________________ CM . . . . Volume XIV Number 17 . . . . April 18, 2008


The Memory Merchant. (Momentum 2006).

Sandy Nicholson (Director). Anita Lee (Producer).
Montreal, PQ: National Film Board of Canada, 2006.
11 min., 49 sec., VHS or DVD, $99.95.
Order Number: 153C 9106 182.

Grades 11 and up / Ages 16 and up.

Review by Ruth Latta.

*** /4


Peter Kaye is fascinated by his work. As an antiques dealer at Bert Bell Antiques Collectibles in west end Toronto (Etobicoke), he specializes in helping people liquidate their personal belongings. Often his clients are seniors downsizing to an apartment.

     In teaching creative writing courses to seniors, I have made friends with quite a few people older than myself. From these septuagenarians and octogenarians, I have heard a number of unhappy anecdotes about parting with cherished belongings when moving to smaller accommodation. Two of my friends had bad experiences when they hired an auctioneer. Things that they intended to keep got sold, and valuable objects disappeared.

     Consequently, I was pleasantly surprised by the attitude of Mr. Kaye and the general tone of The Memory Merchant. While evaluating and purchasing people's antiques and collectibles is a profitable enterprise, not a social service, Mr. Kaye shows a sensitivity to the feelings his clients have to the items they sell him. He realizes that he is doing something very personal by "happening into someone's life... seeing how they lived...You watch their lives unfold...all the things that they did as a family." He understands why people hang on to objects: "It's their last link with another person."

     The opening scenes show Mr. Kaye lining up colourful toy soldiers in a variety of uniforms. This particular purchase brings out the little boy in him. The owner of the toy soldiers, Douglas Foster, is the other "star" of the film. He and his wife need to divest themselves of superfluous items because they are moving from a single family house to a condominium.

     Mr. Foster's voice grows husky when he talks about clearing out the artifacts of family life from his pleasant, nicely decorated house. "It makes you reflect on your mortality," he says. "How do we complete the story? How do we find a balance between what's important and what isn't important?" In sorting, he has been surprised at the quantity he has accumulated and realizes that his intention was to pass on the assorted items to his descendants.

     Why aren't family members taking these items? He does not say, but one can easily think of reasons. Grown children and grandchildren may live far away, and the costs of shipping items may be prohibitive. Younger generations may live in small apartments or townhouses, or may move frequently for employment reasons. Also, young adults and new families like to pursue their own decorating tastes. As well, not everyone has children or grandchildren.

     The piece de resistance among Mr. Foster's collectibles is a castle that his father helped him build in the 1940s to go with his toy soldiers. They worked together for a year on it. When Peter Kaye first sees it, he is "quite taken with it" and fleetingly wants "to sit down and play with it." In 1974, Foster and his children built a yard-size replica of the castle, preserved now in home movies and a painting.

     Though Dennis Foster has happy memories of the joy the miniature castle brought him and his children, he is philosophical about selling it to Kaye. "Letting go of the castle isn't a rejection of the memories of my youth," he says. "To get any more joy out of it, it has to go into someone else's hands." This will happen. Our last sight of the castle is in Bert Bell Antiques and Collectibles store where Peter Kaye expects it to sell within a week to someone as charmed by it as he is.

     One is left feeling sad, yet thankful that this significant object, steeped in so much emotion, will be loved by its new owner. Parting with items is easier if we imagine them bringing joy to some unknown recipient; one can see them in the same light as random acts of kindness. The importance of portable ways of preserving the past, like  home movies, photographs, paintings and memoirs, is implicit.

     Director Sandy Nicholson, an Australian-born, Toronto-based photographer, and author Chris Shulgen, have made a sensitive thought-provoking film. The Memory Merchant is a product of the National Film Board's "Momentum" project, which "explores innovative methods of producing quality short documentary films with talented, emerging filmmakers" Though probably not of much interest to children and teens, this little movie can help older people sort out their emotions when they are faced with the challenge of sorting their belongings.


Ruth Latta's fourth mystery novel, Memories Stick (Ottawa, Baico, 2007) involves an amateur detective of mature years.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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