When Ardele Lister made Sugar Daddy in 1980, she was years ahead of her time. In this 30-minute video the Canadian writer/director dons a blonde wig and plays her father’s one-time mistress; she soaks in the tub and drinks on the sofa as she reminisces, telling intimate details not just of her 20-year affair with Lister’s father but of all her many romantic disappointments over the years in the city of Calgary. What begins as a transgressive and comic use of sensational autobiographical material ends as a poignant and stinging critique of romantic illusion and shabby male behavior.
Now comes Conditional Love, a 60-minute video from Lister on the subject of Canadian identity (or the lack of it), which premiered last Spring at MoMA. Conditional Love is a companion piece to her earlier Behold the Promised Land. Both use archival footage, contemporary interviews and Lister’s own mesmerizing voice-over narrative, but where Conditional Love shows Canadians struggling to define themselves, Behold the Promised Land proves, in interviews with Americans on the Fourth of July, how chillingly effective American propaganda from the early postwar period has been in creating an unquestioning patriotic ideology.
In a sense, both Sugar Daddy and Conditional Love are about compromised patrimony. Becoming a filmmaker, the young Lister had no native film industry to work in. As Lister’s star interviewee, Canadian Robert MacNeil, late of the MacNeil Lehrer News Hour says, “You can’t be a people unless you have a story and unless you’re telling yourself your story. . . Canada never got told its story until very recently because it was constantly absorbing other people’s stories.”
What makes Lister’s work funny and original is the way she conflates her own personal story with her subject’s. Over doting home-movie clips of the infant Lister learning to walk, her voice-over teases and indicts, “I was learning how to stand in a country whose leaders had recently donated the Canadian feature film industry to Hollywood in an exchange for a promise to boost tourism.”