Beauty, a 23-minute documentary directed by Christina Willings, is an exploration into the lives of five gender-creative children as they grapple with and explore who they are and who they want to be. The doc took home audience awards at the Vancouver Queer Film Festival and the 2018 Reel Pride Film Festival Winnipeg and is set to play in Calgary on November 18 at the Marda Loop Justice Film Festival.
The Mutt spoke with Williams prior to the Nov. 18 screening. The following interview has been edited for length.
THE MUTT: Do you think it’s easier in today’s climate for kids to express themselves as being gender-creative, as compared to perhaps 10 or 20 years ago?
CHRISTINA WILLINGS: The narrative that we’re more familiar with are trans and gender-creative people who are older but were never allowed that space as children to truly honour themselves. I think what’s really important about this film, if I may say so myself, the impetus of what I was trying to do was really make a stage for us to honour children expressing who they want to be and exploring who they want to be so that their lives can unfold in a smoother and more authentic way.
TM: And so how are kids allowed to explore being gender-creative today in ways they weren’t able to previously?
CW: I think in some ways there’s more space to talk about gender and play with gender than perhaps we’ve ever seen before. I think we have a window of opportunity to get our toes in the door and push this space open a little wider so that all of us have more room to move when we’re thinking about and feeling through how we want to show up in the world. Also there’s a layer of things becoming fashionable for a while and then going away. I think there’s a element of fashion that we’ll see go and someone else will come into favour and this particular type of exploration will fall out of favour. But I think we do have an opportunity right now to widen this space and keep this space open. Not just for kids, but for all of us to be more generous with and especially when we talk about how gender expression works.
TM: What do you hope people take away from the documentary?
CW: I hope that people take from it is, “Wow, these kids really have a deep and clear sense of self.” For whatever miraculous reason, they feel able to honour that no matter what. I think that it’s time to listen to kids when they say things so clearly. One of the phrases that is often used in these types of conversations is when kids are, “insistent, consistent and persistent,” you really need to pay attention and ask, where do we go from here?
TM: Did certain themes emerge out of each of the five kids’ stories? Or were their individual experiences mostly unique?
CW: Both are true. They all had very individual experiences and there were definitely common themes running through all of their stories. One of the common themes running through all of their stories was that each of them knew from a very, very young age, 2 or 3 years old, that they wanted to start expressing in a way that seemed different from what they saw around them or how they felt people might be expecting. So for me, when I realized that kids had known at the age of 2 or 3, and they start saying things to their parents like, “Something’s wrong. I just have to go back up there and come down in a different body,” that was stunning. That kind of clarity was incredible at such a young age.
TM: Why would you encourage people to see the film?
CW: I would say that it’s an aesthetically pleasing film. You can’t really call a film Beauty and not try to make a beautiful film. I think it’s fun to watch. It draws you in, slowly, into the lived realities of these really fascinating kids who are compelling in their clarity and their self-knowledge. It has an animated component, which takes us into the kids’ inner realm in a way that I think is really satisfying. So I think you really do get a sense of who these kids are, both aesthetically and through their dialogue.
Beauty plays at the Marda Loop Justice Film Festival at 2 p.m. at the River Park Church Auditorium. For tickets, click here.
What Walaa Wants’ central subject is a “force of nature”
At the opening of What Walaa Wants, viewers are introduced to 15-year-old Walaa, a young Palestinian girl whose mother has just been released from prison. Raised as a refugee camp in the West Bank, Walaa announces she wants to be part of the Palestinian Security Forces – an uncommon and difficult ambition for a young Palestinian girl, but one that speaks to the spirit and force of the 89-minute documentary’s central subject.
Following Walaa from the age of 15 to 21, What Walaa Wants traces her journey to join the security forces, with all the resistance and obstacles inherent in her culture. Director Christy Garland said Walaa was a “force of nature.”
“There are so many things about her story. Everything has a twist,” Garland said. “The question really is, is this young woman going to go down the same path as her mother? Or is she going to be able to accomplish her own positive, constructive goal of being a cop? It’s a rollercoaster of a story.”
The film took home the Special Jury Prize at the 2018 Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival in Toronto and played Nov. 14 at the Plaza Theatre in Calgary as part of the Marda Loop Justice Film Festival.
