Imparting Ideas: Craig Conoley and Partus Films
By Daniel McKenna
In today’s media-dominant culture, many individual talents struggle within a commercialized environment that can appear banal and uncongenial. Creating a personal cinema with a heartbeat is essential to Craig Conoley’s mission with Partus Films, an arts-focused media company with productions that include documentaries, poetry and music videos, art installations, and promotional materials. He acknowledges that although it is difficult for an independent company to thrive on an arts-heavy mandate, it is ultimately rewarding to give something back to the arts community, which he believes has been the key to Partus’ local success.
A graduate of film studies at Queen’s University, Conoley’s first experience with media production out of school was in Nepal, where he spent a year as a Communications Advisor to the Ministry of Agriculture and Development. There, he produced documentaries on various cooperative movements and trained others so that these productions could be sustained. It was during this year that Conoley was blacklisted by a Maoist group for filming amongst a transgendered community, which he says came to be a defining experience in his career: “I learned about the ethics involved, and how to navigate subjects and stakeholders, because you sometimes forget that the camera doesn’t protect you – so it’s always important to know everyone’s interests, their real interests.”
After leaving Nepal, Conoley spent a year as a web video content creator in Montreal before arriving in Ottawa in 2010, and was immediately compelled to embed himself within the local arts community. He began producing documentary-style music videos, while also becoming particularly attached to Ottawa’s slam-poetry scene: “It’s a real community, with real strong bonds and relationships. They’re competitive, they’re honest with one another, and I got such a rush off of seeing that.”
“I saw how a slam poet’s sensibilities lend themselves really well to the documentary form, because a lot of poetry is autobiographical – it’s personal, it’s passionate, and it’s visual.”
This helped spark Conoley’s interest in the “cinepoem”, which has become a signature of Partus Films, with productions like Husniyah (2013), Kay (2012), and Poetry in Motion (2011). An emerging hybrid genre concerned with the interplay of word and image, cinepoetry combines the moving images of cinema with the performance of poetic text to create an emotive form of expression on the screen. Conoley is careful to distinguish his productions from video poetry, giving them more space for experimentation, maintaining that “cinema is a lot more overarching than video – video is an innovation, it’s a medium, but cinema is an idea, it’s a movement.” He tries to bring the honesty of a documentary aesthetic to this movement, which he believes should be non-linear, and functioning as memory – creating subjective, unrestricted spaces for its characters. He also believes that Ottawa’s artistic scene will lend it longevity.
Conoley also sees the potential of cinepoetry for social awareness, and plans to use the genre as a way of introducing art to kids and teens in Ottawa who might otherwise not be able to experience such collective expression. Working with Micheline Shoebridge from One World Awesome Arts, he will be teaching a ten-week cinepoetry workshop for youth in Lowertown, integrating social issues into their work so that they can learn to channel these issues through art forms. Ultimately, Conoley is interested in teaching as a way to open wider dialogues about this particular art form.
In addition, Conoley is working on two personal projects that will be completed in the near future. The first, called Punched, is a short documentary about the after-effects of a physical assault, using portrait photography to reconstruct the memory of the event and explore the process of what happened to everyone involved. He also hopes to turn it into an exhibition, describing the work as “about the nature of trauma and violence, its effects on the individual, and the individual’s community – it’s about exposure therapy, reconciliation, and using art to work through your stuff.”
The second is a feature-length documentary entitled Life Songs, which details the lives of the members of a voice program in Ottawa as they are taught to sing through the stuff of life and tell their stories. The film follows eight people as they learn how to use free movement and the malleability of the voice to liberate their story from a culture of spectatorship. Conoley was granted access to observe the program, and watched as each subject crafted an autobiography, which was then allegorized into a fairy tale. Participants then had to begin creating songs which culminated into mini-operatic performances. Conoley was struck by the level of healing and sharing in a culture that is extremely alienating: “I watched from the corner, and I was blown away... You would see, in the moment, all these personal and emotional transformations take place.” The documentary also examines the evolution of song from earliest native contexts to the commercialization of personal expression, which the subjects of the film attempt to rise above in their healing process.
“The film is about their personal stories, and the overarching cultural story – it asks the questions, ‘Where is our story? Why do we spend so much time consuming other stories? Why are we a culture of spectators? Where has our agency gone when it comes to personal narrative or mythos?’”
The making of Life Songs had a significant impact on Conoley. As he explains, one of the subjects of the film was a midwife, and as he observed her everyday interactions, he felt a connection to her: “As a documentary filmmaker, we are midwives in a way. Each of these videos is a gift, like a child… That’s where Partus came from – Partus means to deliver, to bring forth or give birth, and ‘partus’ refers to the fetus right before it is born.”
Conoley realizes the challenges of running an arts-oriented company like Partus, but describes himself as a romantic who has been fortunate in his success and always tries to remain honest about it: “My mission is to acknowledge that I’m very lucky to have the resources that I have, and to give back as much as I can. I want to give people the opportunities that I was given.”
He describes Ottawa’s arts production scene as a welcoming environment where many small groups appear to exist as separate entities, but in reality form more of a collage, with collaboration amongst the whole community, including Partus, Valkaline, Parktown Studios, Symphonic Filmworks, Treepot Media, One World Awesome Arts and SAW Video. The goal, as Conoley describes it, is to “rise together” in developing a film community not entirely rooted in a bottom line.
“Partus speaks to a trend in culture right now which is ‘DIY’ – do it yourself. And that works for a time, but then you have to realize it has to become ‘DIT’ – do it together.”