Thank you Atom Egoyan

It started with an email from Tom Charity, Film Centre Programmer & Rentals Manager Vancity Theatre


 “Hi Zale, meet Sue Biely, who is coordinating National Canadian Film Day for Reel Canada in BC. The Directors Guild is one of our sponsors, and they have agreed a budget to bring you over for our show on the 19th.  I’m going to leave you and Sue to work out the details, but please keep me looped in and I’ll facilitate in any way I can.”

What?  Why? How could this happen?  Here I am, living in obscurity and thinking myself forgotten, yet somebody wants to fly me to Big Smoke for some reason.  Well, that certainly breaks up the tedium of my not at all tedious life.

And the reason, as it unfolded, was beyond flattering.  The focus of the evening was to be a retrospective of the films of Atom Egoyan, one of Canada’s best known and successful “not populist” film makers.  Two of his films were to be shown, The Sweet Hereafter and Exotica, as part of the Vancouver International Film Festival.

The organizers had decided they wanted to show another Canadian film before the main features, and asked Atom to name his favourite Canadian movie.  And he named “Skip Tracer”, my first feature, shot in Vancouver in 1976.  I was gob smacked, as the British would say.  Blown away.

A flurry of emails and arrangements followed and on April 20 I found myself boarding a Harbour Air seaplane in Nanaimo Harbour for the beautiful twenty minute flight to Vancouver. Before leaving I went through the stack of boxes and junk in our basement and found what I believe to be the last two remaining original silk screened posters for Skip Tracer – one for Atom as a thank you for remembering my movie, and the other for Sue Biely, the organizer of the event as a thank you for being so…uh…organized. I also packed a framed ‘certificate of appreciation as a patron of the arts’, something I owed to my old friend Brian James Clayden for his support of my GoFundMe campaign to get back my violin.

Aside from these two items, I was traveling light.  I didn’t even take a razor with me, since I’d be returning the following day.

The screening of Skip Tracer was another surprise.  It was well attended.  More than that, Skip Tracer was treated as an important film, a film of historical significance, a relic of a lost era in Canadian film making.  I sat in front of the screen after the credits and did a question and answer session with the audience, slipping back into my old role as self important enfant terrible and promoter with nary a stumble, as if forty years hadn’t passed since the New York Film Festival of 1978. It was like visiting a past life. My only regret was that my first wife, Laara Dalen, who produced Skip Tracer, couldn’t be there with me to share the spotlight.  She was every bit as much responsible for the birth of the movie as I was.  It wouldn’t have happened without her.

After the Q and A session, I was approached by a man who looked very familiar.  It took me a minute to recognize Roger Huyghe, the grip on the Skip Tracer production team.  Death by nostalgia.

I found Atom Egoyan and the actor, Bruce Greenwood (from both The Sweet Hereafter and Exotica) in the bar of the Sutton Place. Bruce excused himself soon after I arrived, and I had the pleasure of chatting with Atom about China and his new film project, another difficult movie about the exploitation of Chinese sex workers during the San Francisco gold rush.

That, for me, was the high point of the whole adventure.  I admire Atom immensely, and not just because he is so kind to me and my movie.  He’s a survivor.  He makes difficult films that are not populist movies.  Films with integrity.  I frankly don’t know how he has managed to do it, since I couldn’t.  But I think the answer is that he has a single-minded passion for his art that I lacked, being too interested in sailboats and other life adventures.

The next morning, BJ joined me for breakfast, as did Roger Huyghe. We enjoyed catching up on each other’s lives.  All three of us have ridden the dragon of boom and bust housing prices, separations and divorces, wealth and poverty, good times and bad.  We endure. I felt loved.

Then I was off to catch the seaplane home.

I got back on Thursday afternoon, in time to make it to my regular fiddle session with the Oceanside Jammers in Qualicum Beach.  Another reality.  Already my day of fame and celebrity seemed like another world, another life.

Wellington Hall Open Mic Night

Here’s my latest attempt to bloom where I’m planted.  I’ve been organizing an open mic night at Wellington Hall in Nanaimo.And wonder of wonders, this wordpress is finally starting to add pictures again, after refusing to for months.  That’s great.

