Behind the scenes with Donato Totaro

Concordia’s professor and editor shares his passion for film with students

Spaghetti western enthusiast, film studies lecturer and editor of the world’s longest-running online film journal, Donato Totaro has been teaching part-time at Concordia for the past 27 years. The courses he teaches, including “Introduction to Film Studies” and “Film Aesthetics,” are all within the film studies program, part of the Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema, where he shares his passion for film with his students.

Photo courtesy of Concordia.

Totaro completed a bachelor of fine arts at Concordia, a master’s in fine arts at York University and received a PhD in film and television from the University of Warwick. He is one of the reasons why Concordia has been the main venue for the Fantasia International Film Festival for the past 14 years and counting. He is every cinephile’s dream professor, as his motion picture knowledge will astonish all film buffs. His passion for film began when he was just a kid, trying to stay awake for his first late-night horror film. “I was 13 or 14. My uncle was only seven years older than me and he said: ‘This weekend at midnight, there’s a film called ‘I was a Teenage Werewolf.’ It’s a horror film from the late 50s. I was so excited that I would splash water on my face to stay awake,” said Totaro. It was the experience of doing something a little dangerous and subversive that sparked his interest at that time, he said. “I started watching films that I wasn’t supposed to be watching. I am doing the same with my son now, getting him to watch films that maybe he shouldn’t watch,” said Totaro.

It started as a fun activity but turned into a more serious endeavour after Totaro read Film as Film, a book by renowned British film critic, Victor F. Perkins. “It was the first book that made me think about cinema from an intellectual standpoint,” said Totaro. Film as Film touches on film criticism and the importance of paying attention to description. “For Perkins, the best films were realistic, expressive films,” Totaro said. “The book is essentially film theory applied to film criticism.” Years later, Totaro went to study at Warwick University in Coventry, England, where Perkins taught. “I always remembered that book and I followed his career and wondered, ‘Where is he teaching?’ I contacted him and ended up working with him as my PhD supervisor. Sadly, Perkins passed away in the summer of 2016, at the age of 80,” said Totaro.

Totaro decided early on to focus on the academic side of film instead of the production side. However, during his master’s at York University, he got the chance to do some film production and screenwriting while he specialized in film studies. “I think it’s important to learn how films are made. If you are criticising film, at least you have an understanding of what went wrong from a technical standpoint,” said Totaro. Totaro began teaching part-time at Concordia in 1990.

From 1997 to 1998, Totaro took some time off teaching to pursue his PhD. It was also at that time that he became the editor of the online film journal, Offscreen. The French online film journal, Hors Champ, which started up in 1996, was looking to expand and create an English sister magazine, Totaro said. At the time, one of Hors Champ’s editors was taking a class at Concordia taught by film professor Johanne Larue, who still teaches at Concordia today. “The editor of Hors Champ asked Johanne Larue if she wanted to be the editor of the English version, but she did not have the time,” Totaro said. “She recommended me, so I gave it a shot.” This is how Offscreen started. “The first few years, I would just publish whenever I would have enough articles,” Totaro said. “Now, I do a new issue every month, which is five articles per month.” Offscreen, which regularly receives funding from the Canada Council for the Arts, is the longest-running online monthly film journal on the web—it has been active since 1997. “It [requires] a lot of networking,” Totaro said about maintaining the journal. “I speak to graduate students and I go to conferences and film festivals where people reach out. I also encourage young writers because the journal needs new blood and I want to give students their [first] chance at writing for a public,” said Totaro.

Before leaving Concordia to pursue his PhD, Totaro met with some of the original creators and programmers of the Fantasia Film Festival—Pierre Corbeil, Mitch Davis, Karim Hussain and Martin Sauvageau. “I met Davis and Hussain at a year end screening party. They were two crazy cinephiles. They were energetic and they were talking nonstop about cinema. They were also working on creating this festival,” said Totaro. In 1996, Totaro went to the first edition of the Fantasia Film festival at the Imperial Theatre. In 2002, the Imperial Theatre shut down temporarily for renovations, which resulted in the cancellation of the Fantasia Film Festival for a year because it had no home. Totaro had the idea of contacting Cindy Canavan, the person in charge of the screening facilities at Concordia. “She always had it in her mind that she wanted to make Concordia a venue for festivals. I introduced the creators of the festival to Cindy, and since then, the Fantasia Film Festival has taken place at Concordia for 14 years,” said Totaro.

Totaro returned in 1998 to continue teaching part-time at Concordia. The professor said being the editor for Offscreen may not have been possible if he were a full-time faculty member. “When you are not working full-time, you do not have the same salary, you don’t get the same privileges or resources, but you also don’t have as much administrative work, so it frees you up to do other things,” said Totaro. Nonetheless, it is teaching that is most important to him. “I still teach almost as much as I want to teach. I still have that engagement with students which is really what I love. I love film and research, but it’s the teaching that is really important,” said Totaro.

Donato Totaro with Ray Harryhausen on Concordia Campus. Photo courtesy of Donato Totaro.

