What does it take to create something truly beautiful?
In her new short film Barbarian Press (2016), Vancouver-based filmmaker and photographer Sarah (Emmett) Race explores questions of passion, authenticity, and the quest for perfection through the lives of two uniquely dedicated individuals: Jan and Crispin Elsted. For more than 35 years, the couple has run Barbarian Press, a publishing company dedicated to producing beautiful books through traditional letterpress techniques. Some of these techniques are hundreds of years old; they are labour-intensive, time-consuming, and, often, incredibly expensive. But what might seem impractical or inefficient to other printers is the very thing the Elsteds thrive on; they are confident that traditional letterpress is the only way to produce a book of true quality.
It was the couple’s unwavering, almost irrational faith in their work that inspired Race to create Barbarian Press. In a world that is increasingly digital and instant, the Elsteds’ practice initially struck Race as strange, even obsessive. “There’s no reason why people should do books by letterpress,” she told SAD Mag in an interview last week. “It’s not affordable, it’s not expedient, there’s no rational way of doing it.” Intrigued by their story, she set off for the Elsteds’ home in Mission, BC, to meet the duo and learn what Barbarian Press is all about.
Over the course of six months, she and the Elsteds were in constant communication. Race interviewed their friends and family, watched them work, learned how they lived. “I slept on the couch, I drank their scotch, hung out with them,” she recalls, “I…became part of their lives.” By the time she finished the project, what had once seemed “quirky” or “obsessive” now struck her as passionate and authentic. “I realized that these people are just kind of amazing,” she explains, “I had gotten the whole thing wrong at first.”
What surprised Race most was the Elsteds’ unshakable love for their work. In can take months, sometimes years, to print a Barbarian Press book. The company’s production costs are high and the market small. But day after day, the couple persists, working with the same idealism as when they first started the press back in 1977. “Their belief systems are so firm,” says Race, “their belief in beauty is so inspiring...it’s the difference between obsession and passion.”
Race might not have 39 years under her belt just yet, but her own dedication comes through in the film she’s created. At just 17 minutes in length, Barbarian Press is thoughtful and thought-provoking, crafted with the same kind of passion and appreciation for detail that characterizes the Elsteds themselves.
Barbarian Press will premier at Toronto’s HOTDOCS Canadian International Documentary Festival on May 4, 2016, before moving on to Vancouver’s DOXA Festival the following week (Vancity Theatre, on May 7 and 12, 2016). For tickets and showtimes, visit doxafestival.ca.
For more information about the film, visit barbarianpressmovie.com