Hey, the open mic night is going to be great fun.  Come and perform.  Come and be an audience.  Come and eat grilled cheese sandwiches and homemade banana bread with ice cream.  We’ll have a good time and if this seems to be appreciated, maybe we can make it a regular event.

We would start it a bit earlier, but that hall is infested with Brownies until 7:30.

And the winter drags on…

I spent new years day cleaning and organizing my workshop. My tiny workshop. When I started, I couldn’t walk to the work bench and if I got there the surface was so cluttered that doing anything was difficult. Now it is clear and tidy, with all tools available.

The second day of the new year I started on the new basement, moving everything that’s in storage from the end with the windows and sliding door to the very back, then setting up my tools on magnetic strips on the wall and again clearing the work bench space. What a sense of satisfaction I get from having a tidy and organized work space.

I would dearly love to show you pictures, but apparently my WordPress is still refusing to upload them.

I had the brachytherapy on schedule on January 24. That’s the operation where they implant radioactive iodine seeds in the prostate and allow them to eat your lower end innards, which apparently they have been doing. Side effects were supposed to peak in week three and four post op, then gradually get better. So now it seems I’m through the worst of it and starting to heal. If this is as bad as it gets, I sailed through all the treatment with only minor discomfort. On the 27th of this month I find out how successful the treatment has been. I’m feeling quite optimistic. Statistics say that 95% of men diagnosed with prostate cancer are alive fifteen years later, provided it was caught before it left the prostate. Not bad odds. That would get me to 84, which isn’t a bad run.

No news on the Mary Bane documentary.  It’s in the hands of the producer, and until she finds some money it isn’t happening.  So I’m trying to keep active and live through the winter months.

Taking Another Run at “Getting Screefed”

First let me give you the back story:

Around the turn of the century, I received a rather large royalty payment for my work on “Kung Fu the Legend Continues” in exchange for giving up world rights forever. It was enough to pay off my debts and leave me slightly solvent, but not enough to set me up for retirement. I could see that film was on it’s way out, so I decided to investigate digital production.

At the time, digital movies all seemed to be making excuses for the visual quality. They would pretend to be documentary footage left by college students in the woods (Remember “The Blaire Witch Project”?), or interviews by a psychiatrist. They generally were shot by amateurs with the camera on the head of a trained seal, and their sound quality was horrible. I looked at the technology and was amazed. If this were handled in a proper, professional style, it could actually look like a movie, I thought.

Also, I have never been happy working as an artist in the industrial management style used in television and low budget movies. The focus on schedules and efficiency is anti-art, and there’s never enough money to allow mistakes or experimentation. So I approached a casting director here and suggested we make a cooperative movie, with everybody involved doing whatever was required. We would start with an idea, a theme to explore, shoot a scene, edit that scene, then gather to discuss the scene and decide where to go next. I bought three Canon prosumer cameras and two Mac computers, a Cobra crane, some basic microphones and a carbon fiber boom pole. I absorbed the hard costs, and everybody contributed time.

That turned into one of the best artistic adventures of my life. We had a ball, and the result really does look like a movie. It looks great. Actors who otherwise couldn’t get their faces on the screen had many minutes of screen time. We fitted barn doors on work lights from Home Depot, and used furnace filters for diffusion. One of our cast, with welding skills, converted a fridge dolly into a very versatile camera dolly. We all had fun and I’m very proud of the finished picture, which we put out under the banner of the Volksmovie Group and called “Passion”.

Passion posterThe only problem was my business plan. I had attended every Toronto Film Festival for the past twenty years or so, and I was sure we would blow them away, find a distributor or get some television sales at least. But I hadn’t counted on the glut of digital films being submitted. A producer friend of mine lent his son a camera to make a five minute short of himself French kissing the family dog. He got invitations to three film festivals. The organizers could afford to give him the screen time, because they knew they would have a rowdy teenage audience and it was only for a few minutes. But a full length feature like ours was competing with the latest from Hollywood, with visiting stars to attract press coverage. We had none of that support. We didn’t get a single festival invitation.

