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By TAMSEN TILLSON
Special to The Globe and Mail
Saturday, May 4, 2002 – Print Edition, Page F9
Clint Morrill, filmmaker, writer, actor and artist, committed suicide on Feb. 25 at the age of 32. He had recently returned from the Sundance Film Festival, having taken part in the Sundance Institute Arts Writing Program and premiered his latest documentary, Miss 501: Portrait of Luck.
His given name was Clinton David Morrill, and while his first name was always Clint, his last name he changed freely. He went variously with surnames Torangeau, Alberta, Star and, most recently, Karatechamp.
His frenetic energy and proclivity for shape-shifting and playing devil's advocate earned him a nickname at Sundance and the National Film Board that he relished: the Trickster. "He was a really fresh spirit, absolutely engaging," recalls his NFB producer, Silva Basmajian. "Clint wanted to be outrageous, that was his persona, and he was. But underneath all that, I saw that he was bright, incredibly bright. He had a vision. There is nothing better when you're a producer who's been working a while than when suddenly this wonderful talent arrives on your doorstep."
He grew up in and around Edmonton, the only child of a native father and white mother who split while he was an infant. His mother, Betty Morrill, recalls that they were very poor and moved around a lot. Clint changed schools five times in Grade 1 alone.
When was 3, he lost an index finger when he and his cousins built a pretend campfire with a real axe. "Instead of being devastated or embarrassed by it, he would stick it in his ear or stick it up his nose, just to be Clint," Morrill remembers.
His native heritage did not figure large in his childhood. "I didn't know how to tell him anything about native life because I was white. For me, it wasn't an issue," his mother says. "I never saw him as white or Indian or anything, I just saw him as my precious son."
Morrill remembers seven-year-old Clint coming home upset because one of his classmates had called him an Indian. "I said, 'You are, and you should be really proud that you are a native. You go back to school and when they call you an Indian tell them, yes, I am; me and a whole bunch of other people.' So he went back to school and said he could speak Indian, and had all these kids in the school wowed while he made up this language."
Handsome, vivacious and somewhat androgynous, he was studying psychology at the University of Alberta and counselling troubled native children when his own identity as a native person took hold. "He realized he could take his heritage and make a difference for other people," Morrill says. "He always said maybe he had a different upbringing, but if he could, he wanted to shine for the rest."
Morrill discovered filmmaking at the National Film Board's Studio One native program in Edmonton, where he made Lost Songs. Around the same time, he made My Cousin Albert: Portrait in Shades of Black, which he referred to as "a short drama which one of my friends stole and won't return."
He moved to Toronto in 1997 after Studio One was shut down, and approached the NFB there with an idea for a film that would become Deep Inside Clint Star,a gritty documentary exploring native sexuality.
"He wanted to raise the bar for native filmmakers, wanted to create native cinematic language," recalls Katharine Asals, a freelance editor who worked on Clint Star as well as Miss 501.
"But he was also very concerned with cinematic form, and with trying to break the form as it existed and create a new cinematic language emanating from native narrative tradition."
Deep Inside Clint Star is a loosely woven collection of musings on the sexuality, identity and life stories of Morrill and a handful of native contemporaries. Morrill used cameras of varying quality, including super 8 video, giving the film a disjointed look. "He believed the lower the format, the more accessible the documentary," says Jeff Sterne, a filmmaker and production manager on the film. "I did sound on some of it, and he wanted the microphone and the sound person in the shot. He didn't mind glitches, he believed the glitches and the mistakes were all part of the process."
Once the camera's auto-focus went haywire, and Morrill's response was, "Perfect."
"He would come in with the rushes, and I'd be like, Clint, what are you doing?" Basmajian recalls. "And he'd say, 'It'll be wonderful.' "
Playful, modern, non-linear and heavily metaphoric, the film received some high praise when it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2000.
"Clint was one of those visionary filmmakers who rather than mimicking the genres and styles of filmmaking, he was more interested in a theoretical basis for indigenous film, playing with structure and style, which I have to say is pretty rare," Sundance programmer Bird Runningwater says.
In Canada, Deep Inside Clint Star won the 2000 Donald Brittain Award for Best Social or Political Documentary. Morrill wore a dress to the Gemini Awards, and when Basmajian was accepting the prize, leaped onto the stage for an impromptu native celebratory dance. Not knowing that he was the filmmaker, security dragged him off.
Some in the native community were uncomfortable with the idea of Morrill as a representative or role model. "A lot of expectations of native people, by native people and by non-native people, are we have to be these stoic, romanticized and, in a sense, passive people," Runningwater says, "but he defined himself based upon his own life experience and ideologies about life in the world."
"He definitely trod on a lot of people's toes," his mother says. "Being an outsider, I daresay, I don't know that anybody knows anymore how you define native. Clint was part native, part white, he's a mishmash of all of these different cultures."
Some felt he wasn't native enough to speak for them. "He found discrimination, too, in trying to work in the native community, people saying, 'What would you know about it.' "
He also engaged in a very public feud with the NFB when the board insisted in cutting a long silence out of the film, which was already over-length. Clint wrote angry letters to the media on the significance of silence in native culture and demanded that his name be taken off the film.
"He put the film board through hell over the way that film was handled," Asals says, "but he's certainly not the first person to have problems with the film board. It happens to a lot of people and he made a lot of noise about it, which was uncomfortable to the film board, but many other filmmakers were probably glad to hear it."
Never well-off (his mother refers to his job as a waiter as "the good times" because then at least she knew he was eating) after Clint Star, he was even more impoverished than usual, and lived on the street for several months.
Then he and his partner and co-director Jules Montgomery were working on a new film, Miss 501: Portrait of Luck, which premiered at Sundance in January. "I think it was really his theory film," Runningwater says. "He wanted to make a film about topics that were typically applied to native people such as alcohol abuse, drug abuse and bingo, without putting any native people in there. It ended up being about how the drag queen and punk communities of Toronto converged."
While Runningwater considers Morrill "one of the most profound people to come to native cinema in a long time," Miss 501 received a lukewarm reception at Sundance. "He was making a native film, he was controlling the form of it, but there was never any native in the content. And nobody got it. they came wanting to see Indians."
As much as filmmaking was a priority, writing was Morrill's first love. He was perennially working on a novel he called DOUBT (A SELF-HELP MANUAL FOR THE (HYPER)MODERN INDIAN), and in January he workshopped his script 1985 at the prestigious Sundance Institute Arts Writing Program. "I and all my colleagues here at Sundance were taken aback with the imagery and content," Runningwater says. "He was being considered for the June filmmakers lab."
Upon returning from Sundance, however, his behaviour became increasingly erratic. "He was very tortured, and editing rooms are small," Asals says, "so you get to see that he would go really far out into irrational thinking, paranoid thinking."
He confided in his mother that he was fearful for his life.
If he did suffer from mental illness, depression or even schizophrenia, he would have refused medication because he did not believe in it. "He believed that basically nature gave [people with mental illness] the imperfection," Sterne recalls, "and this imperfection was the right of a shaman."
"He was always very encouraging and very positive," his mother says. "If you'd told me there was any person on this Earth going to commit suicide, I would have rated him as one of the last."
Clint Morrill,born on Jan. 16, 1970, in Edmonton; died on Feb. 25, 2002 in Toronto.
Miss 501: Portrait of Luck premieres in Toronto on May 17 at the Inside Out Film Festival.
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