Filming the Invisible:
Perpetual flow – an interview with Huntsville director Jeremiah Munce

Article by Jessica Reaske
Photographs by Laura Bombier


A short film, “The Alma Drawings,” directed by Jeremiah Munce, premiered on April 28 at the Hot Docs Film Festival in Toronto. With creative consultants, Colin and Wendy Oke, Muskoka was well represented in the creation of this dream-like film, which was, appropriately, screened at the ROM. The next evening Munce was awarded Best Direction, Canadian Spectrum, Short-to-Mid-Length Documentary.

“The Alma Drawings” records what is known of Huntsville pioneers’ daughter, Alma Rumball (1902-1980) – her quiet life and her enigmatic artwork, which has been compared to William Blake’s. The following is an interview with this newly titled and innovative film artist, who never met his subject, Alma Rumball, although he grew up in the same town where she lived much of her life.

JR: Jeremiah, your work was met with immediate recognition from the Canadian cinematic community. The film is alive with your skillful treatment of a subject that called for a steady and sensitive hand and eye. How did you come to say “yes” to directing this film?

JM: “It’s a really strange feeling, stepping back to contemplate what I’ve done. Making a film is all about passion and obsession to me. It starts with a question…and you know it’s going to be a long process – so it had better be a good one. I guess the original question was, what caused Alma Rumball to make these wildly intricate drawings?

“Her interview (an audiotape made in the mid 1970s) depicts a woman completely without ego, claiming that her hand goes on its own – that it’s a power that pushes it. She convinced me enough that the drawings were created from beyond her conscious volition…and I actually wondered if it could be a force in the universe coming through her…Ultimately, I realized what I already knew, that that force is our collective mind and it culminates with equal potency in individual minds.

“I thought it was just a really beautiful thing– her story…part of my motivation was just wanting to validate what she had done: thousands of staggeringly intricate drawings, rendered masterfully by a lonely recluse who claimed to have no knowledge of the forms and figures within; it was just so juicy. Something about Alma’s drawings hooked me and intrigued me – the question of creative origin…and I realize, now, that I approached it like I was some kind of mystical private investigator in the cinematic realm.

“Also, I wanted a new form of documentary, as unique as the drawings – for the cinematic form to feel like the drawings somehow. I was making a work of art about works of art…so the form and content had to be integrated together and reflective of each other. That’s why it has such a languid flow, and why I chose to shoot on film rather than video; I wanted the film to be as lush and vivid as the drawing.”

JR: As viewer, I felt a visceral impact of creative tension – the balancing of rare and obscure material within a rational but artful presentation. Was this so for you?

JM: “It was a hard thing to balance through the whole process…I always  felt like I was walking a razor’s edge.  I wanted to bring the drawings to life somehow and hold the audience in a mystery. An idea that guided me was a sense that there could be a message hidden within the drawings that the world was meant to realize…something not discernible to the eye that needed divining by way of my creative energies somehow.
“People seem to be really touched and inspired by the film, so I guess I must have succeeded in that task to some extent…All these tensions came together at all phases of the making of the film, so to hear you say you felt a visceral impact – that’s great!”

JR: There were wonderful congruent textural eye-scapes – viewing land and water formations from above, seeing through water, patterns and paths of water movement. Can you comment on this?

JM: “Her drawings felt like liquid to me. We all know the body is made up of over 80 percent water… the globe is at least two-thirds water.  I wanted to hint at that idea visually. ‘Congruent textural eye-scapes’ captures exactly what I was going for. I looked at diagrams of water molecules and atomic patterns for carbon and such, and they’re all very similar to the drawings…at the micro level, matter is all about integration and bonds, and I think Alma’s works are too on some level.”

JR: How else did the content of Alma’s work lead or inform you as a director?

JM: “The form of her work always led the way. When you stand at arms’ length from one of the large pen and ink drawings, they suspend your vision in a field of movement. Every bit of space is filled with dynamism, so I tried to make the film be just as energetic. I also imagined her experience – of them (the drawings) being revealed to her in each moment. She says she was ‘just wondering what’s coming next….’ I resisted a straightforward, chronological progression and made the structure of the film very ambling and cyclical, but you’re always suspended in the ongoing flow…wondering what’s coming next.”