In desperation, I set up a private screening at the Pacific Cinemateque in Vancouver. I hired a publicist. We had a great screening with a full audience. Laughs all the way through the picture. But not one opinion maker showed up, and we didn’t get one column inch of copy in the papers. I realized that I could have torn up a thousand dollar bill outside the theater for all the good I’d done my movie.

And then I went really crazy. Our ambition had been to get enough money back from making “Passion” to give everybody something for their time and have enough to do it again. I decided to do it again anyway, with even less money. I had a script that I loved, about tree planters, called “Getting Screefed”. I bought a school bus and a Volkswagen van, water hoses for making rain, a child’s swimming pool for a water reservoir, a generator, lots of tarps, and we assembled a great cast. We set up a tree planter camp in the bush and spent a glorious summer shooting scenes and cutting them together.

I quickly realized that trying to make this movie on miniDV was a mistake. It really needed spectacular images and great lighting. It had many rain scenes, and storm scenes at night, and it needed a dedicated special effects team. It really couldn’t be done on zero budget. The actors, who weren’t being paid even expenses, were hard to assemble and keep in the camp while we shot. We got maybe half the movie shot during that summer. What we shot looks great for performance, but there’s something not quite good enough about just about every scene. Either our special effects don’t cut it, or there’s some other problem.

We intended to edit during the winter of 2001/2002, and return to finish the movie in the Spring of 2002. But as I worked on the editing, the deficiencies of what we shot became more and more apparent. Then somebody vandalized the Volkswagen van we had left in the woods – threw a rock through the windshield and tore the wiring apart trying to hot wire it. Somebody else stole my generator from the school bus I had parked on a local farm. I realized it didn’t matter. I didn’t have money to put gas in the generator anyway.

I was living in Nanaimo, B.C., trying to be a movie maker. That’s a bit like living in the Sahara and trying to be a lumberjack. Back in the late seventies and early eighties, I was the Enfant Terrible of the Canadian film industry with two critically acclaimed feature films to my credit. But after thirty years of television work, to pay the mortgage and raise the kids, I was no longer the hot young artist. I was the old television hack. My previous clients had all aged out of the business, lost their shows, or run afoul of the IRS. I wasn’t getting any work. Nobody saw any reason to hire me.

I knew I could move to Toronto, or Los Angeles, or even Vancouver, hang out and go to industry events and parties, schmooze myself silly, and eventually, with my background and filmography, somebody would give me a job again. But I’d been there and done that. I didn’t have the heart to do it again.

My children were adults and didn’t need me any more. My first marriage was over. I declared bankruptcy and ran away to China. For nine years.

Now I’m back. Tim Johnson, one of the main characters in “Passion”, and I have been reviewing our work on “Getting Screefed”. Looking at the assembled scenes just breaks my heart. We came so close.  The performances are so good and the cast is young and beautiful, especially the women. I feel like if I had just been able to push a bit harder, go a bit close to the edge, put it all on the line, I might have been able to get the movie finished.  But I know this isn’t realistic.  I made the right decision. But now Tim wants to take another run at it, and the project deserves it. So I’m in. But not with no money this time. We are now looking at the script, which we still love, and considering crowd funding and other new methods of raising money.

I think this is something I just have to do.

Here’s the trailer for “Getting Screefed”, slightly reworked to support a crowd funding application.

Like I said, we came so close…

The LaoWise Getting More Gigs

Ruth and I perform as the LaoWise, which is a pun on the Chinese word for foreigner, “Lao Wai”.  Of course the Chinese do not add an “s” to pluralized a word,  “Lao” means old or venerable.  So we’re assuming that LaoWise means “venerable and wise”.

Anyway, to get to the point, we performed once again this year at the combination Robbie Burns Day/Chinese New Year celebration, our third such performance.  This is always great wacky fun, with haggis won tons and a lion sword dance.  We did a three Chinese song set before inviting my young friend Kipling, eight years old, on stage to play a Scots jig with me on the violin. As a finale we were joined on stage by an accordionist from China, a young pipa player, and a singer who joined Ruth in singing Auld Lange Syne in Chinese and English while I played the erhu.

A couple of weeks later we did a performance at Aspen Grove school, at the invitation of the music teacher who provided these photographs and testimonial.

