Barry Lazar loves telling a good story.
There’s the one about the panhandlers who patrol the sidewalk outside Schwartz’s Deli in Montreal, working the door in scheduled shifts and making good money off the satisfied customers with bellies full of smoked meat and pockets jingling with change.
And the one about the dying New Hampshire man whose illness inspired him to seize life in his dwindling days even as his body betrayed him.
And then there is the tale of the Reford Gardens, the botanical wonder on the banks of the St. Lawrence River that was planned, planted and cultivated under the watchful eye of Elsie Reford, a product of one of Canada’s elite families, beginning in the 1920s. Elsie nurtured the gardens’ whose rare floral species and intricate designs were daring for the time’ well into her 80s. After she died, the Quebec government took control of them, but they were later brought back into family ownership by her great-grandson Alexander Reford. Today, the Reford Gardens strikes a balance between the traditional English garden envisioned by Elsie and a contemporary showpiece where man-made art is blended with nature to create a sort of avant-garde museum/playground in the woods.
Lazar’71, a Montreal-based filmmaker, and his producing partner, Garry Beitel, were so taken by the story of the gardens that they dispatched director Philippe Baylaucq to spend a year chronicling the landscape through the changing seasons. Lazar and company came away from the experience with the film “Twice Upon a Garden,” a 52-minute documentary that employs high-definition images interspersed with historic photos and interviews to capture both the entrancing beauty of the place and the behind-the-scenes toil required to shape and maintain it.
Lazar recently received good news. “Twice Upon a Garden” won the Audience Choice Award at the Festival International of Films on Art, beating out more than 200 films from 23 countries for the honor.
The film is being shown throughout North America and Europe as part of a tour showcasing FIFA winners, and will then be exhibited in other parts of the world.
Despite being raised in Quebec, Lazar always had a strong affinity for New England. His mother was a Connecticut native and his uncle was the state’s Secretary of Education. When it was time to choose a college, he informed his parents that Quebec was out of the question. Instead he took out a map and drew a circle around New England and the Maritimes, focusing his search there.
After rejecting UMass-Amherst (“Too big”) he found what he was looking for in Clark: a small, intimate setting with a strong program in his area of interest, psychology.
Lazar initially thought he would pursue a career in child psychology, but he found more joy in other distractions. He loved working on The Scarlet, where he penned a food column. He also worked at a Worcester radio station, eventually creating and airing his own public affairs program.
“Clark taught me you can follow your own vision of what you want to be,” he says.
Post-graduation, Lazar worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in both radio and television and staked out a reputation as a food columnist, specializing in Montreal’s ethnic offerings.
He’s written several books, including “Barry Lazar’s Taste of Montreal,” “Tea with Mr. George and other Adventures in Montreal” and “The Guide to Ethnic Montreal.” For the past 10 years Lazar has taught in the Journalism Department at Concordia University.
He eventually gravitated toward documentary filmmaking, launching the company reFrame Films with Beitel as a way to tell the stories that most intrigued him. The pair has produced two dozen documentaries, often creating poignant, probing studies of people and places that have been hidden away from public view. Among their proudest achievements, Lazar says, are two films they made about hospice care “On Wings of Song: Music Therapy at the End of Life,” and “Endnotes” which are clear-eyed looks at the last days of terminally ill patients, and the health care workers who give them emotional and spiritual nourishment.
“Endnotes” is required viewing for new doctors at a Montreal Hospital.
“Endnotes” takes you into the lives of several people who are dying. “It’s a tough movie to watch,” Lazar says. “A good death is one of the hardest jobs in the world. If you weren’t a nice person in life as you’re developing your own personal karma, then it’s not going to happen in the last 24 hours.”
Another like-minded project, “The Man Who Learned to Fall,” tracked a year in the life of New Hampshire teacher and writer slowly dying of ALS.
Lighter films have included “Chez Schwartz,” a loving look at one of Canada’s landmark delis, and “The Socalled Movie,” which shines the spotlight on eccentric musician Josh Dolgin, whose mash-up of hip-hop, funk, salsa and klezmer rhythms has made him a YouTube sensation. (“The Socalled Movie” has been available for rent on YouTube and will make its U.S. theatrical debut at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival in July.)
You won’t find Lazar’s films at the local multiplex. Unlike in the U.S., where documentaries are often funded through private foundations, in Canada the nation’s broadcasters typically back a film and later air it on Canadian television.
“Except for one film, every single film we’ve done we’ve had a broadcaster,” Lazar says. “It’s just the nature of the game.”
Asked if the system is profitable for the filmmaker, he laughs.
“My standard response is: Can you make a living? Yes. But not the way I do it.”
Lazar hasn’t forgotten his Clark connections. In fact, each year on the weekend before Thanksgiving, he and a group of alums gather at a classmate’s Framingham, Mass. home for what they call “The November Party.”
He even returned to the area last Memorial Day to walk the Clark campus. The place was as he remembered it, with one notable exception: “There are lots of buildings now.”
For more information on Barry Lazar and his work, visit reframe-films.com.