Deco Dawson repeats as TIFF best short film prize winner

"I'm kind of glad it was 11 years later. I would have been a complete wreck," Dawson told Playback after the trophy-giving.
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Deco Dawson stepping forward Sunday to accept the award at the Toronto International Film Festival for best short film for Keep a Modest Head was, ironically, a repeat performance.

The veteran short filmmaker from Winnipeg in 2001 earned the same prize for an earlier work, Film(dzama).

The difference was TIFF that year was disrupted by the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., leaving the final prize-giving that year a somber affair without speeches by winners.

Which is just as well, Dawson recalled Sunday after giving a fulsome acceptance speech at the Hotel Intercontinental in Toronto.

“I’m kind of glad it was 11 years later. I would have been a complete wreck,” Dawson told Playback after the prize-giving, recalling 2001.

To be certain, Film(dzama), about the visual artist Marcel Dzama, and Keep a Modest Head, about the surrealist artist Jean Benoit, are both biographies of celebrated artists.

But in their film techniques, they represent different awards for different films and experiences.

If anything, Keep a Modest Head is the hardest of the 15 shorts that Dawson has made, the filmmaker said Sunday.

For starters, it took eight years to make the prize-winning film that’s 19 minutes in length and combines fact and fiction.

That’s because Dawson used blue screen and miniatures to create an imaginary world, combine that with archival footage of Benoit, and a then overlay visual effects that he had to do on his own due to the limited post production budget for Keep a Modest Head.

“I didn’t have $200,000 to hire a visual effects supervisor,” Dawson said of lending a whimsical feel to the short about Benoit, the last official member of the French Surrealist group.

So three years ago, he acquired the visual effects technology and learnt the software from beginning to end.

Only in that way could he make the film he intended from the start.

What that entailed was, over a 22-month period for the post production, every shot having seven layers of images on top itself.

And every image needed to be shot separately, with Dawson knowing how it would all need to be put together.

“I just put the blood, sweat and tears and 18 hours a day to get the film done,” he remembered.