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Local filmmaker, Jesse McCracken, documents Markdale's demise in his latest HotDocs film, Grey Roads

Grey Roads documentary

BY SOUTHGREY.CA STAFF — Jesse McCracken grew up in Markdale, and like many of his generation, left small town life behind for bigger career opportunities in Toronto. Out in the world, Jesse applied his talents to cinematography and documentary filmmaking and set about telling stories that he felt compelled to share.

Together with Sam Larson, he created a 14-episode web series for CBC Life entitled Forage. In each episode they followed Chef Shawn Adler (The Flying Chestnut Kitchen, Pow Wow Café) as he foraged for wild ingredients to make simple dishes from whatever he found. McCracken is also the cinematographer behind several Hollerado music videos that he collaborated on for the Juno-Award-nominated Canadian indie rock band. His films have also been featured at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival.

Jesse’s Dad rides on his motorcycle with the Redneck Riders.

But like many others who have left to find fortune and fame in the city’s bigger fish pond, Jesse returned periodically and couldn't help but witness his home town changing a little, each time he came back — and not in a good way.

“I had just been coming back to Markdale over the years since going off to Toronto and seeing it slowly dissolve and hearing it from town members, you know, when you would catch up with people in town and then hearing their sort of melancholy or sadness at what Markdale was turning into,” said McCracken, harkening back to the years before he decided to document the town’s apparent demise. “Every time you come back, you hear about another business closing and then it's like, oh well, now they want to shut the school down,” he added.

Upon observing this disturbing reality, the sensitive young filmmaker embarked on his latest project, Grey Roads — a deeper look at Markdale’s descent and the people who try to keep its light alive. Shot entirely in black and white, the film strikes a nostalgic chord for the audience. “I think the black and white definitely lends to some sort of melancholic tone and as well, like timelessness,” said McCracken. “It just felt right for the movie.”

Jesse’s Grandpa, Jerry Bartley, in the corn field at the house in which he grew up.

In the documentary, many recognizable residents are depicted and they provide the narrative and sense of community that Jesse was so compelled to capture. As filming continued, McCracken developed a growing curiosity about his own father and his father’s father, diving deeper into his relationship with both of them. “I wanted to understand three generations of men growing up in a small town and how certain things are passed on and certain things are questioned.” With every interview or additional scene, they became the central characters in the movie.

“I'm so proud of them and their willingness to make this crazy movie with me over years,” said Jesse. “It was a long time and (I appreciated) their openness to try and work with me and tell their story and hopefully, tell it for other men and other women and other communities, both rural and in the city.” He hopes people from everywhere can relate to his film in this way.

Quiet Main Street of Markdale at night.

The town of Markdale is also on full display as are all of the people in it. McCracken waxed about “the sense of the community that was around and knowing every person who worked in every store by name and they knowing you,” he cheerfully recalled.

Now, Grey Roads has been entered into the 2021 Hot Docs Film Festival which runs from April 29 to May 9. Unlike previous years, due to restrictions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, movies will be streamed so that people can watch them from the comfort of their own homes. Although Jesse was really hoping to premiere this documentary in a theatre, he’s optimistic that enough people in the area will have high-speed internet access to stream it on their home devices. “Hopefully we'll do some community screenings in the summer — maybe outdoors around Grey Highlands or something. I hope to get that going,” he mused.

Weekly Markdale Rotary Club meeting

Jesse’s Grandpa at a weekly Rotary Club Meeting at Steven’s Restaurant.

Following its showing in the HotDocs Festival, it’s a lengthy schedule of showings at many different festivals. If audiences and critics like it, a movie distributor could champion it or an on-demand service might bring it to air. “It could end up being somewhere in the fall or maybe next year that it'll be publicly available, but I hope sooner than later for sure. But at the very least it will eventually be available for rental on iTunes,” said McCracken.

Hot Docs is arguably, the biggest documentary festival in Canada and well known around the world. Funded by the Canada Arts Council, McCrackin’s films have made their mark at this festival in the past. Tickets to watch Grey Roads during this year’s festival are available on the HotDocs website.


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