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Ottawa filmmaker Penny McCann takes part in this year’s Halifax International Film Festival.

Somewhere amid the impressive body of Nova Scotia folklore collected by determined archivist Helen Creighton, there’s a three-line mention of a boy being made helpless by a witch.

“I think that the key to the story is the witch. Why did she do it? Because the story just says, ‘Oh, some witch made the boy helpless,’” says Ottawa filmmaker Penny McCann. “Well, why? Did she not like him? What were her intentions?”

Intrigued by Creighton’s tale, McCann and her husband, former Haligonian Eric Walker, gave the boy a worried family, gave the witch a motive and crafted the script for Helpless, a 22-minute short film about thwarted desires, family and fog. McCann, who’s been making films and videos since 1990, also directed the 2001 film.

Helpless is one of six works by McCann that will screen Wednesday at a survey of her art, entitled “In Her Head---The Films and Videos of Penny McCann.” The screening will also feature The Sisters, McCann’s first dramatic piece (a semi-autobiographical work inspired by a fascinating gravestone), and four of the filmmaker’s experimental pieces, Marshlands, 02.02.02, Away for Christmas and Lake Ontario (in my head).

The screening is part of the Atlantic Filmmakers’ Cooperative’s second Halifax Independent Filmmakers’ Festival, running from April 1 to 4 at various venues around the city. The first HIFF was last year and brought together several of AFCOOP’s annual member screenings, augmenting them with a few special-event screenings, some swanky parties and a symposium about the future of celluloid as a means of film production (entitled “Is Film Dead?”).

This year, the cooperative “wanted to do some programming that Nova Scotia wouldn’t get to see normally,” says AFCOOP executive director Walter Forsyth. Examples include the McCann showcase, a screening and talk with R. Bruce Elder (a Governor General Award-winner for his work in media arts) and an exposition by Vancouver filmmaker Alex MacKenzie, who uses a hand-cranked projector to display his films (making the projection process part of his art).

The breadth of the McCann screening is pretty unique, Forsyth points out. “Maybe a festival would screen one of her films or...she might be in a program some time,” he says. “But to see all her work together...that will be something that you wouldn’t normally get a chance to do.”

It’s a neat way for viewers to see what makes McCann tick as an artist. “Most artists, no matter what medium they work in, they tend to tell the same story over and over, just in different ways,” says Forsyth.

“The really good artists, they have their stamp on something,” he adds. “It helps you understand how the artists understand artists...and maybe even understand how you think yourself and how you work.”

McCann says recurring themes do pop up in her work. But, unlike many filmmakers, she continues to produce both dramatic and experimental films. “My dramatic work tends to follow certain similar themes and my experimental work follows certain similar, different themes.” Her dramas are “dark” and “atmospheric,” while her experimental projects are generally “very much about psychological space”---posing compelling questions about how memory and family history are constructed, about destiny and time’s passage.

Away for Christmas and Lake Ontario (in my head) are actually part of a long-form film that McCann’s currently working on, In Between (Remembering and Forgetting). She will be in town before the HIFF starts and, as a visiting artist at the Centre for Art Tapes, is giving an artist’s talk sponsored by CFAT on March 31. She also hopes to do more taping for In Between while here.

The compatibility between experimental work and this “tape when you can” approach is partly why McCann, also employed full-time as the director of SAW Video (an Ottawa artist-run media-arts centre), continues to produce her experimental shorts. They’re easier to mount, she says. “You can make short works; you can keep moving.”

She does it for a less practical reason, too. “It’s much more personal. The dramatic work is still about my voice, but in a different way---a different manifestation of it.”

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