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Produced by Richard Elson; written, directed and animated by Joyce Borenstein
National Film Board of Canada, 1991. VHS cassette, 29:03 min., $34.95
Distributed by the National Film Board of Canada.

Grades 5 and up/Ages 10 and up

Reviewed by Frances Daw Bergles.

Volume 21 Number 3
1993 May

This video, which was nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Short Documen­tary category is, larger than life. It is the heroic story of Sam Borenstein, a Canadian painter of huge talent who only received recognition toward the end of his life.

Evocative animation and enchanting music introduce us to Borenstein's childhood in Lithuania, where he was born in 1908. At the age of ten he suffered the irreparable loss of his wonderful mother and three years later immigrated to Canada with his sister and remote father. Young Sam faced many hardships in Canada, not the least of which was the harshness of his own family. His story is that of heroic immigrants who have contributed so much that is strong and vital to this country. Forced to work long hours in fur and garment factories, Sam used his leisure hours to teach himself to read - which he did voraciously, consuming Tolstoy, Gorky, Dostoyevsky, Turgenev and Baudelaire. His inspiration to paint came from European artists he met at the Cantor's Cafe, particularly Alexander Bercovitch.

Largely unschooled, Borenstein was a painter of incredible energy and vigour. His canvasses are explosive, chaotic, bursting with movement and startling in colour, icons of his own unconventional and uncompro­mising personality. His credo "was that first of all a painting should show enthusiasm; then mood; then composition, form." So different in temperament from the more conceptual, restrained Canadian art of that time was his art that critics accused him of lacking control. This, however, was the effect he sought, a style reminiscent of the Euro­pean Expressionists, Soutine, Kokoschka, Vlaminck and Utrillo.

The film is also the story of Judith Borenstein, Sam's devoted wife who believed in him so completely that she became the family breadwinner in order that her husband could paint. With the arrival of children, Sam began working at various jobs, ultimately making his living selling the works of artist friends such as A.Y. Jackson and Varley.

The film is elegant, charming and whim­sical. As the father's paintings are painterly, so the daughter's film is "filmic." The device of transforming paintings and photographs into animated sequences brings a unique and delightful sense of movement to a medium that would otherwise have been static.

The film is an inspired tribute to a father's genius and determination. It leaves one wishing one could have known this man.

William Kuhns' and Leo Rosshandler's Sam Borenstein (McClelland and Stewart, 1978) is a book with fine reproductions that would make a good companion to the video.

Frances Daw Bergles is an instructor with the Saskatchewan Institute of Applied Science and Technology in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.
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