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“A poem for the planet”: Metamorphosis’ visual meditation on climate change

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Metamorphosis employs sound and the work of various artists to create a “visual language” to explore climate change. Photo courtesy NFB.
Metamorphosis employs sound and the work of various artists to create a "visual language" to explore the current state of climate change. Photo courtesy National Film Board of Canada.

Metamorphosis, a feature-length documentary from filmmakers Nova Ami and Velcrow Ripper, takes a notably different approach in its examination of climate change when compared to features such as An Inconvenient Truth (2006) or Time To Choose (2015). Ami and Ripper sought to make a cinematic, “almost experimental” documentary, favouring sound and image over more conventional documentary components like talking heads.

“We aren’t putting a lot of tags or text on it. It gives you more stories and ideas,” Ripper said. “The solutions are intended to be design principles, and they’re all very visual as well. And then there’s a soundtrack that is very involved and layered. We make good use of the 7.1 audio space as well as it’s shot in 4K – so visually, it’s really punchy.”

Metamorphosis weaves the work of artists using ecological themes to further illustrate a sort of “visual language,” Ami said, that combined with drone shots and time-lapse footage helps to create a poetic feeling throughout the work.

“(That visual language) allowed us to explore some of those themes that are more conceptual. Like art, the film asks questions and (doesn’t) necessarily spell it out for you – there is room for your own interpretations and your own understanding to come into play,” Ripper said. “It’s a very reflective journey and we hope people will find it a transformative journey – and we are seeing that happen.”

Directors Nova Ami (left) and Velcrow Ripper (right) began developing Metamorphosis after witnessing the destruction of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines in 2013. Photo courtesy Grant Baldwin.

Ami and Ripper began developing the film just more than four years ago, around when Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines, killing at least 6,300.

“We were talking about making a film together and I had spent a lot of time in the Philippines and my family is from the Philippines, so that really weighed heavily on us. We talked about how an event like that could change a person,” Ami said. “That led to further conversations about how we deal with change in a time of climate crisis, how we resist change, how we move through change. That led to conversations about metamorphosis – the title came up and we decided to explore that theme and how that relates to us at this point in time.”

Four months before Ami and Ripper went into production, they had a child. Ripper said that experience further informed the development of Metamorphosis.

“I think choosing to have a child in this era is in itself a statement of hope. I think it really made us think, ‘What can we do to help create a world that is thriving as he comes of age?’” Ripper said. “So the hope we have is not so much optimistic based on the facts – I think the facts are very, very dire and we are in a time of emergency – it’s based on a kind of heroic hope that we want to do everything we can and making the film was one of our gestures.”

Making the film as two Canadians, Ami and Ripper found themselves approaching the content in a specific context when compared to major American features done on similar topics. Though the United States has received significant criticism for its recent action on climate – such as withdrawing from the Paris Agreement – Ripper said Canada was still “not that well-regarded” on the international stage.

“I think it’s in our culture to want to be on the right side of history, but we’re not there yet. We have a big transition to make,” he said. “We have to do this in a way that protects workers and we shouldn’t be pitting jobs against the environment. That’s a false dichotomy. We have to transcend that dichotomy. We need to respect those fears and address those fears but we also have to create a future – literally.”

The film was co-produced by and distributed by the National Film Board of Canada (NFB)’s Edmonton studio, the North West Studio. Thanks to the footage used and the way the film employs sound and music, Ami said Metamorphosis was an experience best suited to see in the theatre, on a big screen.

“It’s a really cinematic experience,” she said. “It’s a film that sparks the imagination in terms of what’s possible. It’s a climate change film you can go on a date with.”

Metamorphosis plays at the Globe Cinema in Calgary until July 5. The film will screen in Saskatoon and Regina on July 13, followed by international festivals and other Canadian screenings. For more information, click here.

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Calgary Film 2018

Calgary Film interview: Keely and Du director Laurie Colbert

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Keely and Du, directed by Dominique Cardona & Laurie Colbert, is adapted from the Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name. Photo courtesy Dykon Films
Keely and Du, directed by Dominique Cardona & Laurie Colbert, is adapted from the Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name. Photo courtesy Dykon Films

Set to play at the Calgary International Film Festival Sept. 22, Keely and Du is a psychological thriller from directors Dominique Cardona and Laurie Colbert based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name. The film is the first from Cardona and Colbert in five years, coming after Margarita (2012), a selection at the 2012 Calgary film festival.

Colbert spoke with The Mutt prior to Keely and Du’s screening Sept. 22. This interview has been edited for length.

THE MUTT: When did you first become acquainted with the play?

LAURIE COLBERT: I first read the play 18 to 20 years ago. We followed the play for a long time, every two years (the answer would be), “No, no, no, no, no.” So I was pretty persistent. For us, we had to pitch Jane Martin, who wrote the play, and say, “Hey, we don’t want to set it in the basement. We want to confine her on an island.” But I don’t think we were mature enough to make it (at the beginning) anyways. I don’t believe we had enough chops to make this film back then.

TM: How do you feel your style has developed over the years and what themes have been most important to you?

