Hot Docs Review: 'The Auctioneer'

The Auctioneer
(Canada, 57 min.)
Dir. Hans Olson, Writ. Clark Banack
Programme: Canadian Spectrum (World Premiere)
Dale Menzak and Dale's Auction Serivce employee Pete Conway
Photo courtesy of The NFB
A humble countryman, Dale Menzak is a man of few words. The Auctioneer, appropriately enough, is a quiet film itself. This NFB film directed by Hans Olson and written by Clark Banack, however, says little, yet it manages to say a lot.

The Auctioneer is a discreet observational film that follows the everyday activities of Mr. Menzak as he goes about his business in peaceful town in rural Alberta. Dale is an auctioneer by trade and he specializes in the sale of family farms. Machinery, backhoes, and other rustic equipment are all Dale’s forte. Farming is a dwindling business, though, as some sales in the auction reveal. Quality goods sell for as little as five bucks a pop—less than one would spend on a latte, if they hard Starbucks in the nether regions of Canada—and independent farms aren’t what they used to be in the age of industrialized agriculture.

Being an auctioneer doesn’t pay all the bills, so Dale works part time as an undertaker. He trades his rugged cowboy hat for a black tie, and turns from working with old machines to broken down bodies. It’s a much quieter job than the cattle rattle of auctioneering.

The tranquil Cinema Verité style of The Auctioneer offers a lovely, peaceful portrait of the prairies and of times gone by. Beautiful cinematography by Mike McLaughlin captures the billowing fields with an affectionate eye and the sparse soundtrack (there’s little audio besides the direct sounds of life) recalls a soothing trip to the cottage or an escape from the busy life of the city. The auctioneer’s interactions with his fellow townsfolk—ordering “the usual” at a diner, for one—show the kind of closeness and sense of community that’s dwindling away in these busy times. One can’t help but view a scene in which a farmer tries to explain to a friend how to work a wireless router as a hint of contemporary technology’s intrusion on the good old ways.

The shots of these laid-back countryfolk and their serene wheat fields might be too sedate for some viewers, so the pared-down observational style might be like quiet country living for viewers: either you love it or you don’t. If, however, one pays close attention to The Auctioneer, one sees that some careful observation goes a long way. There’s no need for voiceover when a scene of Dale’s auction of used goods is succeeded by a visit to the funeral home. This rural country living looks to be a dying way of life, as more people move to the city and fewer farmers make as strong a living as they did before. In one of the few scenes where Dale converses his colleague, he mentions demurely that he sold his cows for the low price of two dollars a pound. She replies with a Fargo-ly “yeah.” It’s a film of few words.

The Auctioneer deserves a courteous hat tip, though, for its respectful, unromantic look at an aging culture through the eyes of this seasoned auctioneer. Paired with the excellent short doc Packing up the Wagon: The Last Days of the Wagon Wheel Lunch (which I can’t really say much about since I reviewed it for POV and copying reviews isn’t cool), The Auctioneer presents a fine double bill that lets viewers savour ways of living that are slowly becoming a thing of the past. Find a good Greasy Spoon afterwards and discuss the films over clubhouse sandwiches and diner coffee.

Rating: ★★★½ (out of ★★★★★) 

The Auctioneer screens:
Thursday, May 2 – 7:30 pm at TIFF Bell Lightbox
Saturday, May 4 – 3:30 pm at TIFF Bell Lightbox


Please visit www.hotdocs.ca for more info on films, tickets, and show times.