Intuition is an instinct commonly attributed to both motherhood and the artistic process and it’s what propelled award-winning director Helene Klodawsky into the world of Montreal musicians Jessica Moss and Efrim Menuck.
Klodawsky, married for 30 years with two children, was beguiled after a friend of hers was hired to be a “tour nanny” for Ezra, the couple’s one-year-old child. That hunch, back in 2009, that something interesting would happen, led to her latest documentary Come Worry With Us!
“I had a sense there was a story there,” says Klodawsky, on a Skype call from her Montreal home. “I’m fascinated by the intersection of the personal and political, as in my previous films, and the band was at a moment in time struggling with different decisions, choices and realities.”
Violinist Jessica and guitarist/frontman Efrim are part of the internationally acclaimed band Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra (SMZ for short). The band is an offshoot of Efrim’s previous musical incarnation, Godspeed You! Black Emperor.
“Filming stimulated questions I still hadn’t resolved about being an artist and mothering,” reveals Klodawsky, whose two girls are now 24 and 26. “My husband is a scientist and also a photographer. He had stable income while I was entering the world of filmmaking [but] during my time, I’ve seen many women taking many steps back because they had children.”
Klodawsky is a filmmaker of high repute whose illustrious documentaries include In Search of Lucille (2000) — about Canadian surgeon Dr. Lucille Teasdeal who devoted her life to the care of Ugandans — and 2005’s No More Tears Sister — about the courageous life and death of Dr. Rajai Thiranagama, a renowned Sri Lankan human rights activist killed at the age of 35. Most notably, Klodawsky made the 1994 NFB film Motherland which explores the challenges of what it means to be a good mom. “Being a mother and a creative person requires a lot of support,” the filmmaker notes. “And then there’s the economic reality of making a living as an avant-garde artist… I wondered if these guys could put these spheres together in creative ways.”
Wider questions of life, art
SMZ is often described as an experimental/folk/free-jazz band with a punk rock ethos. In the film, Efrim declares his band’s guiding principle: “We’re like the degenerates who play for pennies in the town square — we identify with that tradition.”
The band makes and sells their own albums. And in creating their experimental pieces, Jessica reflects that they tend to “write music that is harder than we can play.”
The documentary, which has a theatrical release May 16 to 18 at Montreal’s Cinema du Parc, submerges the viewer into the musical wonderland of SMZ and the intimate conversations between Jessica and Efrim. As it unfolds, it also broadens out to include wider questions of life, art and economics.
Photo credit: Come Worry With Us!
On the homefront, Jessica struggles with the fact that “now the child is my first priority and not the band.” Faced with bringing Ezra along with the band’s 20-city North American tour, she also struggles with the feeling of being a burden.
“Is it selfish?” she asks herself.
“Growing up, it feels like anything is possible until you become a mother.”
Efrim himself is at a loss, saying he often feels “lame” around Ezra when he comes home from rehearsals, too tired to interact with his son.
Prior to touring and during the tour itself, the pair fall into traditional roles — which both are fully aware of but can’t help lapsing into: Jessica becomes the primary caretaker of Ezra, making sure he is “constantly feeling great, so the rest of the band is also feeling great.”
The couple debate their life choices to become “lower-middle-class” working musicians. Add a child into the mix and things turn, as Efrim says, “topsy-turvy.”
“How do we keep getting by?” Efrim asks his partner as they discuss their future earnings. “I feel most of that falls on me.”
Klodawsky calls the film a kind of “continuing conversation” about how society can incorporate mothers into the workfold.
The band’s other three members shared in the cost of the special trailer and nanny for the tour.
“The film does say that there are different ways people can come together to rethink how to carry on when [children come into play].”
Though, the director cautions “there is no recipe. I just want people to open the door to possibilities.”
Incredibly, within the 80-minute framework of the film, Klodawsky includes an even larger question: how to exist in a world that is rapidly spiralling towards mass economic hardship?
When the band returns to Montreal from yet another tour, they come face-to-face with the Quebec student protests of 2012. Widespread strikes and demonstrations (remember the clanging pots?) filled the streets of many towns and cities. Students were joined by non-students, incensed at what they considered a substantial tuition fee hike proposed by the then provincial government of Jean Charest.
“As Efrim says, his generation is the last generation that was promised a better life,” Klodawsky points out.
Near the end of the film, the singer is adamant that Ezra “grow into a world that was better than the one that he was born into.”
There are still some loose ends at the end of Come Worry with Us! but the couple do sort it out in various ways. And, you should catch the film to see how.
As for Klodawsky, the satisfaction has been in seeing the deep reactions of various audiences (most recently at Toronto’s Hot Docs festival).
“It’s a film that can get under one’s skin and provokes reaction,” she explains. “I’ve been having that kind of feedback and it makes me very happy.”
Vancity Theatre, Vancouver: May 12, 8:45 p.m.
Cinema du Parc, Montreal, May 16 to 18
Canadian broadcast premiere on Super Channel, June 16 at 8 p.m. EST
U.S.: release on digital platforms, iTunes on May 13 and then Vudu, Amazon Instant and Google Play on May 27
June Chua is a Toronto-based journalist who regularly writes about the arts for rabble.ca.