027 LaoWise scaled LaoWise scaled2Testimonial:
Laowise is a performance/education experience I would recommend to anybody. Ruth and Zale really know how to put on an entertaining show for kids while also giving a real sense of what life is like for children in China. Their many years of experience living there learning the language from scratch, like children, makes them a valuable resource. Their upbeat songs and audience participation style keep kids engaged. I especially liked their use of traditional Chinese instruments to accompany themselves and provide atmosphere. If you engage them for your next cultural event at school or even a birthday party, you won’t be sorry!
– Cathryn Gunn, Music Teacher, Aspen Grove School, Nanaimo

More recently we did a forty minute set for the Retired Provincial Employees Association.  We talked about our experiences in China, reading Chinese characters, how Chinese children learn language, all with Chinese songs and stories.

I don’t think we’ll ever hit prime time as performers, but we do get a great reaction to the shows we put on, and are often invited back.  This was our second time for the Retired Provincial Employees Association.

Ear Worms, Nostalgia and Nonsense or Why I Love the Internet

Ruth and I are digging out the basement under our home.  Every morning, as I work, I seem to be afflicted with a new and unpredictable ear worm, a melody from my past that plays over and over until I consciously choose another tune to drown it out.

As I said, these are unpredictable.  Most are stupid. Snatches of songs I should have forgotten.  The other morning it was a couple of lines my father used to sing as we rode in his car to church. “While the organ peeled potatoes and the choir rendered lard, someone lit the church on fire.  Holy smoke the preacher shouted as his wig flew in the air.  And his head resembled heaven for there was no parting there.”  This got me curious enough to Google the lines and come up with this:

Turns out dad had both the words and melody wrong, which isn’t surprising.  What impresses me about this song, recorded in 1928, is how many of the jokes are probably inaccessible to the youth of today.  Do millennials know what it means to render lard, or that songs also used to be rendered? I suddenly feel old.

But how wonderful that the Internet can give me this music and these words, which my long departed father would have been at a total loss to supply.  Just one more reason why I love the Internet.

The other day we were in a grocery store and I happened to see cream of tartar on a shelf.  What the heck is “cream of tartar”.  I knew it was a thing, and had something to do with cooking.  But beyond that, not a clue.  So out came the smart phone, up with Google again, and there it is. Tartaric acid, a by product of wine making, used to stabilize eggs when whipping them. I’m so happy to have lived long enough to have answers to every question in my pocket.

The Little Red Hen Wants a Rooster, Plus the Fiddle Workshop with Rodney Miller

I’m not sure why I find this so amusing.  Maybe because, at my age, anything requesting that I become intimate with it is kind of… sweet.

Okay, perhaps that’s a bit kinky.  Here’s a couple of videos of Rodney Miller demonstrating the two fiddle tunes he taught us at last week’s workshop, hosted by Joyce and John Beaton in Qualicum Beach.
First up is the Blue Jig.

Followed by Trip to Dingle.  I’m very fond of this simple tune.



Oceanside Jammers in Rehearsal

I play with the Oceanside Jammers every Thursday, and whenever they have a performance, which will happen this evening.

Here are three clips of the Jammers in rehearsal.  I’d be playing with them, but I’m behind the camera.  This first one is called “Saltspring”, named after the island where my son and his kids live.  I’m not fond of the melody, but I have to admit that the Jammers give it a lot of life.

This next one is just the tail and of “One Hundred Pipers”.  I like this choon, but I wasn’t fast enough to get the tune that leads into it, “Cock of the North”, and could only catch the tail end of this one.

And here are two of my favourites.  “Senneca Square Dance” followed by “Chattanooga”.

The little girl in the center of the group is named Kipling.  She’s the daughter of friends and I take her to our fiddle sessions now, since she plays as well or better than most of the adults.


It’s About Time I Updated

This is embarrassing.  My last past was December 26 of 2013.  My how time flies when you are having fun, and ignoring your blog.  I hereby resolve to do better.

