Ryerson alumnus Charlie Tyrell picked up the 2019 Canadian Screen Award for Best Short Documentary. (Photo courtesy of Charlie Tyrell)

What do you do when someone as close to you as a parent dies, and you realize you didn’t know them as well as you thought you did? How do you remember and honour them?

Ryerson alumnus Charlie Tyrell (Image Arts ‘11) offers an insightful and unique perspective on dealing with loss, uncertainty and regret in his latest short documentary My Dead Dad’s Porno Tapes.

The documentary relies heavily on the use of stop motion as Tyrell tries to form a picture of who his dad was – realizing all that was left behind was the in-person memories, some junk, and, well, these tapes.

Though it started as a personal project, its message resonated – it was picked up by the New York Times op-docs section, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and was later shortlisted for an Academy Award. Last month, the project scored another honour, with the Canadian Screen Awards handing Tyrell the prize for Best Short Documentary.

The Ryersonian caught up with Tyrell after the Canadian Screen Awards (CSAs) – a rewarding end to an extensive promo tour for the project – to chat about the project’s unplanned origins and his Rye pride.

This is more than just a simple ode to your late father, who passed away from cancer. What inspired you to honour his life in this way?

CT: It kind of just happened. I had these unresolved feelings towards him and, you know, when somebody passes away you continually think about them. Eventually that and just me working in the field I do, the combination kind of came up. It was somewhat sparked by the porno tapes because my mom found them half a decade ago and I told her to just hold on to them. After a while they just sat in the shelf and enough people kind of inquired, ‘Ooh, what are those,’ that I had to answer them all, ‘Oh, well, those are my dead dad’s porno tapes,’ and it naturally became its own starting point.

Keeping it as the tie-in for the title of the film was more so just a method to disarm the audience, make sure that this is something that could be looked at with humour and with a little bit of jest.

Did you have any previous experience with stop motion?

CT: I had done some of my own stop motion for high school projects and whatnot, and it was always something that I loved. In this case, it just made sense. We didn’t have a wealth of home movies – what’s in the film is pretty much everything that we had, and a lot of it is borrowed from video cameras that belonged to aunts and uncles and stuff. So, it really became a matter of, OK, we’re limited in how we can tell this story and we can only really tell it with the things that belonged to him.

A still from Tyrell’s short documentary, My Dead Dad’s Porno Tapes. (Courtesy of The New York Times)

You were in great company at the CSAs, winning alongside two other Ryerson alumni – Jasmin Mozaffari (IMA ‘13) for Achievement in Direction and Achievement in Editing, and Edward Burtynsky (IMA ‘89) for Best Feature Length Documentary. Does that amplify your Rye pride?

CT: It’s great! I went to film studies and we were very much our own kind of clique of students. It was a pretty small class of 60 I think. The graduation number of those 60 was something like 35. The arts are hard enough, the film industry is hard enough, so it’s nice when you hear that there are other people out there who are surviving and thriving whether they are from your year or another year or similar program. A lot of people that worked on this film I worked with at Ryerson or met there – Chet Tilokani, the director of photography, Josef Beeby, the co-writer, and Michael Barker, the editor.

How does it feel to see your short doc have this much impact, in terms of awards and audience reception?

CT: A lot of the people on the production team had similar experiences – like their dads passing away of the same cancer at the same age. It was something that, if it went nowhere, I would still feel good about the film. When it went up on the New York Times, all of a sudden I’m getting emails from strangers from different parts of the world telling me about similar experiences that they had and how seeing it articulated in the film meant something for them. It was things like that – things that I had never experienced before and I don’t know if I ever will again, but it was pretty cool.

Although the message is a personal one for you, is there a broader message you hope viewers can take from it?

CT: One, for other filmmakers, is to not be afraid to tell and share personal stories. Apart from that takeaway is the simple thing of making an attempt to have an understanding of your parents as adults and individuals rather than just mom and dad that will be there forever, because one day life is done. So, appreciate the time that you have. It’s all been said before but it doesn’t hurt to say it again sometimes.

In the doc, we see it was one of your dad’s dreams to see “Directed by Charlie Tyrell” on the big screen. So, what do you think he would be saying now, post-name on the big screen and post-CSA win?

CT: My goal is to make a feature narrative film. We’re writing one right now that may or may not happen, or it may take a decade to make, but that is the end game for me – to continue being in theatres, and continue having that name listed as a director on screen. If I have that one duty to carry out for my dad then I’ll continue to do that. There’s still a bigger version of this to be made.

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