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In conversation with Anna Quon

Posted by Cheryl Bell on April 23, 2024 in News

The Faculty of Dentistry held two private screenings of Me and My Teeth, a documentary film by author and filmmaker Anna Quon. The February screening was held in the Faculty of Dentistry for students, staff, and faculty and involved a Q&A session with Anna.
The second screening, held in April, featured a panel discussion with EJ Davis, director of supported housing with the North End Community Health Centre (NECHC), Francine Leach, dental hygienist and manager of the NECHC dental clinic, Karn Nichols, executive director of the Canadian Mental Health Association Nova Scotia Division, and Anna herself.
This interview was held in between the two events and covers the Anna’s early beginnings in filmmaking and her fascination with teeth, which she refers to as "visible bones."
Q: You wear many hats: novelist, poet, filmmaker, artist. Can you talk about your creative activities and what drives or inspires you to be creative in so many ways?
A: I just like to make things, basically, and that can be with words, pictures, or sometimes sound. What motivates me or drives me to be creative is partly an effort to be seen. I think I didn’t always feel seen when I was growing up. Also, I never had children, and I think there is a drive to put something in the world that goes on after me, something that’s really a part of me.
I’m most comfortable with words, and I’m most comfortable with poetry. I started writing and drawing and painting in elementary school. I always loved reading and picture books, and then, later, novels and poetry. Like most kids, I wanted to be many different things, but one of the things I wanted to be was an artist and then a journalist. Later, in high school, I wanted to be a creative writer, but I never thought I could be one and make a living. Now I make part of a living from my work, so I’m pretty happy with that.
Q: How did you get started in filmmaking?
A: It started with a digital story I made about myself in 2013, which was a requirement for a work placement I did at the Antigonish County Adult Learning Association. I used photos of me when I was younger along with video footage from my life, including a poem. That film really got me interested in learning more and I started making films of my poems. Then in 2017 I received a grant from the Canada Council to make an animated film of my poem, 'Missing Women'.
Me and My Teeth was the first documentary film I’ve made and it’s my longest film. I had the chance to make it because I won the Lunenburg Doc Fest pitch competition called The Launch, which is for underrepresented filmmakers. So that gave me $5000 in cash, equipment rentals, and other supports to make the film, including time with my mentor, Lulu Keating. Me and My Teeth was launched at the film festival at the end of August.
Q: Why were your teeth the starting point for the film?
A: I knew I wanted to make a documentary and, at that time, there was some early information about a new federal dental care program for people on low incomes. That really interested me because I know how important dental care is to people. And when you have no money, you just don’t have access to it – unless you belong to a community clinic like the North End Community Health Centre dental clinic, which I am lucky enough to go to. I’ve had this love-hate relationship with my teeth for a while now and I felt there was a story to tell, and I also wanted to talk about the issues. It wasn’t a story that had really been told before.
I’m also fascinated with body parts, particularly teeth. They’re bones that are visible and they are very significant to our idea of identity, like whether you are beautiful, whether you are seen to be poor or rich, to take care of yourself or not. So, my fascination both with body parts and the kind of judgements people place on you because of these body parts was also behind the making of the film.
Q: Teeth are particularly revealing, aren’t they? What else – apart from maybe fingernails – would be comparable?
A: It’s true. You see people who haven’t had braces when they’re young because their parents couldn’t afford it. And you think, 'Oh, I know something about that person.' I met a young man once who had an overlapping tooth. I thought this guy was so intelligent, so full of verse, but I bet that he couldn’t get the kind of job that someone with straight teeth would have. Appearance is so terribly important in our society, it seems. There are many jobs that I wouldn’t necessarily want to have, but I don’t want to be automatically disqualified from them because of how I look.
Q: Can you talk about the launch and the early reception to Me and My Teeth?
A: The film was launched at the Lunenburg Doc Fest last September. I was there with my mentor, Lulu, my sister, and some friends. I wondered how people would receive the film. I said my little spiel and then people watched. There was a lot of laughter, which I really enjoyed. The film has a serious message, but I also wanted people to respond to the funny parts. Then it was shown in the Faculty of Dentistry in February and people were very quiet – there wasn’t much laughter. But then at the end of the film, there were some really good questions, so I knew they were listening and engaged. But maybe they weren’t sure how I would receive their laughter.
Q: Here in the Faculty of Dentistry, we want everyone to understand that oral health is inextricably linked to overall health. Do you feel that mental health is seen as separate from overall health, like dental health often is?
A: I do feel that. Mental health care has been separated from physical health care, even in the health infrastructure. We have a separate hospital for people who need mental health care, for example. And the funding has not been on a par with funding for physical health. I saw how funding disappeared from spaces, like in the Nova Scotia Hospital, and people were deinstitutionalized and put into the community. I think the plan is that more money will be put into mental health care, just like into dental care. When, where, and how that will happen, I don’t know. So that’s the money part. Then there is the stigma part. In the past, I think people with mental illness were seen as being morally defective, like the illness was visited upon them because of some weakness of their character or soul. People with poor dental health are also judged. So there are definitely parallels, particularly in terms of funding. I think mental health care and dental care weren’t given the same status as physical health care because, traditionally, people were blamed for their problems.
Q: When you made the film did you have any expectations for its reception or what it might achieve?

A: I hope that it will get into film festivals and I have submitted it to several of them. I also hope it might get broadcast on TV, but I don’t know if that will happen. As for its reception, I just really wanted to make people think about their own teeth and what those teeth have meant to their lives, and their happiness, and all the things around them, like having enough money for housing or dental care or education – so different from Sidewalk Guy, the guy in my film who was lying on the street.
Q: On April 10, the Faculty of Dentistry is holding a private screening of Me and My Teeth with a panel discussion afterwards, including panelists representing housing and mental health. This seems like a great opportunity to bring all these issues that you’ve been talking about together. What would you like to see discussed?
A: I see teeth as an issue on their own, but they’re also a symbol in this film of things that are central to our existence and of vulnerabilities that we have, including housing and acceptance. So I’d like a discussion around those things.