Al Purdy Was Here
By Emilio Ghloum
On Nov. 5, the Guelph Film Festival kicked off with a screening of Al Purdy Was Here, a movie depicting the life and artistic spirit of beloved Canadian poet Al Purdy. After a wonderful greeting and short speech given by festival director Carolyn Meili, the screening of the film commenced in the crowded Bookshelf Theatre. Most prominent throughout the 60s, Purdy’s poetry was demonstrative of a rugged and tender individual who sought nothing more than to communicate the intimacy and importance of the human condition. The film featured a variety of artists who have been influenced and inspired by Al Purdy, including Leonard Cohen, Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, Joseph Boyden, and Gordon Downie.
One of the core tenets of the film included an architectural project—the preservation of a wooden cabin built by Al Purdy and his wife Eurithe Purdy. Shown at the beginning of the film in its original state, the cabin was far from luxurious. Loosely based upon an “A-frame” design, the most distinctive characteristic of the cabin is the large, immersive roof shaped as the letter A. At the time, the Purdy’s built this cabin from a variety of scrap wood—a portion of their living room wall was made from the wood of a wagon found in Belleville. Needless to say, the cabin was filled with an immense amount of treasures and quirks that ultimately shaped the environment that Al wrote his poetry in. It goes without saying, for those looking at the cabin after approximately 50 to 60 years of use, the structure is in poor shape.
The A-Frame campaign was founded in order to preserve the cabin and, ultimately, Al Purdy’s legacy as one of Canada’s most influential poets. The campaign set forth to historicize the cabin, located in Prince Edward County, while also transforming it into a space for artists to retreat and become inspired. Along with the restoration of the cabin, the film also followed a few young artists who lived in the cabin for a month as poets-in-residence. Each poet and artist, as displayed by the film, brought something unique and meaningful to the audience of the film, while still paying homage to Al Purdy’s legacy both as a poet and as a person.
Brian D. Johnson, the director of the documentary and a notable film critic for Maclean’s, was in attendance for the screening on opening night and took questions from the audience regarding the film. It was evident from Johnson’s answers and the decisions made in the film that it was not meant to be a biographical ddocumentation of Al Purdy’s life. Instead, the film beautifully portrayed the multiple levels of inspiration and artistic growth that Al Purdy’s work facilitated and nourished. Johnson’s film painted a genuine portrait of Purdy’s success, both as a rural poet who was able to make a living off his poems and as a Canadian who provided a voice for many young artists to grow, develop their artistic voices, and be proud to contribute to an emerging culture of Canadian literature.