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.

Streetnurse Cathy Crowe still fights for social justice

Cathy Crowe began writing about her work as a street nurse in Toronto years ago, and I was always touched by her stories about a city we all lived in, but rarely saw. Her work with the homeless inspired me to take on her story in Streetnurse which has become a kind of manifesto and teaching aid for nursing schools, all in one.

Today, after the tragic loss of NDP leader Jack Layton, who’s book on the homeless inspired us to action, its great to see Cathy turning to politics and running for the NDP. This is from her Facebook page:

"To show support for Cathy and standing up for Healthcare we are planning a Nursing and nursing student canvass this Saturday September 17th at 12 noon. We will be gathering at 219 Queen Street East (Campaign office, street parking available). Lunch/Refreshments and BRIEFING, with special guest, Dr. Dennis Raphael Please pass this on to anyone that may be interested. All are welcome!"

Let’s take health issues to the streets!!!!

War, Famine and Another Girl Stabbed in Rochester - It Feels Like Deja Vu


This is my first post. After 20 years making documentaries on subjects of human rights and social issues, I realize the stories I tell never really end. They certainly don’t end with the completion of a film, and sometimes one film has led to another. More often, the news reminds me that bearing witness is an ongoing obligation. The news out of Somalia is grim – the worst famine in twenty years. Added to the ongoing tragedy of internal conflict and the failed international policy of “containment” and/or neglect, there can be few places as miserable right now.

A few weeks ago I had dinner with Dr. Hawa and her daughter, two remarkable women who never left war torn Somalia, though they could have. In 1991 they opened their farm, just outside Mogadishu, to anyone fleeing violence and for the past two decades they have been treating victims of war and disease in their clinic.

Dr. Hawa is a gynecologist whose main love is maternal health. She has saved countless women and children, but she has had to do so in dire circumstances with an ever evolving set of challenges. 

She has never backed down – taking in boy soldiers and forcing them to trade their weapons for bedpans and work in the hospital- forcing armed militia off her land. She has two rules for anyone seeking refuge with her: no clans, and no wife beating. She and her daughters have created a remarkable, peaceful mini-society within a war zone – and it’s become home to 90,000 people (read more).

When we made Devil’s Bargain in 2007 we focussed on the Horn of Africa and the small arms trade that was keeping Somalia in a state of perpetual violence and instability. The outside world had essentially written off Somalia as a failed state, and its problems were spreading across the region: guns, violence and rape know no borders, and were destabilizing once peaceful communities in Kenya and beyond. The world’s biggest refugee camp, Dadaab, on the Kenya-Somali border was overflowing with new refugees and even more depressing – refugees who had lived there for 16 years. I can only imagine how the already overburdened CARE Canada staff that run the camp are managing to deal with 500,000 more starving refugees. I hope to make a film about Dr. Hawa, to show the world that there is hope despite what seems like insurmountable conflict, and it can be found in the actions of a tiny woman who still believes in, and fights for her people.

IN THE NAME OF THE FAMILY - the story doesn't end

I recently received a message from a journalist in Rochester, New York telling me that a teenage girl was in critical condition after being stabbed multiple times. I experienced a sensation best described as deja vu. The 13 -year -old girl had been found in the garage by her mother and rushed to hospital, where she remains. Her name is Samina Qasam. Her 16 - year - old cousin Faheem Abdul Jaheel has been charged with attempted murder. The family are from Afghanistan and speak little English, but Faheem has entered a self-defense plea. He is currently being held in Monroe County Jail, awaiting a September hearing.

The Judge has issued an order of protection for Samina. see article Our last film, In the Name of the Family features the story of Fauzia Mohammed, a teenage girl whose family, also from Afghanistan, live in the same neighbourhood as Samina. Like Samina, Fauzia was attacked in her family garage, and survived multiple stab wounds over most of her body. Her brother, Waheed, is now serving 10 years in Attica Correctional Facility for attempted murder. Both Fauzia and Waheed are in the film, describing the escalating conflict that led to the near fatal attack.

We visited Rush-Henrietta High School where Fauzia and her brother were students – the same high school attended by Faheem Abdul Jaheel. A football game was going on, cheerleaders did cartwheels and the whole scene looked as American as apple pie.

I tried to imagine the scene through Waheed’s eyes. To him, American society was confusing. The values he brought from Afghanistan seemed to clash at every turn. For Fauzia, America was the land of opportunity, and she quickly learned English, made friends and won a scholarship to college.

Her life and her brother’s were on markedly different courses, and the more he tried to control her the more she tried to escape. We don’t yet know what drove Faheem to attack his young cousin. Perhaps this story will be different. But I know from making Crimes of Honour and In the Name of the Family, that girls in danger from their families are often caught between two worlds. I believe it’s our responsibility to look for ways past the cultural divide, and work within these communities to help immigrant families. I believe we need to avoid both the hysterical anti-Muslim rhetoric of the right, and the irresponsible “politically correct” attitudes of the left, who refuse to see this type of violence as more than domestic violence. It is domestic violence of course, but of a specific and unique nature. I believe in naming the crime, and honouring the victim. Most of all, I hope with each tragic case that there is a renewed awareness and effort to keep these girls safe, and find ways to stop the violence.


It’s hard to believe that so many years have passed since I followed journalists Janine di Giovanni and Lyse Doucet as they covered the war in Sarajevo and Afghanistan respectively. See No Man’s Land

Both women went on to ever more remarkable careers as frontline journalists. Janine is about to release her new book in North America this fall and I can’t wait to read it. No one writes about conflict and the human condition like Janine, and I believe she has outdone Martha Gellhorn as a chronicler of war in our time. Her new book, Ghosts by Daylight: A Memoir of War and Love by Janine di Giovanni (Bloomsbury) is about the effects of covering war, and her attempt to build a new life in Paris with her photojournalist husband and their son (read more).

Lyse Doucet, now a senior editor at the BBC, has just been nominated for two Emmys! And, she has finished a remarkable new documentary called Afghanistan: Unknown Country. Check it out on Youtube. For anyone who remembers No Man’s Land, we told the story of a 12- year-old girl in Sarajevo who kept a diary like Anne Frank, in an attempt to make sense of life under siege. The film ends with Zlata Filipovic telling Janine di Giovanni that she wants to be a journalist someday. Guess what? Zlata Filipovic became a journalist too.

WIFT Crystal Awards Gala Toronto 2010

WIFT-T’s annual Crystal Awards recognize exceptional Canadian women working in screen-based media and are the only awards in this country dedicated to women’s screen-based achievements.

Shelley Saywell receives the Creative Excellence Award 2010.