Currently, Totaro teaches “Introduction to Film Studies” which is a course open to anyone at the university. “I introduce students to all these themes and approaches and theoretical paradigms and different types of films,” said Totaro. The professor also teaches “Film Aesthetics” which is a flagship course for all cinema major students. “This class teaches students about sound, colour, montage, moving camera aesthetics and film analysis. It’s a course that is particularly appreciated by production students,” said Totaro. According to Totaro, over the years, many former students have reached out and expressed how much they loved the class. “The course is well-made and it was initially designed by full-time professor John Locke who still teaches today,” he said.

“I think that old expression applies to this course… if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

On the other hand, there are issues within the Concordia University Part-Time Faculty Association (CUPFA) that Totaro feels should be addressed. “It takes too long to get our collective agreements ironed out. We were once close to seven years without a collective agreement. Now, we are nearly two years into negotiating a new collective agreement,” said Totaro. The collective agreement is the contract between the university and the union that outlines working conditions—it regulates the terms and conditions of faculty members. The issues part-time professors are dealing with are not only financial but also have to do with course diminution. “Job security is clearly an issue. As part-timers, we have to reapply every year. The pool of courses is getting smaller so it’s more difficult. The people at the top with more seniority get the courses and then there are no courses left for other part-time profs,” said Totaro. Totaro also said it would be beneficial to set aside a consistent number of credits per year to allocate to the part-time faculty members.

Donato Totaro with John Carpenter at Imperial. Photo courtesy of Donato Totaro.

According to Totaro, part-time professors are losing teaching opportunities because of the increasing number of courses taught by graduate students, LTAs (limited-term appointments)—based on short term contracts and ETAs (extended-term appointments)—longer term contracts. “We want to make sure that this percentage doesn’t get larger and that our pool of courses doesn’t get smaller and smaller,” said Totaro. The part-time film professor shares his office with anywhere from five to 12 other part-time film professors. “We have to negotiate schedules so we don’t conflict. It’s a minor thing but all we want is to feel like we are part of the university and that we are respected,” said Totaro. According to Totaro, part-time professors also do not have the same resources to apply for grants. CUPFA does a good job supporting its members with its own Professional Development Fund, Totaro said, but having more research opportunities and projects with greater sustainability could also greatly benefit the part-time faculty association.

Totaro was recently excited about teaching a class about The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, one of his favourite spaghetti westerns. “I was talking to my students for weeks before not to miss this class because I was screening a 35mm print, which is rare these days,” Totaro said. “Tarantino called it the greatest film ever made.” Totaro remembers a few years back, when he screened it in class, that once the movie ended, the whole class started clapping. “I was so surprised, I almost felt like crying. I touched them. It was great to get that spontaneous reaction from students.”

“I don’t think my students make a separation between if I’m a full-time or part-time teacher. They see me and they make a distinction based on my ability as a teacher. Am I engaging? Do I seem to care? Those are the things that matter.”

Student Life

From the heart of the newsroom to the front of the classroom

A part-time journalism professor with a full-time commitment to crafting journalists

With nothing but her bachelor’s degree in Canadian history and a few years of copy editing experience at Reader’s Digest, Concordia part-time professor Donna Nebenzahl pushed her way into the journalism world like the big bad wolf.

Photo provided by Donna Nebenzahl

“I huffed and I puffed and I refused to [give up],” she said. Editors didn’t want to talk to her—they claimed she knew nothing about newspapers. “But I just kept trying and trying and finally I got a job at The Montreal Star.”

Although the newspaper was only months away from folding, it was in that newsroom, on the streets of the Old Port, that Nebenzahl found her place.

“In that newsroom, I felt like ‘Oh my god, here I am, this is where I want to be,’” she recalled. “Everything about it, the pace of it—I loved it, I just really loved it.”

Nebenzahl eventually wound up in the newsroom of The Montreal Star’s old competitor: The Montreal Gazette. She spearheaded the newspaper’s Trends magazine, launched the award-winning Woman News section and worked as an editor for various lifestyle and feature sections.

Yet, as newspapers corporatized, the bottom line was the big bad wolf that huffed and puffed and swept Nebenzahl away in one of The Montreal Gazette’s rounds of buyouts. Six years ago, she joined the many journalists squeezed out of ever-shrinking newsrooms.

Since leaving her full-time job, Nebenzahl said she’s become much more invested in her teaching career. When you have a lot of experience in the field, it’s important to give back, she said. Leaving the newsroom is just one more experience she brings to the table for her students to learn from.

“It became about the shareholder, and the shareholder is really not the reason you should be doing journalism,” she said. “You should be doing journalism because you believe that these stories need to be told, that people need to investigate and understand, that the public has the right to know.”

She said many of her students have caught the journalism bug, and she wants to keep them focused on the value of their work, rather than on how to please their future bosses. She said it’s one of the main reasons she teaches.

“I think that, seeing the challenges in journalism today, it’s important to try to convey this notion of what this business is really about,” Nebenzahl said. “I mean certainly, if I had my way, there would be no media company that is owned for profit.”

