Hot Docs will be presenting the world premiere of Special Ed, a new film from award-winning Director John Paskievich. Produced by Spellburg Pictures Inc. and CSA Award-winners Merit Motion Pictures, Special Ed stars Ed Ackerman, who, to some people, is a nonconformist and a dreamer, a modern-day Don Quixote, a genuine artist. Obsessed with the alphabet, his masterpiece remains perpetually beyond his reach, a rare individualist in a world where quiet desperation is the general rule of survival. To those who know him really well, Ed Ackerman is a walking catastrophe, lost to his implausible ambitions, a manipulator of the truth or maybe a misguided genius, and definitely a procrastinator. Above all, regardless of one’s viewpoint, he’s one giant irritant.
When Ed, the one-time protégé of the National Film Board’s vaunted animation studio — his award-winning collaboration with poet Colin Morton, Primiti Too Taa, was a world-wide festival and art house hit in the late 1980s — decides to leave a legacy for his three children (all virtual strangers to him now, after two failed marriages and lost custody battles), he buys three derelict houses in a rundown corridor on the bad side of Winnipeg and announces grand plans to renovate and redeem them.
Trouble is, Ed, 52, is broke, and has next to no experience in house construction, nor the faintest idea about how to begin his massive projects, let alone how to finish them. Finishing, we learn in Special Ed, multi-award-winning documentary filmmaker John Paskievich’s remarkable study of an artist in the dog days of a 20-year downward spiral, is Ed’s biggest problem.
He can’t finish anything, complains Ed’s son, Brandon, who is persuaded by his father to become his sidekick in the renovation farce. And to his credit, Brandon stays on through thick and thin, until Ed’s sideline dramas — playing fast and loose with city planning and zoning officials, running a rag-tag campaign first for Parliament, then for mayor, presenting himself as a rugged spokesman for the dispossessed, venting his dreams of creating a great animated movie about the alphabet — threaten to drag him under as well.
Paskievich says he chose the title Special Ed for three reasons. First, Ed Ackerman is truly a special personality, like no other. The title also implies some type of undiagnosed learning disability. While Ed rejects being labeled, he freely admits that his inability to spell caused him enormous anguish in school.
“And finally, Ed’s house renovation projects are partially motivated by his dream to establish a studio where he can complete an alphabet animation film that he hopes will serve as a form of special education for teachers to use with kids who have problems with spelling, reading and writing,” explains Paskievich, whose films Unspeakable and If Only I Were An Indian have also premiered at past Hot Docs festivals.
Ed’s ongoing relationships with the distinctive “personalities” of the individual letters in the alphabet are referenced in the film in clever stop-action sequences that are the core of his presentation to Winnipeg municipal authorities defending his claim to the endangered derelict houses.
Avoiding sentimentality and the kind of “nostalgia for the mud” trap that quirky character studies often fall into, Paskievich watches dispassionately, over three years, as his subject’s plans unravel and Ed’s increasingly antic behaviour alienates those who might have been willing to help his dreams come true.
In addition to Ed’s son, disaffected characters in his story include a loving girlfriend, a well-intentioned neighbour, a homeless friend in need of companionship, and the long-suffering by-law inspectors whom the film’s anti-hero so relentlessly provokes.
“Ed never lets a solution get in the way of a good problem,” says Paskievich. “Maybe I should write a self-help anger management manual for people who find themselves dealing with Ed — housing inspectors, judges, the police, film producers, neighbours friends, relatives. It would be a bestseller in Canada.”
“His story is so endlessly fascinating that when I saw John’s footage, I just had to be a part of it,” says Co-producer Merit Jensen Carr, executive producer and president of Winnipeg-based Merit Motion Pictures, who has known Ed for 30 years. “John has made a film that provokes all the important questions about how artists and eccentrics collide with society.”
Is Ed special? Paskievich’s film asks. If so, in what sense? Is he a playful illusionist whose passion and peccadilloes make him a true visionary, beyond judgment?
Is Ed a harmless huckster of pipe dreams who gets by on the kindness of strangers, on comic Chaplin-esque responses to a world too tough to navigate?
Or is there a whiff here of madness, the kind that often accompanies then corrodes genius, when fears of failure continually prevent any kind of progress, let alone success?
In the end, viewers of this compelling portrait, shot on the streets of Winnipeg, will have to find their own answers. Infuriating and perverse as Ed is, Paskievich provides a glimpse of something in his subject’s wounded soul and mind that begs our understanding, admiration and compassion. Whether we see it too says as much about our own humanity as it says about Ed Ackerman and his Sisyphean travails.
Special Ed screenings at Hot Docs:
Monday April 29, 6 p.m. – TIFF Bell Lightbox 3
Tuesday April 30, 10.30 a.m. – ROM Theatre
Saturday May 4, 9.15 p.m. – Innis Town Hall
Screening with Citizens Against Basswood