Hot Docs 2019 Interview: Shannon Walsh

“I was looking for stories where an illusion of control had led to situations where people had to change the way they lived.”

Siân Melton


“Illusions of Control”

Control. We want to have it over our own lives. We resist others trying to control us. Control is order in chaos. It’s power, it’s independence, it’s success. We live our lives—with our schedules and routines—thinking we’re in control when in actuality it couldn’t be further from the truth.

This is the concept that Shannon Walsh explore in her documentary Illusions of Control. Five seemingly unrelated stories weave together to tell a broader story of destruction, crises, and survival.

“You can’t ever know who you’re going to be in a crisis,” says a woman in the trailer. As the film follows each subject on their own journey navigating through the chaos, it’s impossible not to wonder how you would fare if your own life got turned upside down. Would I persevere? How would I keep going? And that’s the power of this documentary. You can’t help but see yourself in each of the subjects and it will be on your mind long after it ends.

See Illusions of Control at the 2019 Hot Docs Film Festival Sunday, Apr 28 at 9:15 PM , Tuesday, Apr 30 at 2:30 PM, and Thursday, May 2 at 10:00 AM.

director Shannon Walsh

Shannon Walsh has written and directed four award-winning feature documentaries, as well as multiple shorts and 360 VR projects. Her work has been theatrically released in Canada, the UK and South Africa, and broadcast on Al-Jazeera, CBC, Discovery Channel, Netflix and other stations internationally. Walsh’s films have screened in over 60 film festivals such as Hot Docs, Visions du Réel, La Rochelle, RIDM, Full Frame, Rome, and Beijing, as well as in museums including the Pompidou Centre in Paris. She is an assistant professor of film production at the University of British Columbia.

Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got involved with filmmaking.

Shannon Walsh: I’ve been making films since I was in high school. I studied photography at Concordia University, and started working editing films on 16mm and making my own shorts at that time. I’ve made tons of shorts — experimental, fiction, docs — over the years, and finished my first feature, H2Oil, in 2009.

I moved to Montreal when I was 18 and lived most of my artistic career there, while also living in South Africa on and off over the years. I lived in Durban, Cape Town and Johannesburg. I also did an interdisciplinary MA in women’s studies, sociology, education and film, and a PhD in anthropology and education at McGill University, mainly working and studying in South Africa.

After living in Johannesburg for a few years and doing a post-doc at the South African Research Chair in Social Change, I moved to Hong Kong to teach film production at City University of Hong Kong. While there I made some films about the umbrella movement and finished editing a book “Ties that Bind: Race and the Politics of Friendship in South Africa”. In 2016, I moved back to Canada to take a job as an assistant professor of film production at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, where I now live.

Tell us about Illusions of Control. Where did the idea come from?

SW: The idea for this project is very much a natural evolution of the various other projects I have been investigating in my films thus far. My first H2Oil about Alberta’s tar sands was my first glimpse into some of the ways an illusion of control shapes the world around us — from the scientific fundamentalism that makes us believe that we can find an easy way out of climate change, to the oil companies insistence that they have the exclusive right to exploit what is under the soil beneath Indigenous communities that have been there for millennia. I have been very concerned over the years with questions of power and the self: how power works at the macro and micro levels. When I was living in Hong Kong I felt compelled to go to Fukushima to see how people were understanding life after such an incredibly devastating event. What did it mean to live through an apocalypse, rather than waiting for one to come?

“Illusions of Control”

Did you have specific ideas about the subjects you wanted to feature? How did you go about finding them?

SW: It was an intuitive process I followed through my research. Many stories I followed didn’t make it into the final film as well. I was looking for stories where an illusion of control had led to situations where people had to change the way they lived.

With so many voices and stories this is a film that could easily feel all over the place yet it never does.Could you speak to how you identified the story arcs and editing it all together?

SW: I was writing and re-writing for the last number of years, looking at stories and putting them together on the page before, during and after shooting. In the edit room we did that all over again with my editor Hart Snider, taking each of the five story lines and plotting the arc with cards on paper, and moving through constructing that on the editing table. In the research phase I identified stories I wanted to cover, then in shooting you see things may be different than you expected, and you reconfigure in response, and in the editing once again you recalibrate based on how things are working together.

Can you tell us about some/all of the other amazing women who worked on this film?

SW: We have had many amazing collaborators on this film, but first and foremost is producer Andréa Schmidt. She came on board in 2016. I’d already filmed a fair amount but with her insight, and creative and intellectual support, the film really started to take shape and together we were able to finish the film you see today. She was instrumental in getting the film done and I’m very grateful for having her on my team.

“Illusions of Control”

Tell us about why you are a feminist and why it’s important to your filmmaking.

SW: I’m a feminist because I am a woman, and because I believe in equality and social justice. It’s a part of who I am and so it inherently impacts my filmmaking.

Who are your favourite women working in the film industry?

SW: That’s a hard question as there are so many great women working in cinema and innovating in this space. I love women like Issa Rae and Jill Soloway who are telling new kinds of stories on their own terms. I’m totally inspired and influenced by the work of Indigenous women in documentary like Alethea Arnaquq-Baril, Anais Obomsawin and Lisa Jackson. I’ve also been influenced by Andrea Arnold, Debra Granik, Celine Sciamma, Maya Deran, and Chantal Akerman.

What’s the best advice about filmmaking you’ve ever received?

SW: Don’t give up. Face your fears.

k“Illusions of Control”

What are you working on now/next?

SW: I’m working on a new feature doc with Intuitive Pictures, and I have a fiction feature in development called Unidentified Minor. I’ve also got a short interactive VR in the works.

If you could hold any Guinness World Record, what would it be?

SW: I’m not very interested in world records. I think we all have unique contributions to make.

And it’s not a competition.

If you had one extra hour of free time a day, how would you use it?

SW: I’d write a novel.

Finally, recommend one #MUFFApproved** film for our blog readers!

SW: I absolutely love the film Girlhood. I’m really interested in the depth of friendship, specifically female friendship, in our society and I think it doesn’t get enough space beyond the cheesy bridesmaids’ tropes. I also really enjoy films about young women’s struggles that are portrayed in realistic ways, as you can tell probably by my list of favourite directors!

See Illusions of Control at the 2019 Hot Docs Film Festival Sunday, Apr 28 at 9:15 PM , Tuesday, Apr 30 at 2:30 PM, and Thursday, May 2 at 10:00 AM.

Follow Illusions of Control: Website | Twitter | Instagram | Facebook

Follow Shannon Walsh: Twitter



Siân Melton

extremely on the line (she/her) | community, content, cat herding |