A Conversation with Ann Marie Fleming
By Sumarlinah Raden Winoto
Ann Marie Fleming is an award-winning Canadian visual artist, writer, director, animator and cross-platform media maker who works in a variety of genres (animation, experimental, documentary and drama).
Ann Marie’s 2016 animated feature Window Horses, about a young Canadian poet discovering her family history, received awards all over the world.
Ahead of our free Window Horses screening and community event, Fleming shares some thoughts on her creative processes, being friends with Sandra Oh, and tracing family history across the globe.
Join us for a special screening of Window Horses on June 3rd at northcote town hall.
for more details see our event page.
You are a prolific creator of things, what excites you about making art?
Creativity is a strange thing. I would describe myself as an observer. And then this thing takes over and you have to express what you see, hear and feel in a different in some medium after it has filtered through your mind. Sometimes that is a meal, sometimes a film. Always it is a story of some kind, for me. I love playing with different mediums, textures, flavours. Sometimes, I love playing with others and seeing what happens when we try and come together to make something. It sounds like I am being very vague here, but those seem to be the general rules. Sometimes it really seems like it’s not me, I’m just a channeller of ideas. I love learning new things. I love revisiting old. I try not to get hung up on making it perfect.
Your work focusses on ‘family, history and memory’. What do these themes mean to you?
I really do believe that old feminist trope that the universal is in the specific. We are so shaped by our family, our culture, but let’s go out another layer and see how that fits in to the universe. I am mixed race- my mother’s family is Chinese (north and south) and Austrian. My Australian father’s side is Irish, Scottish and French (maybe). I was born in Okinawa, a United Nations dependency at the time, and the closest country that would give me a birth certificate was Korea. While I travelled on my mother’s British passport as a child, and then my father’s Australian, now I am only Canadian; where my family brought me when I was under the age of majority. You don’t know anyone’s story unless you ask them. As a Eurasian person, who my parents are, where I live and how old I am tells a story of very specific migration, crises and opportunities. Many of us are so busy moving forward, or away from what we came from, that so much is forgotten. I am kind of the history book of my family. Or, at least one of them.
You made a fantastic documentary about one of your relatives, The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam in 2003. Can you share a bit about what it was like tracing your family’s travels across the globe, in a time where global mobility as we know it today was still infancy?
I was researching this film when the internet was in its nascency which meant I had to travel all over the world to look for scraps of Long Tack Sam’s life. Libraries weren’t on-line, long distance phone calls were very expensive. I wrote letters in to space for years sometimes, before getting replies. What I was able to do was trace his footsteps, literally, and meet face to face so many of the people that remembered him. It was an amazing experience, really, because it was so difficult. But, like I say in Window Horses, ‘you are on a search so everywhere you will find….’ So many amazing coincidences and opportunities once you start looking…
Creativity is a strange thing. I would describe myself as an observer.
You are the creator of Window Horses, an animated feature about poetry, stories, and multiplicity. Its narrative mirrors a lot of your own life. What does it mean to you to be multiracial?
As I mentioned before, who you are when you are tells a global story. In Canada, being multi-racial was not too common when I was young and every day I was asked ‘what are you?’ My grandmother had always told me that being multi-racial was a wonderful thing, because you were part of so many worlds. We loved going to Hawaii where it was not just common, but people loved telling you about their history, and how they came to be so mixed. I didn’t realize how difficult it was for my grandmother, how much racism she endured from all sides and how she was trying to protect me and make me proud of who I was. I feel so lucky to be mixed. It gives me a very different take on the world. I guess with sites like ancestory.com, 23andme etc. more and more people are learning that their ethnicities are more complex and intertwined than they might have thought.
You say that Window Horses a 'small effort to try and add a little more peace, love and understanding to our increasingly complex and conflicted world through art, poetry, history and culture'. How has the world become more (or less?) conflicted and complex in your lifetime?
Honestly, I don’t know if the world has become more complex or as I grow older I become more aware of it. It seems like we are always going in circles. We are always very pleased with ourselves when we “solve” a problem, end a conflict, eradicate a disease. But then it comes around again, maybe because we are old hardware trying on new software. It’s a dangerous time in the world for more and more people. And a lot of us feel powerless. Social media, which was going to tear down walls—and in some cases has—has also divided us in to silos and echo chambers. We are not careful enough about where we put our attention. The old poets had it right… we are all part of the same tree. The internet is strong enough now that it mirrors exactly how everything organic is on this planet… interconnected. And it works best when we are all thriving.