So much to report.   First of all, here’s a little video that I’m very proud of making.  It’s charming, heart warming, surprising, and is being very well received.  If you love animals and people who treat them well, this is something you’ll enjoy:

My attempt to find an Internet distribution outlet for “Passion”, the Volksmovie we made before I went to China, has been disappointing.  I bought a subscription to Vimeo and the film is currently on line, but it’s only generated about thirty dollars in rentals over the course of a year, so I probably won’t pay for another year.  I’m sure another approach will be more fruitful, as soon as we find it.

I’m now also deeply involved in the creation of a web series called QUILTBAGS.  We’ve got nine episodes up now, and are putting up two every month.  The more it develops, the more interesting it gets and I highly recommend you check it out.

While on the subject of chickens, my friend Ingo gave me a pile of plywood trims from his renovation project.  They turned into two new chicken coops, some assembly required.

I didn't like the new coops until I added the brass.


The brass trim pieces came from the local Habitat for Humanity Restore, on sale for twenty five cents each.  I didn’t much like the looks of the new coops until the trim was added.  Now I’m proud of them.

It’s been a couple of creative years since my last post.  Much of that creativity has centred around the house and landscaping the yard.  The pond is now a fixture, with it’s magical electric river, foot bridge and tiny waterfall.

GouGou's favourite spot for watching the pedestrian overpass where a dog might think it could come into our yard.


This is what the back of the house looked like in 2013.

It's hard to remember how bad this all looked.


And this is what it looks like now.

Even this is not quite up to date. More facing has been added on the corner.

You can see the workshop, stage, and garden shed, all additions to the yard buildings once we got the ground raised a bit.


We tore down the old chimney, and Ruth used the bricks to make a nice little nook for the relocated small pond which sat beside the house.

This pool was beside the house, but it had to be moved.


But the big news is that we have just about completed the excavation of our full basement.  We have two of the four walls in place.

There's still more dirt to be removed, but we can walk to all four corners now.


Because we had to have someplace to put the dirt, we built a retaining wall and a driveway.


Eventually this will be where the motorhome lives.

This is all just a tiny sample of the activity around what I am now calling Frog Manor.  The koi which were only a three inches long when I bought them are now at least a foot long.  Grass has come back to our yard.

A more complete pictorial history of our renovation work and activities can be found on Ruth’s Flickr site.

That’s all I’ve got time for right now.  And there’s so much I’ve left out.  Like my piano.  I got one, and I’m slowly getting my Scott Joplin pieces back.  And the Oceanside Jammers fiddle group has become a big part of my week.

I’m going to try to post more regularly from now on.

I Get Mail

Here’s a letter from a former student at Jiangnan University:

Hello David, feel happy for you knowing you have flied back to Canada with Ruth and Gougou. I just read your blogs (both and and thought about writing this email to you. You may not remember me. I commented about your posts twice and only emailed you once when I was taking your oral English lesson in Jiangnan University four or five years ago. I named myself Jerry at that time.