Outside of Concordia, Nebenzahl has been developing a series of writing workshops called “Digging.” Her inspiration came from a poem by Nobel Prize-winner Seamus Heaney in which he compares his ancestors’ digging of the land to the digging he does with his pen.

“All the writing exercises are designed to unearth things, to dig up memories or relationships or interactions or inspirations,” Nebenzahl explained. “I think it’s worth it for everybody to find those things. You put them aside, you stick them in a corner in your memory, and this allows you a chance to really look at them. It gives you a sense of understanding about yourself.”

Nebenzahl said she’s enthralled with the idea of “writing your life,” and even with her graduate students last semester, she spent a lot of time exploring their writing skills.

“There are things that you do occasionally where you forget the time, you lose track of time because you’re so immersed in it—well that’s what writing is like for me,” she said.

Stepping out of the newsroom has been liberating for Nebenzahl in a sense, as she said it has allowed her to focus on writing and, as a freelancer, she has more freedom to explore topics that interest her.

“You work at a newspaper for many years before you’re able to make choices about what you want to write. You’re usually told what to do,” she said. When she began working as an editor for The Montreal Gazette, her job involved managing her section—only 15 years later was she able to start writing again, as a columnist for the Woman News section she’d helped create. “As a freelancer, choosing makes life very interesting because it’s much more about what moves you or what you feel passionate about.”

One topic Nebenzahl has been particularly passionate about in the last few years is micro-farming. She has written several articles for The Montreal Gazette about small farming and urban agriculture in Quebec, and the new generation of young farmers leading the movement.

Traditionally, students who studied agriculture at McGill’s Macdonald campus were the sons and daughters of farmers, taking on the family business, Nebenzahl explained. Now, however, many of the students coming out of McGill’s agriculture program are new to farming but are pursuing it because they are passionate about it.

“They’re very well educated, they’re pretty hip, they create networks, they really talk to each other a lot and they’re doing farming in a very interesting way,” she said.

The idea behind micro-farming, Nebenzahl explained, is that farmers use very small acreage and sophisticated hand-held tools rather than try to mass produce on huge fields with tractors. In addition to local markets, many of these organic farmers connect with their customers through Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) networks.

“They’re not like the back-to-the-land hippies of my era who didn’t know anything,” she said. “I’m very hopeful that this is a real movement, a movement that’s going to have a lasting effect… To me, this is the future of food.”

It is a subject Nebenzahl said she would love to explore as a documentary. While she hasn’t created a documentary since her 2009 Twice Upon A Garden, which looked at the history of the Reford Gardens in Grand-Métis, Nebenzahl believes the medium would give people a sense of the hard work and value of these farming practices.

Nebenzahl is part of a CSA herself, and spent part of last spring and summer volunteering once a week on an organic farm.

“I’m sitting there in these plastic ‘tunnels’ and there’s all this straw on the ground and you’re planting little basil plants in between the tomatoes and, as you’re doing it all by hand, you realize in the end… this is going to grow into these awesome things and you’re going to be able to harvest it all,” she said. “It’s just beautiful… To me, there’s no downside here, if we can only believe in the importance of good farmland and supporting farmers.”

Getting close to the action when it comes to social movements is not new for Nebenzahl. In 2003, she and photojournalist Nance Ackerman published Womankind: Faces of Change Around the World. The book was the result of months of travelling to dozens of countries across five continents, capturing the stories of activist women, both in writing and in photographs.

“The theme was that women really are the face of activism around the world,” Nebenzahl said. “They are the people who are there on the ground, they see what happens to children, they see what happens to the environment.”

Photo by Katya Teague

Womankind features the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, fighting to bring back the grandchildren who were stolen from them during a government crackdown in Argentina. It sheds light on women in Kenya fighting to give their daughters an education. It showcases mothers in Moscow, working to get supplies to their sons, who were sent to fight in Chechnya without proper clothing or food.

Despite the tragedies experienced by many of these women, Nebenzahl said there was something very inspiring and hopeful about these women.

“When they woke up in the morning, they had a task. They were not sad, morose, unhappy people—they were very active people who really believed that what they were doing meant something,” she said.

While Nebenzahl spends less time out in the field and more time in the classroom than she used to, she believes this “boots-on-the-ground” experience is what makes Concordia’s part-time faculty so valuable.

“A lot of people are doing a lot of very original work,” she said, both in journalism and other fields. “This is what makes part-time faculty interesting in this department, because you need a lot of people who are in the field now.”

Nebenzahl said she is involved with a few of the Concordia University Part-Time Faculty Association committees because she wants to give the part-time faculty a stronger voice within the university. It’s an issue of inclusion, she said, and recognizing that these professors are an important part of the process. It’s a philosophy Nebenzahl said should come naturally to Concordia, as it is part of the university’s roots.

“It’s interesting to me because Concordia is kind of a university of the streets. It originated in downtown Montreal where people who couldn’t afford to go to McGill or couldn’t afford to go to school during the day started going to school at night,” she said. “It really developed out of that kind of idea of giving opportunities to people who were doing other things.”

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