The Unusual Director of Indie Montreal Music Doc ‘A City is an Island’: Timothy George Kelly

Halfway through the film ‘A City is an Island,’ we see Mac Demarco sitting in the bathroom of his Montreal apartment, giving the camera his best come-hither look as he pees while sitting down. The fluorescent light above the sink casts everything in a murky glow, while Mac, as calm as ever, serenades the camera with one of his songs, his voice reverberating off the walls of the cramped, grey bathroom.

Four years in the making, the film – directed by Timothy George Kelly – summarizes the ethos of Montreal’s indie music scene in a way that no other documentary, short film or music article ever has. Setting aside the ‘hype’ garnered by the likes of Arcade Fire and Grimes, Kelly strips the scene down to it its bare bones, focusing his lens on the brilliant people of this tight-knit world, exposing just how unglamorous, poverty-ridden, and truly innovative it actually is.

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An official selection at this year’s CPH:DOX festival, the film premiered to a packed Montreal crowd at UQAM’s Coeur des Sciences Amphitheatre for it’s North American premiere at RIDM. With appearances by everyone from Patrick Watson and Colin Stetson, to Mozart’s Sister and Blue Skies Turn Black’s founder Meyer Billurcu, the film is an intimate mishmash of live performances, interviews, b-roll of potholes and abandoned loft spaces, and detailed explanations of Quebec’s intricate linguistic history – Billurcu even citing the Quiet Revolution as being one of the reasons as to why the scene exists. While most English-language films based in Quebec are expected to comment negatively on the tension caused by Quebec’s language barriers, ‘A City is an Island’ instead talks about an inclusive Montreal, where French and English thrive together to create one harmonious whole. Well, kind of. “I hope we never arrive to a conclusion about language,” he says during the premiere’s Q&A portion, “it’s what makes Montreal unique.”

Director Timothy George Kelly, who is neither Canadian nor Quebecois, fled to Montreal back in 2008 after being deported from the UK and fell in love with Montreal “pretty immediately.” Spending most of his time living as an illegal immigrant, Kelly hosted movie nights in his backyard, created a short documentary portrait series called Big Small, and incorporating himself into the (predominately) Anglophone music scene that was growing inside of loft spaces and hole-in-the-wall bars in the Mile-End and Plateau. However, as the film explains via a map of Montreal, the old venues are now either defunct or completely transformed into something more profitable. “Can I get a time machine and go to the old Midway?” he says via email, “that new hipster shit down there saddens me so much. That place was my favourite bar. So many crazy weird times.”

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Starting out as an extension of Big Small, Kelly began the process of making a feature length film with relatively no money and zero government funding, citing Harper’s austerity cuts to arts funding as being the dominant reason as to why no one made this film before he did. “Luckily for me Canadians are really polite and their filmmakers will only make something if the government gives them a grant to do so. And I can’t get any of these grants because of you know, bureaucracy/idiocy/ideology/nation states, etc…”” he said in an interview with CPH:DOX.

When asked why the film took four years to make at RIDM’s Q&A portion, Kelly compared the editing process to a “game of pool that everyone forgot” – that time when everyone (presumably during a drunken night out) loses interests in the game and walks away, leaving one person to hit the balls around aimlessly in a haze of confusion. “The majority of this film was shot with just me doing everything. By the time I got to editing I had 80 hours of footage and not a clue how to bring it together properly; I just moved clips around a Final Cut sequence for a year.” After getting help from writing partner Luke Neima, Kelly headed back to Montreal to shoot some more footage, with the whole editing process taking roughly two years. Even though the film already features a substantial amount of talented Montreal-based musicians, according to Kelly there were twelve more people who were shot and then cut out of the film. In short, “editing was brutal.”

Shot mostly in the winter months, ‘A City is an Island’ has a grey-on-grey pallet that makes Montreal’s crumbling streets and buildings bleaker than usual. Cadence Weapon freestyles underneath an overpass; Sean Nicholas Savage serenades the camera, standing alone on a rooftop; Miss Lady Swamp Pussy stands in a pile of slush in front of a playground, sing-rapping over a boombox as it snows. Similar people but with different sounds, Kelly makes it clear that Montreal’s DIY scene is unique and un-fuck-with-able. Unlike other cities, artists don’t come here to “make it”; they come her to create, to party, and to maybe make some money on the side to create and party some more. International recognition and fame seems almost like an afterthought, or a welcome bonus, not life goal. Ending with some solemn thoughts by Colin Stetson, ‘A City is an Island’ is a well-constructed film that illustrates a Montreal rarely seen by the rest of the world. In sum, watch the movie, and expect great things from Timothy George Kelly in the near future.