When he’s not scaling craggy mountain peaks in the Himalayas or plumbing for ancient Mayan artifacts buried deep inside submerged cave systems for his art, you might find Winnipeg-based filmmaker Ivan Hughes happily behind a camera lens at home, shooting some of Canada’s top musicians that brings their real, often raw stories to life.
"My passion is telling stories whether I’m working on someone else’s project in Nepal or Belize, or working on a gardening series in Winnipeg," says Hughes, a Barton (U.K.)-born, Toronto-raised artist, during an interview in his Exchange District office.
Hughes’ jaw-dropping documentaries and short films have been featured around the world. However, music fans here will get to enjoy the latest fruits of Hughes’ labours when his first in a series of four Bell MTS commissioned films titled Opening Night starts next month. Each of the bite-sized, 10 minute films go behind-the-scenes with five featured artists appearing alongside the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra this season. The series is produced by the production company Hughes owns with his wife, Angela Heck.
The first episode It Matters showcases Manitoba singer-songwriter Raine Hamilton who takes the stage at 7:30 p.m. tonight and Thursday night. Named after the 2018 Canadian Folk Music Award winner’s song of the same name, its grittier subject matter speaks to systemic racism and the history of colonial trauma that became the basis for Hamilton’s piece being led by MCO’s Anne Manson.
Hughes, who has served as MCO archivist since 2011, a job that sees him regularly filming each live concert for posterity, also created the 2016 film Concerto, chronicling the twists, turns, trials, and ultimately triumph of percussionist Victoria Sparks en route to delivering the world premiere of Sid Robinovitch’s Concerto for Percussion and Strings that same year.
"Ivan is a great story-teller, whose artistry serves the story rather than overshadowing it," MCO Managing Director Vicki Young shares in an email. "He and his team are remarkably good at finding threads to connect the viewer and subject. He is an avid communicator who listens and learns, while always bringing a creative and thoughtful approach to a project.
"When we attend a live concert or watch a concert film, we may not fully appreciate the work and expertise that has gone into creating that concert," Young explains. "It’s wonderful to be able to pull back the curtain to get to know the musicians a bit better, and who knows what that might mean to a viewer. There may be a young person who realizes that a career as a musician is possible, for example, who just needed to hear that you can learn how to do some of the things we hear these inspiring musicians do onstage."
Still on tap in the series are four additional films: Pur Ti Miro featuring internationally acclaimed sopranos Tracy Dahl and Andriana Chuchman; Prayer in a Green Cathedral showcasing oboist Caitlin Broms-Jacobs; with the final installment Waking the Lion, once more highlighting Sparks, being released at a future date.
Heck and Hughes, a dynamic power couple together for nearly 20 years, originally met in Vancouver. Heck, then a publicist for the National Film Board (NFB) asked Hughes, a bartender in a local pub to be her date for a film fest premiere. They collaborated on their first film in 2003, In the Shadow of the Chief. Their fledgling flick caught viewers’ imaginations and immediately scooped up the People’s Choice Award for Best Film at the Whistler Film Festival, later broadcast on both CBC and PBS.
Hughes has also filmed extensively in Nepal and Tibet, travelling five times to the near mythical Mount Everest for three respective documentary projects. His thirst for adventure also led him to follow the progress of 40-year old New Zealand-born, Canadian kayaker, Hayley, who became the first solo paddler around South Georgia in Soul of the Sea.
After living several years in Vancouver, followed by a five-year stint in nearby Squamish, where they moved for the climbing, the pair re-located to Winnipeg in 2010 after Heck received a job offer with the CBC in her hometown.
They share two artistic children: daughter Thea, 17, a budding pianist, gifted artist and frequent production assistant for Hughes’ film shoots; and fiddler son and aspiring animator, Toby, 14, who notably plays on his great-grandfather’s lovingly refurbished violin, each now beginning to carve out their own illustrious career paths.
The multi-talented Heck, a former arts journalist who plays flute and has acted on both stage and screen, continues to pack multiple careers into one life. Her screen work includes appearing in several Guy Maddin films including Tales from the Gimli Hospital, The Dead Father, and Archangel.
She serves as executive director for the Whistler Film Festival, dividing her time between their Winnipeg home and the resort town. She also stepped into the role of acting executive director of Jazz Winnipeg in September 2019, guiding the organization through the pandemic. She has held prior positions at the National Screen Institute, CBC, the NFB, Winnipeg Art Gallery, and the University of Manitoba, among others.
With his life devoted to sharing tales infused with his own passion, Hughes has one more story up his sleeve that hits even closer to home — and right out of an adventure thriller he’s currently researching for a documentary project.
The soft-spoken artist recounts once interviewing his late, then elderly mother about her life. She disclosed she had never known her own father, born Antony Don in 1900 to a family of Dutch musicians after her parents split up when she was a child, only knowing he had been a concert pianist and protégé of Jose Iturbi at the Rotterdam Conservatory of Music.
Hughes began digging further into his family roots, locating ship crossing records showing that his 39-year old grandfather, now called Teun Don and hailed in newspapers as a child prodigy at age 14, landed in the Dutch West Indies on May 5, 1940, a mere five days before the Nazis invaded Holland. Stranded overseas, broke and with no family, his musical ancestor played for newsreels and gave recitals in Curaçao, as well as launched a local music school that garnered him the National Order of Honour and Merit. He immigrated to the U.S., giving a recital at New York City’s Town Hall to great acclaim, and eventually began a music professor at NYC’s Mannes School of Music, among others.
"My mother never even knew what her father looked like," Hughes shares, only discovering a photo of his grandfather after his mother’s passing. "But I now know why she always had this love for classical music," he says, offering a final summation of his life’s work.
"It’s stories that connect us with our past, with each other, with everybody and everything," he says quietly. "Filmmaking is about finding the story, to hopefully inspire viewers so that they appreciate something on a much deeper, heartfelt level," he adds.
"We live by stories."
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