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A scene from Pragmatopia. Cinematographer: Ben Hoskyn.

Interview: Ottawa filmmaker Pixie Cram on Pragmatopia—streaming on 07.23.20

By Maria-Helena Pacelli on July 17, 2020




In the midst of a pandemic, many of us have our minds set on the apocalypse… but what comes after?

Post-apocalyptic fiction can be traced back through hundreds of years of human storytelling, and includes stories as old as Noah’s Ark. The genre includes zombie stories, natural disasters, alien invasions and nuclear war.

Many contemporary works of post-apocalyptic horror or science fiction move in a more introspective direction, questioning human nature and unbridled capitalism, involving human-caused environmental degradation, and have even broken into the mainstream with blockbusters like the Terminator series and The Day After Tomorrow, or Netflix release IO. Comics have a long tradition of post-apocalyptic stories, including Y: The Last Man, The Walking Dead, and The Matrix; the latter of two were adapted to TV and film, respectively.

But what fascinates us about these stories? Is it the urge to understand our proximity to death, cope with the lack of control over the collective, or understand our own mortality?

The pandemic forces us to come to grips with this, and I recently interviewed Ottawa filmmaker Pixie Cram about her work Pragmatopia, which fortuitously culminated to its release during a global pandemic. The film chronicles a return to innocence: Its characters discover a radioactive territory that has become potentially habitable again.

A scene from Pragmatopia. Cinematographer: Ben Hoskyn.

Apt613: What sparked this for you?

Pixie Cram: The genesis was a long time ago – at 15, I wrote a short story. That was the beginning. I’ve always gone back to my old creative writing as a teenager and I look at it when I’m trying to come up with ideas.

One of my preoccupations on a political level has been the concern about nuclear war and nuclear energy. Emergency Broadcast was a stop-animation featured at the Diefenbunker and was more about nuclear war.

I read a book about Chernobyl 25 years after that explored the condition of the land, and it was discovered wildlife was thriving. It gave me the idea to set this scene in the wilderness. We don’t really know the danger to humans.

What was that story about at 15?

It was more dreamlike, about women wandering along the coast. The seashore is barren, it was post-apocalyptic. They meet a young man but he’s not an ally, he’s more like a demon and appears out of nowhere. My earlier writing was more dramatic and darker. We don’t know how many survivors are left.

A scene from Pragmatopia. Cinematographer: Ben Hoskyn.

Where did that preoccupation come from?

My family was big into reading science fiction novels. I read Anne McCaffrey, Robert Silverberg, Ray Bradbury, who has a story about nuclear war (There Will Come Soft Rains), definitely inspiration for the stop-motion animation Emergency Broadcast, with the house automation working after the apocalypse. I had a real imagination and was fascinated by the future. I used to watch Star Trek with my mother.

What made you choose film?

I went to theatre school and did an acting program, but was not comfortable and went back to my first love, creative writing. After I graduated from Concordia I did a workshop at IFCO, and turned a play into a film script. That was the beginning.

A scene from Pragmatopia. Cinematographer: Ben Hoskyn.

What’s the relationship between this work and the pandemic?

It set the stage in a nice way. It’s awful what’s happening, but the release was good timing. The original (30 minutes) was released and played at Mirror Mountain a year ago. I worked with Kara Blake, an editor in Montreal, in February, before the pandemic hit the West. It was a huge snowstorm and I had a two-day window to work with her, because I had a baby at home, and we cut the film to 13 minutes. This new version is what I’m now releasing and it’s uncanny, with the timing of the pandemic.

It already sounds post-apocalyptic, this snow storm, a tight window, being away from the baby…

There was so much snow and because the snow storm was so bad… Indigenous peoples were blocking the railroads in support of the Wet’suwet’en. Tt was the beginning of that action and there was a lot going on and I had never been away from my baby that long.

A scene from Pragmatopia. Cinematographer: Ben Hoskyn.

What’s next?

Right now I’m working on a studio project, going back to an animation with pixelation, which is animating with people, a research technique that I’m exploring. We’re doing it with physical distance and masks, and the people in front of the camera don’t have to be in contact.

I have a grant from the Canada Council and I needed to continue the work, although they gave an extension, but the advantage is now we can leave the doors and windows open and in the fall there’s a fear of the second wave. So I said OK, let’s go for it, but the industry is frozen right now and we have to be careful… with the responsibility for everyone’s safety, and the question that you ask is, is my art worth it?

And what have you discovered about that? Are artists essential workers?

I’ve discovered how important music is to me, not that you need to depend on your Netflix channel, but for a lot of people it was a refuge to watch a film, TV, or dance, or tune into my favourite musician on Facebook Live, and that got a lot of people through some really dark times. I think art is always relevant, now more than ever, and now the question is how do we adapt? Artists are brilliant at adapting. Because of our medium and industry we have to learn to work with very little and be inventive and clever to survive. What new art forms and new ways of working might come about as a result?

Pragmatopia plays at Manitoba’s Gimli Film Festival (GFF) on Thursday July 23 at 7:30pm EST, live streamed as part of GFF’s “From the Streets” shorts program. The GFF runs from July 22–26 and offers both on-demand screenings (for ticket and festival pass holders only) and scheduled live streams. Cram previously screened a short film, The Factory of Light, at GFF in 2008. Pragmatopia previously played at the 2019 Mirror Mountain Film Festival in Ottawa and Echo Park Film Centre in Los Angeles in 2018.

The filmmaker is grateful for the support of the Ontario Arts Council, the Canada Council for the Arts, the City of Ottawa and SAW Video Media Art Centre.