Orléans shutterbug captures history of Canadian film
Wes Smiderle
September 8, 2003 

Lois Siegel

Sophia Loren had just arrived at the Montreal World Film Festival. The Italian actress's presence was sparking a media feeding frenzy. There were cameras everywhere and Lois Siegel was right in the middle of things, as usual.

The Orléans photographer has been shooting the festival annually since the late 1970s.

She spent years as a photographer for the magazine Cinema Canada, a job which placed her right in the middle of movie sets, festivals and parties during the nascent period of the Canadian filmmaking industry. The book Hollywood North: Creating the Canadian Motion Picture Industry (in stores on Sept. 15) features her photos of many prominent figures, including director Denys Arcand, author Mordecai Richler and a very young Richard Dreyfuss in downtown Montreal on the set of "The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz."


Boasting a list of past subjects that includes actors Nicholas Cage, Clint Eastwood, and Robert De Niro, Siegel has experienced mob scenes many times, but standing at a height of -- as she describes it -- "four foot 11," she doesn't enjoy them.

Her equipment is simple, even a little outdated by today's standards. No fancy gadgets. No sniper-scope zoom lens. Siegel attended the Sophia Loren conference armed with the same "clunky" 35 mm she's been using since 1979.

Usually, says Siegel, the film festival press conferences are well-organized and relatively civil. The Loren conference, however, was not. It was small. It was crowded. There were "strange little rules" like not being able to use a flash at certain moments. There was pushing. There was shoving.

"There was 50 million people all trying to kill to get their photo," she recalls. "I'm not big and I have to stand up to these six foot four guys."

At one point, a photographer fell off a chair and landed on Siegel's back. She came home black and blue. But she had her shot. A beautiful black and white portrait of Loren, her head titled back, appearing contemplative as though she were gazing through a garden window. Nothing about the picture reveals the presence of the frantic crowd mere inches beyond the frame.

©Photo by Darren Brown

Siegel is as much a filmmaker as she is a photographer. She currently teaches video production at the University of Ottawa and has directed several feature films including Stunt People, Solitude, Faces and the documentary Baseball Girls. She also wrote an episode of the CBC program Life and Times featuring a biography of actor Christopher Plummer and, when she turned 50, Siegel decided to pursue her childhood dream of learning the violin. Six year later, she now plays fiddle in not one, but two local Celtic acts: the Lion's Street Celtic Band and Celtic North.

Siegel's extensive experience with Canadian film made her an ideal source of material for Hollywood North.

"She's everywhere," says Suzan Ayscough, former director of communications at Telefilm Canada and co-author of Hollywood North along with Michael Spencer. Ayscough and Siegel were both freelancers within the Canadian film industry around the same time. "I knew that Lois had an eye, and she was at all these parties. "Ayscough and Spencer first approached Siegel about one year ago. Together they spent a whole day sitting in the cluttered offices of her Orléans home and sifting through all of Siegel's contact sheets since 1979. There was no shortage of material to choose from. More than even Siegel could keep track of.

"We'd come in knowing who we were looking for, but a lot of times she [Siegel] didn't even know who was in the picture," recalls Ayscough.

They bought 17 photos, including Richler, Dreyfuss, Astral Media founder Harold Greenberg (who helped put Canadian cinema on the map with, of all films, Porky's), and the late Claude Jutra (director of Mon Oncle Antoine) rehearsing a tender dance moment with an actress. The book features one of Siegel's shots of Arcand (director of The Decline of the American Empire and its sequel The Barbarians Invasions, currently making the rounds at the Toronto Film Festival) playing tennis on Nun's Island while filming Jesus of Montreal.

Mordecai Richler, 1972

Siegel says her collection includes about 300 celebrities. "A lot of the people I take pictures of are not that well-known, maybe directors from European countries, but I know them because I taught for so long and I'd seen all of their films," she says. "I'd hear they were coming to Montreal and want to take their picture."

Her passion for fiddling has led her to pursue a collection of the greatest fiddlers in Canada. She recently snapped a shot of Shane Cook at a recent fiddling festival. Shortly after Siegel took his picture, Cook was declared the Canadian Grandmaster of Fiddling.

                     Shane Cook      

Siegel has been teaching video production at the University of Ottawa since 1997.

Although she has lived in Orléans for about 10 years, she only retired from her teaching job in Montreal last year and has only started to think of Ottawa as home.

She has held three photo exhibits in the capital, although only her 85-photo display at the Ottawa Bagel Shop came close to equaling her 120-photo exhibit photos that was on display during the Montreal film festival on the ground floor of the Complexe Desjardins, along the path strolled on by stars and stargazers.

Now semi-retired, she focuses her energies on "whatever's fun," including her fiddling and photo essays for community newspapers. Despite a response from the National Library of Canada dismissing her work as having "no national interest," Siegel is hoping to stage future exhibits featuring the full sweep of her career in photography.

"I've got photos other people don't have," says Siegel. "Wonderful things that I love looking at." 

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