Garland spoke with The Mutt prior to the film’s screening at the Marda Loop Justice Film Festival on Nov. 14. This interview has been condensed and edited for length.
THE MUTT: How did you come to meet Walaa?
CHRISTY GARLAND: I just happened to be there for another reason. A couple days before I left, I met Walaa in a workshop. Right away, I knew she was an interesting personality. Very strong-minded, funny, but she was also scaring the other girls a little bit. I asked what was going on with her, and they said, ‘She’s a sweet girl, but she’s going through a difficult time. Her mother has just been released from prison.’ So I thought there might be a story in there, about a mother-daughter renegotiating their relationship after the mother is released from prison. I thought that could totally be a documentary. Certainly those elements come up in the film, but it gets even more interesting.
TM: Obviously, being at such a young age and still desiring to join the Palestinian Security Forces, Walaa must be a very determined and strong-willed person. What do you think it is about her that drew her to this, and how does that reflect back on her society in which she lives?
CG: There’s a couple things going on. She’s grown up in a dangerous environment, living under a military occupation where tear gas canisters could come tumbling down the street at any time. She’s very, very used to gun battles happening right outside her bedroom window. Certainly, on one level, it’s for her to feel more safe. The other thing is that there are also very, very few career prospects for any Palestinian young people. Getting on the Palestinian Security Forces basically means you have a government job. But what is unusual is she is a young girl and she wants to be one of the few police women on the force. She didn’t want a desk job.
TM: Was that intimidating for her, to be among the few women in these positions?
CG: No, she totally loved it. She dreamed of it. She’s a very, very strong person and she’s not someone who is easily intimidated. That’s one of the reasons why she’s a truly unique character. For very good reasons, a lot of documentaries that deal with women in oppressive situations have no choice but to show how they are victimized and oppressed. But Walaa, even though she lives inside of an occupation, she is not a victim. That’s one of the things that appealed to me. She’s a bit of an ass-kicker.
TM: You followed her from age 15 to 21. That’s quite an undertaking, even in your own life and your own time. Why was it important for you to follow this story over that period of years?
CG: I was extremely excited about the story I was telling, because it was so interesting. It was a very compelling story to be in the middle of and have the privilege of documenting. I knew that I was telling a story that’s not going to be boring. It’s got some incredibly tragic moments, but it’s very buoyant and entertaining and frequently funny, because of her character. That kept me going, because I felt a great sense of purpose.
TM: You hear a lot of news from that part of the world, but to take a focused look at a character in this fashion is not something you see too frequently in documentary films. What do you think will be most illuminating about this film specifically for Canadian and western audiences?
CG: The film gives us a more complicated and nuanced view of Palestinian lives. It allows us to see her world through her eyes, and see it for all its complications. Everyone lives in their information silos, and there aren’t a ton of stories about what it’s like for somebody to live inside an occupation. It’s an opportunity for audiences to identify with Walaa but then also understand how very different her life is from ours due to her restricted freedoms. I think that is what the film offers to people. That’s what documentaries can do nowadays. News has become so focused on soundbites, but documentaries can really take you deeper to give you a much deeper and more complicated perspective.
For more information on What Walaa Wants, click here.
Director Justin McConnell’s Lifechanger shapeshifts in fresh and surprising ways
In Lifechanger, writer/director Justin McConnell’s (Broken Mile, Skull World) gripping and innovative thriller, a shapeshifter seeks to make things right with those he’s wronged, all the while leaving a trail of destruction in his wake. It’s a confident and refreshing take on the genre, one that effectively plays on its surprisingly affecting premise.
McConnell spoke with The Mutt to discuss Lifechanger, the challenges of utilizing an ensemble to play the same character and his strategy when it comes to standing out in a competitive genre. This interview has been edited and condensed for length.
THE MUTT: The concept behind Lifechanger is pretty novel. Where’d you come up with it?
JUSTIN MCCONNELL: Well, in 2014 I was trying to come up with an idea I could do for a really low budget because I was frustrated trying to get a couple of larger projects off the ground. So I started brainstorming what I could do with basically pocket change. During that brainstorming session I just let ideas percolate and I was on a bus one day and thought, “What if I saw myself in public?” Which, of course, is Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy. But from that point, the idea organically grew into what this became. And then tonally, at that time I had been introspective, going through a lot of self-examination and depression, and that fed into the story and the tone of the script and who the character ended up being.
