It is hard to believe, but I met James back when I was about 13 years old. He was dating my bestest friend, Elyse, and we would often all hang out. James would sometimes ride my friend on the back of his motorcycle. Even back then, he radiated coolness.
Streets&Beats: James, I am so excited for this interview. I must say that I always loved your work in film and photography. Can you tell us when you started out?
James Buffin: Thank-you. That’s very kind. I’ve had a couple of starts really. When I was five or six I went to the north of England on a family trip. By then I had more interest in my dad’s Pentax SP100 than the square instant camera I’d been given to play with (sans film). There was a really steep hill with a sign indicating the ratio of the incline. 3 in 1. Looking through the ground glass viewfinder for the first time, I saw the magic of framing. At the same time I was also vaguely bored at the limitations of a 50mm view. I guess it was because I had already seen the wide angle in my plastic camera’s parallax viewfinder. 50mm just looked plain. But the hardware really lit me up. The weight of the camera. The metal lever to advance the film. Dials and knobs. Learning how to open the back and load the film was a real revelation. That a knob could rise up and double as a lock for a secret compartment…it felt like the camera was full of secret functions. I was hooked and have been ever since. I love hardware.
My second start was two years into the film program at York University in Toronto. I’d been taking media courses through high school and was mid way through a double degree in film production and screenwriting. We had a lot of freedom to make films and access to gear. By then we were shooting on CP16’s, ancient 16mm news cameras. All we had to do really was convince the profs that we had an idea and a plan. But I didn’t feel like we’d been properly trained in how to use the gear. I wanted into the industry. So I made up a resume with my hardware store and assistant meat delivery boy experience and started knocking on doors. I had made up a complete list of all production related companies in the city and took it on methodically by quadrant. Eventually, a guy at a post production facility saw that I had initiative and introduced me to a production manager. The PM was going into prep on a feature that summer, so I visited the office and swept the floor and dusted the office furniture. I didn’t know how to make myself really useful, but I think they saw I was willing to try. I was a PA on that film where I made myself most useful to the grips and electrics. By the time I graduated from York I was on the way.
Streets&Beats: That is an incredible story. Thank you for sharing. I can’t help but wonder, who inspires you?
James Buffin: I am inspired by other people’s work. I saw Tsai Ming-liang’s Stray Dogs recently at an installation in Taipei. Totally captivating with super long shots and gorgeous framing. Really compelling cinema. I haven’t seen any other work of his yet, but the antenna is up.
Godfrey Reggio (Koyaanisqatsi trilogy) is an incredible visionary. I saw his most recent film, Visitor’s at TIFF, where the Philip Glass score was performed live. I could see the shadows of the conductor on the proscenium. It moved me incredibly.
Ron Fricke, (Baraka, Samsara) was also the cinematographer on Koyaanisqatsi. He’s a motion control pioneer, having invented his own 65mm system using a Panavision camera.
Frederick Wiseman has been making documentaries since I was born. His latest film, At Berkeley, is a masterpiece I think. At just over 4 hours in length, I had a hard time looking away. Wiseman negotiated final cut on his first film and has retained that right ever since. His films are pure and made without interference.
There’s so many others, but these are the ones who come to mind immediately.
Streets&Beats: It isn’t surprising that you have such amazing talent to look up to. I couldn’t help but notice the foreigh domination. What do you think of the Canadian Film industry?
James Buffin: It’s an exceptionally challenging time right now, especially for documentary producers. The broadcast market for docs has imploded over the last few years. Fewer films are being made by fewer people. Reinvention is necessary. On the brighter side, the opportunity to distribute online is exceptionally full of potential. It’s like the wild west right now though. Optimism is common amongst producers, but no one has really figured out how to make it work well yet – made it sustainable. Netflix is showing promise, with a pretty good selection of independent docs. I’ve seen several good Canadian films there. Canadian drama seems to be bristling at the moment which is exciting too. Flashpoint was a great show. I’ve heard Orphan Black is awesome too, but I haven’t seen it yet. I recently shot a low budget feature too. My first return to drama in over ten years. That was a lot of fun. I’d like to do more drama.
Streets&Beats: James, I wish it were easier to get some of these great films distributed. I know what we just saw, Jingle Dress, and I am wondering, what’s in store for us from you?
James Buffin: Well, as you can said, I recently completed this documentary, Jingle Dress – First Dance. It’s about a woman who’s mother was held against her will in The Canadian Residential School System. It was a system of forced assimilation for indigenous people where horrible abuses happened. My subject, Jules Koostachin went on a six year quest to dance at a pow wow for the first time in a sacred ceremonial Jingle Dress in honour of healing her mother and grandmother. The film took ten years to make and debuted at the Truth and Reconciliation Commision hearings. A big honour, especially for a non-indigenous filmmaker. Getting the film out to audiences is a big priority right now.
I’m also three years into production on an autobiographical documentary, Picking Traumas Pocket. It’s chronicles my recovery from child sex abuse. The film starts with a selfie in front of a police station where I’m about to make an historical report about something that happened in the 1970’s. It’s a journey out from isolation, to discover community and support locally and ends on a world stage. I’ve been collaborating with agencies here in Canada, the US, Guyana, Bolivia, Taiwan, the UK, Germany, Ghana and Nigeria to support survivors. My goal is to give hope and make real, positive changes on this planet of ours. Telling stories is an incredibly powerful way to do this. Especially for those who were robbed of voice, as I was. Reclaiming it is amazing stuff. I’m throwing everything I have at this project.
Streets&Beats: James, I honestly think that your work will prove to be as exceptional as you are. I am so looking forward to seeing this personal, and sure to be, poignant film distributed across our nation, as it should. Now, I got to ask, what are your TOP 5 Bucket List Items?
James Buffin: That’s a great question! My top five are:
1. Establish a global day honouring survivors of child sex abuse
2. Trek the rainforests of Costa Rica
3. Spend time in Barcelona
4. Extended travel in Ireland
5. Continue shooting astral time lapses at sacred sites
Streets&Beats: Why am I not surprised by your list? I have #2, 3, and 4 as my top 5, too. But given what you have been through, I will definitely help support you in your #1, anyway I can. Thank you for sharing this interview, James.
I wrap up this interview, I am amazed by James’ work as a film maker. He has journeyed down a very long road to produce, The Jingle Dress. Although I haven’t met Jules face to face, it seems that the two of them blended together incredibly well, in order to bring this important film to light. I know that it will be a great film to honour our national heritage.
For more information on child abuse survivors, please connect to: Global Day 4 CSA Survivors