PRESS: Katherine Monk on Mike Hoolboom

Monday, January 24, 2011 - 10:00 am

Friend's suicide inspires movie 'Mark' presents portrait of animal-rights activist

By Katherine Monk
Postmedia News
Monday, January 24, 2011

Mike Hoolboom clawed himself out of the grave through art after he was diagnosed with HIV more than a decade ago. Every new film became a foothold, and every new boundary-pushing piece of experimentation gave him strength. But when a close friend and colleague hanged himself without warning in 2007, Hoolboom fell back into the hole.

"At that point, I realized I was compelled to make a movie about my friend, Mark. I started talking to the other people I knew who knew him. And we revisited that moment of impact of feeling completely bewildered and stunned. It was like the tile that we were all standing on was swept away," says Hoolboom.

"The one thing we all believed was that Mark was the last person who would have taken his own life. He was the guy who really took care of everyone and went out of his way to make people feel good. He did all that for other people, but in the end, he couldn't do it for himself."

Hoolboom spent the next three years going through photos, films and home-movie footage of his late buddy, and former film editor, Mark Karbusicky. The result is Mark, a feature-length documentary that presents an impressionist portrait of the animal-rights activist and all-around giver who failed in the ultimate human quest to love himself.

It's a potent piece of work, and perhaps the most cohesive, compelling and altogether accessible film to emerge from Hoolboom's experimental atelier that now houses a significant oeuvre, including more than 30 films, conceptual art pieces, books and essays.

When Hoolboom wrapped the intimate piece last year, he figured it would be the last movie he would ever make.

"I retired as a filmmaker," says the Toronto-based heir to Canada's experimental film tradition.

"I realized I needed to step back and just see who I am. There's this pressure, especially in Toronto, to be doing something. In fact, it seems people are only defined by what they do. When you go to a party, people ask you, 'Oh, what are you doing?' and that means more than just what you are doing; it means, 'Who are you?'"

Hoolboom says in the wake of Mark's exit, he needed to find an out-door of his own, and he turned the handle through yoga.

"Last year was really tough. I lost other dear friends, including Babz Chula," says Hoolboom, who cast Vancouver icons Chula and Gabrielle Rose in his cutting-edge Kanada, perhaps the most insightful peek into the Canadian psyche ever created.

"(Losing my friends) . . . was enough to make me recreate my life. Yoga was a part of it. I was looking for a release . . . . I was hoping to gain a deeper understanding of what happened, which is why I made the movie," he says.

Like all survivors of a loved one's suicide, Hoolboom found himself dealing with guilt, anger and depression, and not even the completion of the film portrait gave him any sense of catharsis.

"I don't know who I made the film for. Maybe for other people like Mark . . . maybe for other people like me. Maybe for myself alone. I don't know."

Either way, it made Hoolboom look long and hard at his own life, his own art and his own mode of expression. It made him see the mask we all wear in our everyday lives to cope, and to make sure others see the appropriately well-adjusted exterior.

"I think there's a register of all emotions," says Hoolboom, borrowing a musical term.

"Mark really tried to appear light and carefree all the time . . . but there was always something he was holding back."

As a result, Hoolboom says he looks at people differently now. "I really look at people's faces. I imagine what they may look like when they get old. I really study the subtle reactions, and I've noticed that men and women present themselves to the outside world so differently."

Men have a tendency to find an outward appearance they feel comfortable with, and stick with it.

"Men will present that same face every day," he says.

"But women . . . women are far more comfortable showing the nuances. You can see the fluidity of their reactions in their faces and it's all there to read for anyone who's interested."

In learning to really see people, and after a year of self-induced creative exile, Hoolboom decided retirement wasn't really for him: "The truth is, I needed to pay my rent."

Now officially unretired, Hoolboom is busy retooling and recharging. "I have to say, in taking a step back from filmmaking, and coming back to it, I've never loved it as much as I do now. I'm totally energized by it."

Hoolboom says it's the sense of connection that seems to be the most potent part of the creative voyage.

"I think there are times when we all feel totally alone," he says.

"But the truth is we are not alone -- ever. Even when we're in pain, and we feel the need to withdraw and shut down, we're not alone. . . . "

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