out of rhythm, out of luck, or out of support, they fall in the cracks and as we heard over and over again, they feel shut out and voiceless. Lowdown Tracks is all about hearing those voices, and if you love music like I do, its about the power of song as narrative and the power of music to heal. It’s a view from the ground – a soundtrack of the lowdown, from those who tell it like it is.





WE have loved working on this project, every day we filmed, recorded, or spent in the edit room was a good day for us. Once the film is finished (its literally being finished now).

I’ll write more about the people in the film.


Viktor Bout’s infamy

Lord of War fans, among others, who are awaiting the upcoming trial of real-life gun-runner, the Russian businessman Viktor Bout in New York next month, have been given a glimpse of how things may go by the Judge’s pre trial rulings. The Judge has indicated she believes Bout only “transported” arms, and that his name recognition will make it nearly impossible for him to get a fair jury trial (read more). 

Bout, featured in our documentary Devil’s Bargain, has been considered an ingenious arms dealer who defied United Nations investigators for years while supplying weapons to all sides in wars from Angola to Afghanistan. Bout was master of working in the “grey zone” – where loopholes in a largely unmonitored trade in small weapons are, in the words of one UN investigator “big enough to fly an Antonov through”.





The international trade in small arms, the real weapons of mass destruction, has defied any meaningful International Treaty since many of the biggest arms producers in the world have refused to endorse one. Those same governments, including China, Russia and the United States (until the Obama Administration), were all major clients of Bout’s. He navigated a world in which end-user certificates could be bought “under the table” at many embassies, and shipments of guns could be recycled, from one war to another. He built up his transport empire by buying fleets of old Soviet cargo planes for next to nothing and hiring out of work Russian pilots who worked for cash, with no questions asked and lots of daring do.

Bout has always proclaimed he ran an upfront business. He certainly had the blessing of the Russian government, who fought for his extradition from Thailand, where he was held for two years after the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency captured him in a sting operation in which he was caught supposedly entering into a weapons - for - drugs deal with FARC. It always seemed odd to me that it was the DEA who got Bout – after all he’d been on Interpol’s RED ALERT list for years, and so many other U.S. agencies, not to mention foreign governments, claimed to want him arrested. But perhaps his “name and shame” list was just to long to risk exposure.