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Q&A with Edge of East’s Jackie Torrens

July 18th, 2014     by Anne Thériault     Comments

Photo credit: Peep Media

Writer, director, actor and general badass Jackie Torrens has a new documentary, Edge of East, airing on CBC Maritimes this Saturday, July 19th. In this film, Torrens explores three seemingly unlikely subcultures found in Nova Scotia: UFO believers, yodellers and steampunks. And seriously, for a documentary whose run-time is only about forty-five minutes, Torrens is able to get a pretty in-depth look at these three groups. The result is a collection of stories that are at times bizarre, funny and incredibly moving. And while the three subcultures may at first seem to make odd bedfellows (as my grandmother would say), Torrens neatly crafts a narrative that unifies these three diverse groups of people.

I went into this documentary honestly kind of wondering what I was going to take away from it. I mean, I love Jackie, but I don’t have any special interest in flying saucers (unless they involve David Duchovny or Zachary Quinto), yodellers, or steampunks. So I sat down to watch Edge of East with the thought that I would probably enjoy it but not much more. I put it on when a friend and I were hanging out, and I could tell that he wasn’t really expecting to be that into it – he spent the first five or ten minutes doing something on his iPhone, not really paying attention to the movie. It wasn’t long, though, before both of us were totally hooked. About halfway through my friend turned to me and said, “This is really, really good.”

It wasn’t so much the subject matter that resonated with me (although I did develop a greater appreciation for all three subcultures, especially the yodellers) as much as the idea of celebrating big, nerdy passions. See, I was a kid who, at age twelve, was a deeply ardent fan of Star Trek. Like, I wrote fanfic about living on the Enterprise and high-fiving Data and dating Wesley (I know, I know). Predictably, none of that went over well with my peer group, so instead of being like, ‘Eff you; I’m great and Star Trek is great and if you can’t get behind that then I don’t want to be your friend,’ I decided instead to pretend to like “normal” stuff. I stopped talking about nerdy stuff, and spent my time brushing up on shows like Friends and Party of Five. I became a closet nerd, and while that definitely made things easier for me at the time, in retrospect I wish I’d had the guts to just love what I loved.

And, at its core, that’s what Edge of East is about: people who love what they love. And many of them are people who have spent a long time feeling like they have to hide who they are, and frankly it’s pretty remarkable watching people finally coming into their own when they’re in their sixties and seventies. And while I don’t wish five or six decades of hiding who you are or what you love on anybody, I do hope that I’ll always still be growing as a person and learning about myself no matter what age I am.

Jackie Torrens is a huge inspiration to me. She’s working in a field dominated by men, but she doesn’t take any crap and refuses to compromise her artistic ideals (or any of her ideals, really). She’s funny, smart and sharp as hell. She’s totally the kind of person that I freeze up around because I WILL NEVER BE AS COOL AS THEY ARE. Fortunately, I’m mostly able to maintain my cool over e-mail, which definitely helped when I was lucky enough to interview her about Edge of East this week. Because, you know, sometimes because being a writer means I live a DREAM LIFE where I get to chat with some of my feminist heroes.

Here’s what Jackie had to say about her new film.

Why did you choose these three subcultures in particular to feature in Edge of East? Was the idea for this documentary born out of a personal connection to any of these groups? Or was it more like you decided to do a documentary on subcultures in Nova Scotia and the stars just happen to align in a way that led you to UFO enthusiasts, steampunks and yodellers?

I find subcultures fascinating in terms of how they relate to the question of identity. It was CBC who said why don’t you do a documentary that looks at three groups? And I thought okay, I will - and I’ll see how they relate to east coast identity and how they connect to one another.

In terms of what led me to choose these three groups - yodelling was something I fell in love with a few years ago after I heard a tune called Yodellin’ Tex and the sound of that amazing howling blew my mind. That led me to search for other yodellers I liked and I happened upon a yodelling cowboy from Nova Scotia called Wilf Carter. He blended Swiss and country cowboy yodelling in a way that had never been done before. I figured there must be other yodellers in Nova Scotia who were following in his footsteps. And turns out I was right. And as soon as I knew they existed I knew I had to get them on camera because this is an art form dedicated to the celebration of imperfection, i.e. the crack in the voice, and I find that a really beautiful idea.