LC: Well, we’re totally feminists. We’ve never wavered in that. (We started with) Thank God I’m A Lesbian, we followed that up with My Feminism with Gloria Steinem and bell hooks. I can’t believe there are so many colleges in the United States, like Harvard and Stanford, that use it in their first year feminist studies. So it’s a widely-known film in education. Thank God, not as much anymore, it’s had it’s day – there are better films on feminism now and there are better films on lesbians now. But there weren’t for 10 years.

TM: How does this film fit into that context?

LC: Oh, it fits in perfectly. My Feminism is about sex and abortion. Finn’s Girl, our first feature, that was about abortionists. Then we did Margarita, which is about a Mexican immigrant. That was maybe a deviation in the sense that it was about immigration and how we teach classism, and racism. So politically, very feminist. I think this is by far our most ambitious film, by a mile.

TM: You’ve been working on these themes your whole career. How have you seen these themes evolve in the culture and what statements did you want to make in this film? 

LC: I think it fits right in the zeitgeist. I don’t know if people want to watch something so pointed into the zeitgeist. Is that the ticket you want to buy, or do you want to go to Meatballs? So it will be interesting to see how it does. Even though I think the film is a character piece between the two women. It’s a psychological thriller dash it is a relationship piece. I think we have not ever deviated from the really feminist, women’s rights, and for us it was really about exploring, “Why do people have such extreme views?” – both of us really wanted to explore extreme sexism.

TM: What’s your pitch to folks to come out and see this film?

LC: I think if you’re religious, and don’t really question the dogma, and think, “Oh, I don’t believe in abortion,” what’s interesting about this film is you see what this person is going through and why she’s in the situation she’s in. Her context changes everything. Once she learns more context about what’s happened to her, I think she slowly starts to change. I think the film allows people to look at their own beliefs. I think if you come as a liberal, it’s not going to change much. But it is going to make you see how far people are going to go and how that’s going to make you feel. I don’t think our film is as poignant for Canadians, but I think it’s very poignant for the southern (United States).

Keely and Du plays at 4 pm on Sept. 22 at the Globe Cinema during the Calgary International Film Festival, and again on Sept. 26 at Eau Claire. For tickets, click here.

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Calgary Film 2018

Calgary Film interview: SuperGrid director Lowell Dean

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SuperGrid, directed by Lowell Dean, is set in a post-apocalyptic Canada rife with pirates and rebel gangs. Photo courtesy Lowell Dean
SuperGrid, directed by Lowell Dean, is set in a post-apocalyptic Canada rife with pirates and rebel gangs. Photo courtesy Lowell Dean

SuperGrid, directed by Lowell Dean (WolfCop, 13 Eerie), is set to make its World Premiere at the Calgary International Film Festival. He spoke with The Mutt prior to the Sept. 21 screening.

THE MUTT: Should fans of WolfCop and Another WolfCop expect something similar when they see SuperGrid?

LOWELL DEAN: I think it’s pretty different. I say it’s almost deceptive in a lot of the elements – obviously me directing it, Leo (Fafard) starring in it, Hugh (Patterson) producing it, and it being kind of a genre film. I would say it’s a gateway drug to something new, if you’re a WolfCop fan, because I jokingly say there’s still a lot of violence and a lot of people are going to die. This is a little bit different. It’s not nearly as out there. It’s something Hugh has been developing for a little while. I took it as a personal challenge to say, OK, I have a different script, I didn’t write this, so I’m going to make this movie. I’m not going to try and pervert it with my WolfCop weirdness.

TM: What did you think when you read the script? 

LD: It came at a good time for me because I was looking for something different. But I was worried because it’s very ambitious. SuperGrid had (about the same budget) as the first WolfCop film. The script that I read was going to be really hard to do for that budget level. Anytime you’re doing a movie that has multiple car chases, at least one or two explosions, shootouts involving a lot of characters, that’s not traditionally what you do with one million dollars. Usually it’s three people in a cabin. So I was hesitant, but also I can’t turn down Hugh. He’s so fun to work with. I just knew he was the kind of person people were going to go the extra mile for, myself included. So I just thought, “Let’s just do it. Let’s embrace the spirit of the original Mad Max with 17 days in Saskatchewan on prairie roads and in weird abandoned warehouses.”

TM: How did the backdrop of Saskatchewan contribute to the world of the film and did it take the film in different directions than you expected?

LD: I mean, we always wanted it to be a desolate landscape. I would say the only kind of weird thing is we shot this in summer in Saskatchewan and it was just beautiful. We should have been making a Hallmark movie. We had a great production design team and we would go out of our way to find abandoned towns and gas stations. It became more about smart filmmaking versus, we can’t walk in and say, “Let’s design these great buildings.” It just became what’s the grossest, weirdest place. People would be like, “Check out this scrap yard!”

TM: Did you draw inspiration from Mad Max? How did you differentiate this film from the genre while still paying homage?