 This afternoon I was talking to my colleague about web control in Chinese web environment, and I remembered writing you an email about “五毛党” long ago. So I checked your blog. is an easy-remember site name and it’s still running! That surprises me. 🙂
I didn’t know you taught grammar! I thought you only taught oral English when I was at university. You posted two blackboard shots in your post Time for a Rant… so that was true… but why? You seemed to enjoy sharing interesting experience and topics with students more than reading and explaining something “dead” written on books. So I think teaching grammar may be a little tough…for you…? I only thought about passing the test of grammar and getting my grade at that time. 新华字典 is renewed every 2 years, but our grammar textbook takes more time. I think the author intends to fill the book with everything that he thinks “may be useful for students sometime”. So you needn’t care so much about the content of the textbook you were teaching. Students who use English in their daily lives will learn what they should know. I made a lot of mistakes and I know I will make more mistakes, but what I know is enough for me to read your blog and write this email to you. I feel good with that. XD
And about the websites blocking thing, I’m glad that you are so concerned with that. I want to tell you about my thoughts. I’ve been a twitter user since 2008, that is before the website was blocked in China. Many people in China still don’t know the government is blocking some websites.
Chinese government may be afraid of the connected WWW and some easy-irritated citizens. When I searched for the Tian’anmen Event in June 4, 1989, connection to the results was still broken in China (while I was using direct connection). Google refused to block some of the results as the government demanded, and Baidu agreed to do that. That was one of the reasons why Google left China in 2010.
Three years ago I was also thinking the government is making a huge mistake, but now I think a little different. True that people have the right to know the truth about their country. And a government has its duty to protect its people from riot and war. I came to believe that the government is blocking websites because they are trying to avoid civil conflicts. They are just too sensitive and have done more than they need. I hope the government will soon recognize that and try some different and milder ways to solve their problem, and believe in her citizens more.
Thank you for reading my long email and thank you for teaching me lessons. I’ve always loved your class (especially the one you talked about going to the island of Xiaolihu(小蠡湖) in campus with Gougou). You are really an interesting person… though your films don’t seem like my favorite type:)   (I found this! Was the movie directed by you? Wow I was born in 1990…
By the way I found a mistake in your post part “A Few Thoughts on China“…Here…
“They have their own version of Youtube (YouKu) Twitter (Weixin) and Facebook (XiaoNei) and Google (Baidu), and these have more users than any of the Western versions.”
Weixin is an interact messaging mobile client, like QQ, hangouts (of google+) or kik. And Twitter is a microblog website, for short blog posts within 140 words. Chinese version of Twitter, the most influential one, is Weibo(新浪微博 Weibo is one of the Chinese native website that accept network audit. Sensitive posts will always be deleted.
And of course I had to reply:
Dear 吴皓昱 Wu Haoyu Jerry:

What a great letter to receive.  You have become a very good writer in English.  I’m impressed.

Thanks for pointing out the mistake in my website.  I’m not sure when I’ll get around to correcting it.  Life is very busy these days, and I don’t even have time for new posts to my new Canadian website.

It was very funny to follow the link you gave me to the Chinese announcement of my TV movie, “Anything to Survive”.  That’s the movie where I got to work with Matt LeBlanc, who plays Joey on “Friends”.  It was a difficult shoot, but left me with great memories.  And 1990 seems like yesterday to me.
I’m a little worried that I will lose all of the Chinese I learned over the past nine years but there are many Chinese people living in Nanaimo now.  Ruth has started doing some private tutoring, and one of her clients is a young Chinese girl.  The girl’s mother is going to have coffee with me next week and help me practice speaking Chinese.  It’s good to be home, but I do miss my Chinese friends and my life in your amazing country.
By the way, I think the situation with China blocking websites may be more complicated than you think.  It’s possible that they block Youtube and Twitter because they don’t want the Chinese Internet to be dominated by foreign companies.  They wanted to give Chinese companies a chance to get established without the competition from huge foreign companies like Google.  Also, with the Chinese companies the servers are in China, so if there is civil unrest or information getting out they don’t like, they can shut down the service provider.  With the servers outside of China they can’t do that.
I am hoping that they will soon realize that Chinese Internet companies are already established and competitive, but that they need a free flow of information from the rest of the world.  Every time China has tried to isolate itself it’s been a disaster for the country.  Hopefully they won’t make the same mistake much longer.
I am very sympathetic to the problems your government has in governing a country like China.  China is urbanizing at a tremendous rate.  The gap between the wealthy and the poor is widening very quickly.  This is a dangerous situation, because when you have so many people drinking expensive coffee at Starbucks while many more are still struggling to eat and buy clothing and shelter, you have a legitimate cause for discontentment.  It can only go so far before the people rise up.
Thanks again for reading my websites.  If you don’t mind, I think I’ll post your letter to my new site.

Please write again when you have some time, and maybe you could tell me about your life now.  You must have graduated from university.  Are you working?  Are you married?

Warmest regards


David AKA Zale in Nanaimo, B.C., Canada

P.S. I’ve decided to go back to my legal name, Zale R. Dalen, or at least to use it for everyday life.  If I Google David Scott I get thousands of hits, none of which are me.  If I Google Zale Dalen I’m at the top of the list.  That alone is a good reason to keep the name.  There are things I don’t like about being called Zale Dalen – it’s not my original name and has no heritage to it, plus it connects me to silly superstitious beliefs that I dislike – but I do like being self created.  I’ll just have to have two names, like Mark Twain (Samuel Langhorne Clemens).