TM: What else played into the script? Were you influenced at all by other films in the genre?
JM: I watched every horror movie I could get my hands on growing up, and I still do. I’ve obviously seen Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Thing, The Hidden, The First Power… the list is long of things that would make up the DNA of this idea, but it’s not like I was specifically thinking about one or two of those movies and thinking, “I’ll make a movie like that.” It just sort of came out of me.
TM: You incorporating that element of having a heart and a brain behind the horror elements of this movie… why do you think that’s important in this genre?
JM: I think it’s important in this particular film and in a lot of horror because you need to make something that stands out. The more personal you can get on an emotional level, the more they’re going to remember the film and the more it will cut through the noise. There’s way too much out there now. There’s a lot that doesn’t rise to the top and it’s very difficult to get noticed. So it’s good to break through into other genres and appeal to people who aren’t just hardcore goreheads. Though there’s nothing wrong with that approach, either – I wouldn’t necessarily say a lot of the projects I’m working on now are full of heart. But for this one, it just organically kind of became that way, and I wanted to do something a little bit more grounded and personal while still being a horror film.
TM: I’ve seen the film described as part psychological thriller, part body horror… at this point in the process, how do you tend to explain the story to the unfamiliar?
JM: I like to say that it’s about a murderous shapeshifter on a mission trying to make things right with the woman he loves, and I leave it at that and let people come to their own conclusions. But there’s a lot you could say about the story. It’s less of a love story and more of an obsession story and about trying to be a better person and coming to terms with guilt. There’s a lot of other stuff going on, but I usually pitch it to people in the flattest way possible, with a hook, and let them come to their own conclusions.
TM: So, really, the shapeshifter element, that’s a tool to tell a deeper story. What was the balance there in telling that deeper story and pairing it with the shapeshifter story?
JM: It was important to me to do something fresh and new and get into the head of what a creature like this would be like at this stage in their life, having to live like a human all the time but having to life just outside of the species. So that was absolutely important, but you can pull that away and look at it on a metaphorical level. He’s changing and becoming someone else until he becomes someone else who appeals to the woman he loves. So it’s almost like a metaphor that if you’re in a bad relationship, you put on a mask and try to become who your partner wants you to be. If you do that your entire life, you end up living your entire life and never being yourself.
TM: As a director, what throughlines did you want to communicate to your cast to ensure they were playing this character using their own strengths as actors while still playing the same individual?
JM: Well, the first thing I did when I had everyone casted was that I had written up a two- or three-page summary so they knew who this person is, where they are coming from, how they’d be psychologically. I tried to get that up front. We also had a “Drew boot camp,” where everybody who had to play Drew sat at a big conference table and we just talked for a few hours. In that session, we came up with stuff like the common tics that he has, the tone of voice that he uses fairly regularly, but I didn’t really want to step on their individual performances. So it was very specific things that could tie them to the character in a visible way without them having to overthink and have to act like the other person as much as possible, because I figured that would make all the performances really stilted. I tried to control that on set as best I could without stepping on it too much. In post-production, we as a team had to be very mindful of how Drew comes across on screen. If any particular actor had a scene or a delivery that was too far outside of what Drew’s character would be, it was cut out of the film.
TM: You guys were working with a limited budget, but the makeup and effects are very strong in the film. You took home the Best Practical Effects award from the Toronto After Dark festival. What was your approach to the effects given your budget?
JM: I’m pretty decently connected with the prosthetic and makeup effects community in Toronto, and there are a lot of really high-end effects people in the city. I knew that David Scott had wanted to work with me for quite a while, with his company Form & Dynamics, so I approached him with a listing of all the effects breakdowns. It was really quickly realized that we could actually pull off what I wanted to pull off. And we were clever and cut some corners and adapted past effects that they’d done and reskinned them and found other ways to cut costs, because we had a low-budget but we still wanted to pull off a ton of effects.
TM: Any parting words to moviegoers who haven’t seen Lifechanger yet?