LD: I am a fan of the genre, but I actually was probably the biggest proponent of running in the opposite direction. So much of what I saw on the page and the idea was Mad Max. I was pushing to make it a western, truthfully. I just said, for me, I’m making a western, it’s set in the future, it just as well could have been the 1800s except we wouldn’t have these cool gadgets and cars. I just made it about people trying to do the right thing, everybody is against you, it’s a corrupt world. It’s an easy thing to just be like, “whatever,” but a handful of people are backed into a corner and have the chance to do something good. They have to look inside themselves and say, “Well, damn it, I guess we have to do this thing.”

TM: Is that a philosophy you’ve been thinking about yourself lately? Or is that something you noticed in the script and latched onto?

LD: I think we definitely pushed to put it in there more. It’s obviously a film of its time. A perfect example is, we do have a border wall in our film between Canada and the States, so you can imagine where everyone’s heads are at. We still want it to be, on the surface, a very fun film, but I think especially after doing the two WolfCop films – which are absurd, ridiculous, really fun – I wanted to make a movie that I feel had a voice and maybe something a bit weightier to say, even if its in the guise of two brothers driving down the road, shooting guns. So I hope there’s a message there that people can connect to.

TM: Why would you encourage people to check out the film tonight?

LD: I think the biggest selling point for this film, is not only is it a truly Canadian film, it’s a truly Saskatchewan film. You don’t often see the prairie provinces reflected on the big screen, let alone, you know, this isn’t two people sitting in a room talking, this isn’t two people baling hay. This is war and violence and machine guns and blood and chaos. It’s not going to feel like homework, but you’re going to do your part and say you saw and hopefully enjoyed a kick-ass Canadian film.

SuperGrid makes its World Premiere at the Calgary International Film Festival Sept. 21 at 9:45 p.m., before playing again Sept. 23 at 12:30 p.m. For tickets, click here.

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Calgary Film 2018

Letter from Masanjia traces the origin of historic SOS note

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Letter from Masanjia was directed by Leon Lee, who also was behind 2014's Human Harvest.
Letter from Masanjia was directed by Leon Lee, who also was behind 2014's Human Harvest. Photo courtesy Flying Cloud Productions

When Oregon resident Julie Keith brought home a graveyard kit from Kmart in 2012, she took with her an item not typically associated with holiday decoration – a desperate letter stuffed inside the packaging by a political prisoner in China.

“Sir,” the letter read, “if you occasionally buy this product, please kindly resend this letter to the World Human Right Association. Thousands people here who are under the persicution (sic) of the Chinese Communist Party Government will thank and remember you forever.”

The letter provoked a firestorm of coverage and led to significant debate on the state of human rights in China. One individual who saw those reports was Vancouver-based director Leon Lee, who moved from China to Canada to attend school at the University of British Columbia. Previously having completed the 2014 documentary Human Harvest, Lee said the situation depicted in the letter resonated with him given his familiarity with the human rights situation in China.

“The name (Masanjia) really stood out for me, because I knew it as the most notorious labour camp in China. I knew that if there was a letter coming from it, I knew there had to be an amazing story behind it,” Lee said. “All the questions that came to my mind – what happened to this person? Is he still alive? Where is this person?”

Lee’s journey to find the letter writer resulted in the feature-length documentary Letter from Masanjia, which is set to play at the Calgary International Film Festival Sept. 22 and 23. All told, it took Lee around three years to track the writer down – Sun Yi, a Chinese engineer who had been jailed for his spiritual beliefs.

Letter from Masanjia follows Sun Yi, a man who had been held as a political prisoner in Masanjia, a notorious labour camp. Above, he holds the letter that provoked a firestorm of coverage after a Oregon resident found it included with Halloween decorations purchased at KMart. Photo courtesy Flying Cloud Productions.

“Apparently he had heard about me through my previous work. He trusted me,” Lee said. “He wanted to take the risk to make the film, because I couldn’t go back to China safely due to my previous films.”

After completing Human Harvest, it became clear to Lee that he was no longer welcome in China – while there was no official statement from the government, he said that state-run media labelled him as a traitor. So, to complete Letter from Masanjia, Lee had to train Yi on how to use a camera.

“We had to communicate through Skype and I had to train him on how to use cameras and all the equipment,” Lee said. “We had to work out a plan to pull it off. So it was very challenging and risky. But in the meantime, it was very meaningful.”

Utilizing secret camera footage, Letter from Masanjia takes viewers directly into the brutal and frightening world of a political dissident in modern China. The film also utilizes animations as reenactments of life in Masanjia, based on Yi’s own concept artwork.

“He really liked traditional Chinese graphic novels. He learned to draw the figures when he was a little boy,” Lee said. “So he kept a sketchbook. When I saw it, I was so thrilled. I thought, this is exactly what we can use as reenactment.”

Lee said Letter from Masanjia is a “real live message in the bottle story,” telling of an SOS note travelling from the labour camp, over the Pacific Ocean, all the way to the United States.

“Yi is a gentle, soft-spoken engineer who has unbelievable strength in the face of a difficult situation,” Lee said. “(The film shows) how people from different countries come together to really bring change. From the viewer feedback so far, most people find it incredibly moving and inspiring.”

Letter from Masanjia plays September 22 and 23 at the Calgary International Film Festival. Director Leon Lee will be in attendance for a post-screening Q&A at both screenings. For tickets, click here.

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