Markdale native Jesse McCracken says his documentary Grey Roads is, at its core, a film about dealing with change.
The 74-minute feature-length movie, which will make its world premiere at this year’s virtual Hot Docs festival, examines changes in McCracken’s hometown, within his own family and himself and how to navigate those transitions.
“I’m hoping that people will be inspired to find ways within these changes that they can find the positive and the importance of working together as a community and the importance of community and rolling with the changes,” the 32-year-old Toronto-based filmmaker said Wednesday.
But Grey Roads is also a film about family and reconnecting.
And McCracken said he hopes it will encourage others to reunite with their hometowns and families as well – perhaps on a deeper level, as he did with both his father and grandfather in the film.
“I made this film with two men from small towns and I want to encourage especially men growing up in rural communities that it’s OK to talk to each other and be deeper with each other. And if you’re going through problems or mental health problems specifically or struggling with something, it’s OK to talk about that and be open about that and be willing to find help,” he said.
“I think it has a lot to do with mental health – sort of this stigma of men in general, but I think especially in rural areas, being very stoic and quiet and keeping things to small talk and not really opening up. So it’s encouraging more of that conversation regarding mental health and being more open to each other when we’re struggling and going through changes.”
Grey Roads, which can be streamed online starting Thursday when this year’s 10-day Hot Docs festival kicks off, documents McCracken’s return to Markdale, where he was born and raised, but left more than a decade ago for college in Toronto.
Shot in black-and-white from 2017 to the summer of 2020, the film takes place after his parents divorce and McCracken’s mother moves out of Markdale.
It captures McCracken reconnecting with the only family he still has left in the town – his father, a member of the motorcycle club Redneck Riders, and soft-spoken, community-oriented maternal grandfather.
McCracken, who serves as the film’s director, producer, editor and cinematographer, also looks into how and why Markdale has changed from the thriving town he remembers in his youth to a “sleepy bedroom community for Toronto commuters.” He also examines what it means to grow up in a rural community and the kind of inter-generational effects it can have.
Aisha Jamal, the Canadian programmer for Hot Docs, said Grey Roads is a “sensitive film” that debates “what’s lost and gained in this dual portrait of a changing family and town.”
McCracken said he began filming when Markdale was “really struggling.” At the time, both its only elementary school, Beavercrest, and county-run long-term care facility, Grey Gables, were at risk of being closed.
The film follows Markdale’s journey from that difficult period to what it is today.
“I definitely felt positive about it (the future of Markdale) overall and things are looking up,” he said.
Grey Roads is one of 219 films that have been selected from among 2,300 submissions to be part of Hot Docs.
The 28th edition of the event – North America’s largest documentary film festival – will take place online due to the COVID-19 pandemic until May 9.
Films from 66 countries will be streamed, including 58 Canadian productions or co-productions.
Grey Roads is one of 11 feature films included in the Canadian Spectrum, a competitive program within the festival that features the work of Canadian directors. Each of those films is eligible for the Best Canadian Feature Documentary Award and the DGC Special Jury Prize – Canadian Feature Documentary Award.
Grey Roads is the third film directed by McCracken to be included at Hot Docs.
His documentary short Steve screened at the 2014 festival, while his feature-length film Motel earned a spot at the 2017 event.
McCracken said Grey Roads is by far his most personal film to screen at Hot Docs, something he described as both exciting and scary.
“I’m telling a very personal story that has a lot of personal voiceover from myself as well as my family members,” he said.
“It’s a whole new undertaking to put yourself and your family out into the world like this in the hope that other people can relate to it and that it’s a story people will also learn from and maybe feel inspired by.”
Single tickets for Hot Docs films are $13. They can be purchased at hotdocs.ca.