JM: You don’t necessarily have to be a horror fan to enjoy this film. Anyone who is looking for a different kind of story, (Lifechanger is) something that’s violent but isn’t so gory that it’ll turn you off if you’re not into that kind of thing. And just to see a sample of what Canadian indie genre films are doing these days, because I think we’re in an independent renaissance in Canada right now. There are so many great Canadian independent films that have been funded outside of the Telefilm system in the last five years or so. It’s worth checking out and removing some of the stigma of thinking, “Oh, it’s just a Canadian movie.” That’s what I would say to Canadians. Anyone else, you’ll know pretty quickly by seeing the trailer whether you want to see it or not. Go into it with an open mind. If you like it, great, if you don’t, well, it’s not for everybody. Hopefully you enjoy it.
Lifechanger is now available on VOD across North America. For more information, click here.
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Next up on The Mutt: Trench 11 takes the horror of the First World War deep underground
The Woman Who Loves Giraffes follows life of famed zoologist
Canadian zoologist Dr. Anne Innis Dagg, the central figure of The Woman Who Loves Giraffes, still finds it difficult to articulate exactly why her fascination and love for giraffes has persisted throughout her entire life. But Alison Reid, director of the 83-minute documentary, has a theory.
“She’s just captivated by the way they move. They’re such a tall and impressive creature. And (Anne) says, even if a giraffe is just walking, she always says, ‘Isn’t that stately?’” Reid said. “I think there’s something about their personalities that touches her, as well – they’re just so gentle and understated, but curious.
“I think it was because she was captivated at such a young age. There’s something about them imprinted on her. It became part of her DNA, somehow.”
Born in 1933 in Toronto, Dagg became fascinated with giraffes after visiting the Brookfield Zoo in Illinois at a young age. During the mid-1950s, she traveled alone to South Africa to study the animals, years before a similar expedition was undertaken by English primatologist Jane Goodall.
“(Studying animals in this fashion) wasn’t done at all at this time,” Reid said. “She was groundbreaking. Scientists did not study animals in the way they do now.”
After she returned to Canada, Dagg completed her PhD in animal behaviour at the University of Waterloo. Though her research and publication quickly became highly-lauded in academia, Dagg’s attempts to secure tenure at the University of Guelph were denied by administrators, who questioned her fitness for the role despite her ample qualifications.
“I think at the time she was incredibly hurt and incredibly affected by it. She says in the film that she was so depressed over it – it cut to the core of her being,” Reid said. “And quite frankly, we were ripped off. The scientific community was ripped off in not allowing her to continue her studies. She was an incredible teacher. She ended up being a resource person at the University of Waterloo.”
But though Dagg was hurt and affected by the mistreatment, she pushed back. She began to research and write on gender bias in academia, something Reid said is as fundamental to her legacy as an educator as her work on giraffes.
“They’re so intertwined. Her giraffe journey was so affected by the discrimination she faced and inspired her feminist activity. The two are co-mingled, for sure,” Reid said. “She’ll always be the pioneer of giraffe biology. She’ll always be that. But we’re hoping, she’s been nominated for the Order of Canada, so we’re really hoping that that comes to be. I think that would be a really good recognition for her.
“But we’re also hoping that the universities that prevented her from continuing her studies, perhaps they will come up with something that will be a legacy.”
It’s a fuller understanding of Dagg, and of her return to the field of giraffe research, that is documented as part of The Woman Who Loves Giraffes. Prior to beginning work on the documentary, Reid had started scripting a narrative film based on Dagg’s life. It was only upon meeting Dagg and conversing with her that Reid discovered the famed zoologist was planning to return to Africa.
“I just thought, this is historic. We have to shoot it,” Reid said.
It was in Africa that Reid discovered Dagg as she likely had been back in the 1950s – adventurous, tenacious and full of “get-up-and-go” attitude.
“I interviewed her in the Pearson Airport before we left. To see her a couple days later in Africa, in a pop-top vehicle, with the wind in her hair, just glowing and watching giraffes… she just came alive,” Reid said. “It was like she was a kid again. It was just amazing.”
Utilizing interview and both archival and present-day footage, Reid assembles an affecting and moving portrait of Dagg and of the animal that has captivated her rousing, unstoppable spirit.
“I want to be moved when I watch a film, and (The Woman Who Loves Giraffes) moves people,” Reid said. “So I made the film because it’s exactly the type of film I would want to see. So I hope others continue to be drawn to it as well.”
The Woman Who Loves Giraffes will play across Canada in January. For showtimes, click here.