With Shag Harbour, a tiny village that was visited by a UFO in 1967, I was intrigued by a community that has decided to hang its hat on an extraterrestrial mystery to the point where they have an annual UFO festival and a museum. And when I decided on those two groups it seemed like the Steampunks of Halifax, a science fiction movement that looks at the future through the lens of the past, would be a good bridge between the world of days gone by that the yodellers inhabit with the world of future that is part of the UFO mythology of Shag Harbour.

Did you find it hard to keep an open mind when interviewing some of your subjects? I know that at one point you described yourself as an “alien agnostic” - were there ever times that you found it hard to keep a straight face?

I come at things from a point of view but I’m not judgemental. That would keep people from opening up to me and, as a documentarian, what’s the point of that? I’m pretty upfront with people I talk to about where I’m coming from. When I talked to the UFO believers I would say to them that I personally was neither a UFO believer nor a skeptic but I was very interested in what they believe and what they get from it. That being said, sometimes it is very surprising what people tell you. Some of the things that the UFO abductees told me I thought, “Wow – you’re telling me aliens took you to an underwater base and did tests on you? That’s pretty far out.” But what struck me more was what these stories meant to them and how they affected their lives.

One of the things that really hit home for me about Edge of East is the fact that we pretty much all have these weird, nerdy interests that we feel like we have to keep close to our chests because we’re worried about other people judging us or making fun of us. Do you have a passion that you’ve ever felt like you had to keep hidden? If yes, what helped you “come out” about your passion?

Well, like I say, I love subcultures and I’ve done a number of pieces on them; citizen patrol groups, miniaturists, Bronies. Any time I’ve been working doing work about a subculture I usually encounter some extreme responses. People react like, “that’s so weird” and they dismiss it or assume the stereotypes they might have heard about a subculture are true. Essentially they look at the surface and don’t go any deeper. But I find our reactions to things that are off the beaten path weird. Life would be so boring if we all only liked things that were acceptably mainstream. As far as I’m concerned, those who make fun of others are missing out on some very interesting experiences. In the meantime, I have a life to live…what kind of life do I want it to be?

Can we talk a bit about the idea of “coming out” about an interest that other people might find strange? It felt like this was one of the big themes running through your film. Was this something you had planned, or did it sort of develop along the way? What impressed you most about the people who really struggled to share this part of themselves?

All the members of all three groups experienced marginalization for their interests and yes, I expected some of it but specific variations of it I discovered along the way. It knocked my socks off that all the yodellers I met had essentially kept their yodelling to themselves for many years, that they felt as children the sounds they were making were noises to hide from others. One of the yodellers I met was a 75 year old man who experienced crippling shyness all his life and finally started to yodel in public a few years ago. And of course, the UFO’ers are people who have experienced lots of eye rolls from the non-UFO believing world. I still don’t know what to make of someone who says they’ve had an alien encounter but what I do respect is that the people I met have had what to them is a very profound, personal, life-altering experience. And a lot of the Steampunks were considered nerds or weirdos in their youth and then got to a point where they thought, who cares? This is who I am and who I want to be. So what impressed me most about all of them was how brave they are. The yodellers are yodelling and loving it. The UFO’ers are telling their stories despite eyerolls. And the Steampunks are going to, as one of them put, “keep playing dress up”. And they are all very alive people because they’re being true to themselves.

Finally, if you had one piece of advice that you could pass on to young people, especially teen girl and trans* youth interested in making their own documentaries, what would it be?

Don’t subvert your talents by helping other people get their projects done. Get your own projects done. Think of the old person you will one day be and how she wants to look back on all the stuff you accomplished, not all the stuff you didn’t.

Edge of East airs Saturday July 19th at 8 pm EST on CBC Maritimes

Tags: media savvy, news flash

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