Without giving too much of the film away, translating is a significant part of the plot. It’s something very interesting about how we carry stories between worlds of words. What does it mean to you? What do you think about things being ‘lost in translation’?
It was when I was living in Germany as an adult and trying to learn that language that it hit me: language is culture. There are things that can only be said in certain languages, or concepts that do not exist in others. I was introduced to Rumi through Coleman Barks. He doesn’t read Farsi, he reads others translations of the poem, but he has shared the ideas of this poet with the English speaking world. Same with Daniel Ladinsky and Hafiz. We see so much of our world through translation. Words are very important. They are historical time capsules, and if you don’t know the history, you are only getting a bit of the meaning. I tried learning Mandarin so I could read Tang dynasty poems in the original. I didn’t get very far but what was fascinating was having discussions with native speakers who would argue for hours what one symbol meant beside the other and in the form. So many possibilities.
It seems like we are always going in circles. We are always very pleased with ourselves when we “solve” a problem, end a conflict, eradicate a disease.
But then it comes around again, maybe because we are old hardware trying on new software.
Sandra Oh, inspiration to Asians everywhere, voices the main character Rosie in Window Horses. What was it like working with such an incredible cast, that also includes Nancy Kwan, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Ellen Page, and Eddy Ko?
I was really blessed to work with such a pantheon of great actors. Sandra became involved very early, when I was trying to raise money on Indiegogo, the crowd-funding platform. Rosie is my avatar—Stickgirl—and I usually voice her if she has a voice at all, but I knew that I needed to amplify her voice for this film to break through the noise out there, and I contacted Sandra, who I have known for many years. She was very personally taken with the story and came on to help promote its message of peace and love and diversity. She loved its pro-girl, pro-art message. Sandra was integral in the casting. And Nancy Kwan—who I did not know and who I just thought would be perfect for the character of Gloria, Rosie’s grandmother, because of her own history— turns out was taken care of by my own grandmother during WWII when Hong Kong was occupied by the Japanese. I have a picture now.
I love this quote from Window Horses: ‘Sometimes it takes many lifetimes to learn our own stories.’ Can you unpack this a little for us?
Sometimes the circle has to be quite wide before we see how things are connected. Mehrnaz is talking about poetry and finding one’s one voice but she is also referring to our intergenerational connectivity. Sometimes an idea, like a gene, isn’t expressed for a generation or more and then resurfaces, like red hair, a certain laugh, a way of thinking, a strength or a weakness. I learned this, personally, while making The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam, seeing how my own family followed certain patterns even though we knew nothing about each other. And how we are all very much the products of the geopolitics of our time.
Do you have any advice for emerging creators?
This may sound pretty vague but…Make stuff! It’s an amazing time to be making work. So many possibilities of means of production, of distribution… but also a fractured audience, and millions of voices out there, trying to be heard. I don’t think any of those things necessarily have to do with creativity. Never think that your story doesn’t count. Every point of view adds to the whole, a greater understanding of who we all are.
Who are you inspired by?
Now? Then? When I started… writer Jeannette Winterson, filmmakers Peter Greenaway, Atom Egoyan, Jane Campion… right at this moment? Crystal Pite (choreographer), Jamie Oliver (chef and nutrition advocate), Ulrike Ottinger (intersectional filmmaker), Sandra Oh (actor), Amal Clooney (human rights advocate) , Malala Yousafzai IHuman rights), Greta Thunberg (planet rights), Sarah Silversman (comic-turned-conciliator), Chloe Zhao (filmmaker).
What will you be working on in 2019?
I am working on Shanghai Follies, my dramatic script based on the Magical Life of Long Tack Sam—using my mixed-race family’s multi-cultural variety tour show during the end of vaudeville and the middle of the Depression as a way to talk about the hard work that it is to make the world we want to live in. And ‘Can I Get a Witness?’, a slightly futuristic dystopia/uptopia where we decided to stop climate change and species extinction, eradicate poverty and inequality, all by just agreeing to end life early, for everyone.