It all started with a gift from her father — and unleashed her own.
Flashback to the Dorfman household in Toronto, more than 35 years ago: Most teenagers wanted their parents to buy them one of the new video cameras that were showing up in stores, the first hint at what would eventually be today’s Age of YouTube.
Not 12-year-old Andrea Dorfman. She wasn’t interested in what everyone else wanted. She had her eye on another prize — her dad’s Super 8 camera, collecting dust in a box, with an unexposed roll of celluloid film awaiting inside.
“The camera was just lying around and I noticed there was a reel of film in it. I asked my father if I could have it and shoot with it,” Andrea recalls.
“Sure,” her father answered. But he had a caveat, perhaps to test his daughter’s commitment. It took money to develop those homemade 8mm films. So, if she did any filming, she needed to pay for the developing herself.
And that was the moment one of Canada’s most innovative women filmmakers got her break.
Andrea dusted off the Super 8 and began shooting images around her: The wind rustling through the neighbourhood trees; moving clouds above, the dark shadows deep in the garden; a friend launching into the air from a playground swing. “I didn’t even know if I was shooting on colour or black and white film,” she recalls. “I just shot and shot, to see what would come out.”
A few days later, she paid for the developed reel of film, brought it back home and threaded it into the projector. As black and white images flickered onto the screen, Andrea was mesmerized. “It was simply magic, that’s how I remember it. I watched my friend jumping off the swing, again and again, and it was like another world. I was hooked.”
It became a passionate hobby. Fellow Branksome students might remember “that girl with the camera,” presenting her latest monster film at school assembly. “It was Grade 7 or 8. I had this little film a friend of mine and I made in a graveyard. We played piano music live to it at the student assembly. It was so cheesy and terrible — my friend was the fair maiden, putting flowers on her lover’s grave. I played a predator. It was sort of a horror film.”
It was an early indication of a recurring and powerful theme in Andrea’s later work — women overcoming adversity, danger and social taboos.
Andrea caught the eye of critics in 1998, when she burst onto the scene with two films: Swerve, the story of a group of friends who go on a road trip and become part of a lesbian love triangle, and Nine, a docudrama about a nine-year-old girl facing separation anxiety. The Atlantic Film Festival named the 29-year-old the most promising director of the year.
Andrea followed up two years later with Parsley Days, a comedy shot on a $65,000 budget, about a young woman who hopes to end her unwanted pregnancy by gorging on parsley. The comedy premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival to more positive reviews —“endlessly charming” wrote The Globe and Mail — and signaled that Canada had a new, innovative woman director on the scene.
Now based in Halifax, Andrea has become a prolific filmmaker, with dozens of documentary and feature films in her iMDB profile (not to mention music videos to pay the way). She doesn’t aim for commercial films, but rather makes films to make a difference, or show us those who do. Consider The Girls of Meru, a film that follows the inspiring 160 girls who take the Kenyan government to court for not protecting them from rape.
“They won,” says Andrea. “What motivates me to make films? Social justice, children’s rights, environmental activism, feminism.”
Want to see the power and intimacy of Andrea’s work? Go to YouTube and watch How To Be Alone, the four-minute video poem she made with her friend, the poet Tanya Davis.
“We were just sitting around and thought we should do something about being alone, a topic of conversation we often returned to,” recalls Andrea. “Tanya wrote a beautiful poem. We made it into a short film.”
The film critic, Roger Ebert, loved it and tweeted it out. Eight million have watched it since. “It’s the little film that keeps on ticking,” says Andrea with a chuckle.
Yes, Andrea Dorfman — that young girl who so many years ago opted for the old-fashioned Super 8 over going digital — has gone viral.
Miro Cernetig’s latest film is Facing Saddam for National Geographic. A former Globe and Mail foreign correspondent, he is the founder of Catalytico, a strategic branding company based in Vancouver.