For more than two decades, nonbinary, autistic filmmaker Elizabeth Lazebnik has had a keen interest in B.C. photographer Hannah Maynard. The Latvian-Canadian director was particularly taken by Maynard’s self-portraits showing doubles, triples, and quadruples of herself in Victoria in the 1880s and 1890s.
“I think she’s the first person who was making selfies,” Lazebnik tells Pancouver over Zoom.
Moreover, Maynard created collages with images of more than 20,000 children. According to Lazebnik’s research, Maynard was the world’s first surrealist photographer.
“I found her book at York University’s library in Toronto when I just came to Canada over 20 years ago,” Lazebnik says. “I wanted to know more about Canadian art. That was, I think, one of the ways for me to connect with our culture.”
Lazebnik, who prefers the pronouns “she” and “they”, released a short film, “The Multiple Selves of Hannah Maynard”, in 2005. This came four years after Janet Munsil’s play about Maynard, Be Still, premiered at Gateway Theatre in Richmond.
Then in 2021, the Vancouver International Film Festival premiered Lazebnik’s experimental feature-length movie, Be Still, which went on to win three Leo Awards in 2022. On Tuesday (January 16), the film will have its Victoria premiere at Cinecenta. It’s in the city Maynard called home for the final 56 years of her life until her death in 1918.
“At some point, she said that she photographed everyone who was in Victoria or who passed through Victoria,” Lazebnik says. “It was great to premiere the film at the Vancouver film festival. I’m very excited that we will now have a screening in Victoria. My main aspiration is to bring awareness to Hannah.”
On Wednesday (January 17), the VIFF Centre will also screen Be Still.
Lazebnik incorporates surrealism into film
Be Still stars Piercey Dalton as the troubled Hannah Maynard, who is grieving the death of her daughter Lillie, played by Amber Taylor. Co-written by Lazebnik, Sophie Jarvis, and Keely O’Brien, Be Still also features Daniel Smith as Maynard’s husband Richard, James McDougall as Dr. Fell, and Meredith Hama-Brown as Maynard’s client Maddie.
Hama-Brown, director of Seagrass, received the Leo Award for best supporting performance by a female for her work in Be Still. Stephanie Olster won a Leo for best costume design. And Jarvis, director of Until Branches Bend, captured the Leo for best production design.
Be Still is not a conventional biopic. Nor is it a typical period piece, notwithstanding authentic costumes and sets from late 19th-century Victoria. Lazebnik decided instead to present surrealist aspects of Maynard’s photography in cinematic form.
“I wanted all of that to reflect how she saw the world,” the director explains. “I wanted to make almost a surrealist biopic—I wanted the form to create the type of art she was creating.”
In pursuing this goal with cinematographer Suzanne Friesen, Lazebnik gave tremendous thought to every shot in every scene. For example, when Maynard decides that she doesn’t want to attend a funeral service at the Ross Bay Cemetery over the objections of her husband Richard, he appears in negative images—the cinematic version of a photographic negative.
“I wanted cinematically to show how she feels inside,” Lazebnik states. “When we see him, he starts to turn into the negatives. So, it’s almost like the opposite of how the reality should be.”
Music reinforces Maynard’s altered state
To provide context, Lazebnik points out that when people scream, they really don’t feel like themselves.
“Something is different,” she adds. “I wanted to make sure I reflect that through [an] image but also, so it makes sense. It’s not just a trick because she works with a lot of negatives.”
Surrealism permeates the film, including when multiple images of Maynard appear in the same shot. It’s not just through the cinematography and Joshua Hemming’s editing, however. Be Still’s soundscape, composed by Hemming, also reinforces the grief that Maynard is feeling over Lillie’s death.
Lazebnik emphasizes that she didn’t want to spoon-feed audience members in a straightforward way like so many other biopics. Rather, she aimed to open up perceptions on a subconscious level to reflect the strange, altered state that Maynard experienced in her life.
“So, the music was a bit eerie and a bit repetitive, as well,” Lazebnik says.
Lazebnik, a continuing education teacher at George Brown College in Toronto, spent considerable time in the B.C. Archives examining Maynard’s photographs and learning about women’s history in Victoria.
“For quite a few years—maybe five years—she had to put Richard’s name on her photographs because her studio was boycotted up until mothers started bringing their kids to her studio,” Lazebnik says.
Back in those days, photography was considered more of a craft than an artform. So, it was very unusual for Maynard to experiment in the ways that she did. This included taking photographs of so many children every year and then meticulously pasting every little face onto a glass plate in her collages.
“I don’t know if she was autistic,” Lazebnik says.
No shame in being neurodivergent
Lazebnik believes that her own autism, which was diagnosed when she was in her 30s, has shaped her work as a filmmaker. She adds that there should be no shame in being neurodivergent.
“Now, in the last couple of years, I really started embracing it and learning more about it,” she says. “I want to bring the stigma down. The stigma is strong.”
Pancouver then asks her if autism might be a product of evolutionary biology—and whether people are sometimes labelled as having a disorder when they might just have a different way of seeing the world.
“Absolutely, absolutely,” Lazebnik replies. “I hope eventually it will change.”
She points out that people who are autistic usually have “special interests”. And these special interests are not really chosen—they just happen, as if the interest selects the person rather than vice-versa.
“They don’t turn off,” Lazebnik states. “Sometimes, I would like them to turn off.”
One of her special interests is Hannah Maynard, which is what led Lazebnik to create the feature film. Another of her special interests is how autism affects creativity in artists.
“My brain does seem to process information a little bit differently,” Lazebnik acknowledges. “But I see that as a strength.”
Watch the trailer for Be Still.
Cinecenta (3800 Finnerty Road) will screen Be Still at 5 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday (January 16), followed by question-and-answer sessions with director Elizabeth Lazebnik. On Wednesday (January 17), Be Still will be shown at 7:30 p.m. at the VIFF Centre (1181 Seymour Street) in Vancouver, followed by another question-and-answer session. Tickets are available on the VIFF Centre website.