Saturday, 8 May 2010

An activist and icon comes to the screen

Songwriter, teacher, painter, goat herder . . . Buffy Sainte-Marie is the subject of a new film


Part of DOXA Documentary Film Festival

When: Monday, 7 p.m.

Where: Pacific Cinematheque


By the age of 24, Buffy Sainte-Marie had nothing left to prove. She had written songs recorded by the likes of Elvis Presley and Bobby Darin. She penned the definitive protest song in Universal Soldier, and she had a personal fortune that would guarantee her autonomy and creative freedom for the rest of her days.

So what does an independent success story do after all the targets have been mowed down in the very first chapter of a grown-up life?

Well, goat herding for one.

Speaking from her resort retreat on the Hawaiian Islands, where she is keeping 27 goats for herself, as well as friends and neighbouring farmers, Sainte-Marie says she hasn't stopped pushing at the wheel of progress since her fame-laden breakout in the 1960s.

"I'm extremely fortunate," she says. "From an early age, I've had the ability to lead a double life: Being famous, or not famous. It was entirely up to me," says Sainte-Marie.

The central subject of Joan Prowse's latest documentary film, Buffy Sainte-Marie: A Multimedia Life, which screens as part of DOXA on Monday, the activist/icon has been a little more visible of late.

She was in Ottawa at the beginning of the month to pick up her Governor-General's Award, played a few dates and reaffirmed her commitment to recreating the way we educate young people.

Sainte-Marie is a certified teacher -- complete with PhD in education -- and these days, that's the central focus of her talents. Her Cradleboard Teaching Project continues to inspire and promote alternate techniques, and was cited as being one of the most promising models for new teaching methods by former US. president Bill Clinton.

"School should be fun and interesting for kids," says the woman who broke the boob barrier on network TV when she breastfed her son Dakota on Sesame Street more than 30 years ago.

"When I was a little girl, my toys were not Barbies or anything like that: I played piano," she says.

"And fortunately, as a child, I was unable to read music. I found out a few years ago that I am dyslexic in music. I can write for an orchestra but I can't read it. ... But I have a helicopter vision of whatever it is I am doing. When I have an experience I am seeing colours shapes and everything. I get the full 3-D movie!" she says, laughing. "I've been that way since I was very little."

Sainte-Marie says every person is possessed with a little creative magic, but the current establishment and its systematic insistence on conformity throughout the educational process has a habit of power-sanding the edges of difference.

"Sadly, I think most poor folks are talked out of their talent," says Sainte-Marie, who was born in Saskatchewan, but later moved to Maine after she was orphaned by her birth parents.

"Obviously I was a natural at music ... and it gave me a clue that maybe the things other people were saying were impossible, were not impossible for me. I would fail music class in school but go home and make up all different kinds of music -- country, classical, anything. I could hear orchestrations in my head," she says.

"I think what kept me positive is the common sense of never having lost touch with my own natural talent. Nobody can ever take that away from you."

Sainte-Marie says guarding and nurturing uniqueness in the human experience is now a core part of her belief system that doesn't just stretch into her desire to revolutionize education, but government as well.

Sainte-Marie talks a lot about the fairness, and gender equity of the Iroquois Confederacy -- a First Nations model for governance that embraces both male and female paths of logic.

She also uses the term "PB" a lot -- which has nothing to do with peanut butter. To Sainte-Marie, it means "Penis-centric Bonehead."

"The world is being run by PBs," she says. "I talk to my girlfriends, who are dealing with relationship stuff, and they don't understand that for most men, it's being a car salesman. You know, once they made the sale [at the beginning of the relationship] they don't see any reason to keep selling ..."

Sainte-Marie says she's still a fan of men, as human beings, but she's an even bigger fan of goats. "They keep the peace ... and give milk."

It's this broad view of the human condition that makes Sainte-Marie's creative oeuvre so compelling, and so progressive, whether it's a canvas or a new track she's mixed using binary code -- such as the recent Nono Keshagesh, a protest song with a thumping electronic bass beat and house music groove.

Sainte-Marie says she hates being pigeonholed, and that's why after several decades of being approached by documentary filmmakers, she said yes to Prowse.

"I'd been approached by all of them [documentarians], but they were all so boring!" she laughs.

"They all want to talk about dead, retired folksingers, which I am not, and [Joan] was smart enough to take an interest in who I really am. Not as a figure from the '60s, but someone who is a painter and an educator" she says.

"And whether I am writing scripts for Sesame Street, or curriculum for Cradleboard, or songs for Buffy the singer, or making a painting that will hang in a museum, it all comes from the same head. And for me, that head is like an umbrella: It has a lot of ribs and goes in all different directions, but it all comes from the same experiences and the same love of people, and the same faith in our ability to love and grow and change," she says.

"I really believe the only thing wrong with us is that we are immature. We are immature as a species and we have a long way to go. Fortunately, I have seen great changes over the years, and I have met great people who are definitely on the right path to making things better. But really, I just wish little kids had more fun in school -- because it really should be fun."

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