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Ron Mann

Ron MannJune 13, 1958, Toronto

A true wunderkind, documentary filmmaker Ron Mann made his first feature at the age of 21. Funded on the basis of his award-winning short film The Only Game in Town (1979), Mann’s feature debut, Imagine the Sound (1981), focused on avant-garde jazz legends Archie Shepp and Cecil Taylor. (Originally, Mann planned to make an account of the new wave concert Heat Wave, but licensing agreements fell through.) It is difficult to calculate the importance of Imagine the Sound within the Toronto film scene. At the time of its release, it helped galvanize what was to some degree a moribund industry.

Imagine introduced the key elements of the filmmaker’s aesthetic. Visually, the film’s style and elegance distinguish it from most other documentaries; Mann’s films are characteristically shot on 35mm, as opposed to cheaper, less lush mediums like 16mm or video. Mann’s emphasis on a “look” — especially evident in the elaborate graphics of later works like Grass (2000) — also separates him from the more conventional, television-oriented approach of many documentary filmmakers.

More significantly, Imagine established the predominant focus of his work: marginalized or neglected cultural movements. Subsequent subjects range from beat poetry and its influences (Poetry in Motion, 1982) and comic books (Comic Book Confidential, 1988) to dance crazes (Twist, 1992) and pot (Grass, 2001). Despite the apparently apolitical surface of his films, his work is profoundly committed to social and cultural issues — the ostensible subjects of his work are actually entry points into other aspects of society. Only his CBC production Dream Tower (1994), an account of Rochdale, the experimental Toronto college, directly tackles a conventional social issue. Mann studied briefly at Vermont’s Bennington College and received a B.A. in film from the University of Toronto.

Typically, the focus of Mann’s work is on profound, problematic issues; subjects like racism, repression and revisionism. Mann has devoted much of his career to critiquing the ongoing conservative campaign to turn back the advances of the 1960s. As Mann has said, “I’m spreading my own disinformation.” In this sense, his work clearly bears the mark of his mentor, the radical American documentary filmmaker Emile de Antonio.

Indeed, his visual style and the fact that all of his documentaries have been distributed commercially make his work unique not only within Canada but the documentary tradition as a whole. Mann has developed a regular crew with whom he works, including the editor Robert Kennedy, whose films Mann has produced. Unlike many Canadian documentarians, he has had no real involvement with the National Film Board; instead, developing relationships with private television stations (most notably Toronto’s Citytv) and distributors and by financing his own projects. In this respect, his career path shares certain similarities with filmmaker Allan King. (Mann’s career and approach are genuinely independent, although in the mid-1980s, he did work briefly in Hollywood for Canadian expatriate Ivan Reitman.)

Mann has concentrated primarily on American, or as he prefers to call it, North American culture. He has served as mentor to many of the filmmakers who have become known as the Toronto New Wave, including Peter Mettler, Bruce MacDonald, Jeremy Podeswa and Atom Egoyan. Mann has also emerged as a pioneer in the realm of digitization. In the early 1990s, he re-issued de Antonio’s Painters Painting (1972) on CD-ROM, and Poetry in Motion was one of the first films to be released on DVD.

By Steve Gravestock

Film and video work includes

The Strip, 1973 (director; producer)
Flak, 1977 (director; producer)
Depot, 1978 (director; producer)
The Only Game in Town, 1979 (director; producer; animator)
Feels So Good, 1980 (director; producer; TV, four commercials)
Ssshhh!, 1980 (director; producer)
Imagine the Sound, 1981 (director; producer)
Poetry in Motion, 1982 (director; producer)
Echoes Without Saying, 1983 (director; producer)
The New Cinema, 1983 (executive producer)
Listen to the City, 1984 (director; producer)
Marcia Resnick’s Bad Boys, 1985 (director; producer)
Comic Book Confidential, 1988 (director; producer)
Special of the Day, 1989 (executive producer)
Twist, 1992 (director; producer)
Dream Tower, 1994 (director; producer)
The Beat, 1998 (director; producer; TV)
Brakhage, 1998 (executive producer)
Grass, 2001 (director; producer)
Go Further, 2003, (director; producer)
Blue Rodeo In Stereovision, 2004 (director)

Note: Updated to April 2004.

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