JR: What, for you, was a prominent discovery from this endeavor?

JM: “…that the creative process can be magic. I knew this before, on some level, but I hadn’t actually experienced it because this was the most substantial piece I have directed. Things arise that you couldn’t have predicted…and it really feels like magic.”

JR: Did you end up feeling connected to Alma’s life?

JM: “I had a profound realization, in the depths of editing, when I hadn’t quite found the through-line – I was just pushing forward in small ways, rendering new shots…and I was just working away, seemingly aimlessly, but I had trust that the greater whole would coalesce somehow…and I realized I was doing the same thing she was doing.
“I had retreated back to my dad’s house for solace and connection to his spirit somehow…I had become a sort of recluse like Alma…obsessed with this creative artifact, like Alma had been obsessed with her drawing. We had both grown up in the same land…It was an uncanny feeling, a synchronistic convergence that helped me know I was doing something right.”

JR: Huntsville educator Peter Kear, who was also in attendance at the opening, had a sense of the film conveying “a realm of great mystery that science is still grappling with.” He said it was raising “questions in theology, neuro-psychology, philosophy, art…Questions like, why we are here, and how we are connected to the Great Beyond.” One of your other viewers asked about the personal spiritual impact of making this film, on your own life. You answered that your work was a “mysterious investigation.” Can you comment further on this?

JM: “I had the thought, early on… what if this actually was God speaking through Alma? What if that’s really what was happening here…and the whole world is just too cynical to entertain that idea anymore. I hate the word spirituality now…but what it really means to me is just being kind and good and…open. If those ideas came up for people, that’s amazing!”

JR: You also did the narration for the film, and there was so much feeling in your voice. Someone remarked to me that you used your voice like a chant.

JM: “There was something that worked about having a young man’s voice probing curiously into the psyche and work of this old woman.  An omniscient narrator would have distanced the viewer, I think. There needed to be an envoy taking you through…It’s nice to hear it sounded like a chant. I wanted it to be grounding – weaving through the whole in soft rhythms…“And, the tone also has to do with respect for the dead. Putting one’s heart out there without hesitation or shame…that’s tough…but I know it’s where spirit is found.”

JR: From this very small degree of distance from your premiere and new acclaim, how do you feel about “The Alma Drawings,” now? Where would you like it to go?

JM: “This piece was tailored for television because it had been commissioned by Vision TV. It’s going to be broadcast on Vision in the fall, and the Documentary Channel just bought it. It would be great to have it broadcast in Europe or Asia.

“I’m still so close to it; it’s hard to have perspective…how it’s going to land in people’s minds when they’re sitting in that darkened cave of the theatre. The original conception was a lot more experimental and less explanatory. I would like to do a re-cut at about 25 minutes, which is more of a meditation.”

JR: I understand you worked single handedly in your role as director and beyond, but you also worked closely with the Oke family, who are Alma’s relations and the primary curators of her art. Can you comment on this side of the experience?

JM: “The Okes are responsible for the film taking off in a lot of ways. There was a very distinct moment on Lake Waseosa, where our homes are located, when I realized I could construct something profound. Colin and Wendy have their own connection to the drawings, distinct from mine. I obviously couldn’t have done this without their support and blessings – Wendy shared all her research over the years. They became like a new family to me and helped me realize that community can be family.”

JR: At the premiere, you said from the stage that public speaking was your “worst nightmare” – but your presence up there was so natural and un-schmoozey. You stood with dignity and vulnerability, as if in respect for your own and Alma’s work, being witnessed by those who came out to see what you had created. People need to see more of this and less bravado, I think. What do you think?

JM: “I was totally vulnerable in that moment because the film had  become so personal. I’m going to have to do a lot more of that kind of public interface. I think I’ve just spent so much time alone over the past couple of years…it seems I’ve forgotten how to speak to people… but maybe that’s why I make films instead.”

It takes courage to respect and speak for the unknown, to be “open” to different perspectives. Quite likely, more and more viewers will be glad Jeremiah Munce is making films – and that he, Alma Rumball’s creations and the Okes’ long caretaking of them will enjoy the widespread appreciation that they merit. “The Alma Drawings” will be shown at the Huntsville Festival of the Arts, July 4, for the opening season of town’s new civic centre.

Courtesy of Muskoka Magazine

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