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.
Acquainted takes a raw and honest look at modern love
In Acquainted, a new romantic drama from Toronto-based director Natty Zavitz, high school classmates Drew (Giacomo Gianniotti of Grey’s Anatomy) and Emma (Laysla De Oliveria of The Gifted) reunite with each other at a bar and instantly connect, discovering they share some serious chemistry. Problem is, the pair are both in serious, long-term relationships.
The script for the film was partly inspired by the deterioration of Zavitz’s last major relationship, said producer Jonathan Keltz (Entourage, Reign), who also plays Allan in the film.
“(Zavitz) sent me the script almost four years ago and I just connected so deeply and was so blown away by his script,” Keltz said. “(I was blown away) by how defined his voice was. I was completely moved by it.”
Inspired by films such as Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset trilogy, Acquainted is an honest look at relationships and adulthood, exploring the subject matter with introspection. Keltz said the film examines fidelity and infidelity from a judgement-free place.
“The characters are not villains or victims. It’s a raw and honest look at being in relationships, to have these type of things happen and how to deal with that,” he said. “The relationship with the self and the seeking to find out who you really are is really what’s crucial to the building of a relationship with somebody else.
“It’s about taking the time to do that work that puts you in the best position to be a partner with somebody and to be an adult in this world.”
Many of the cast and crew on Acquainted have worked in Toronto’s film community for years, making the set of the film a reunion of its own.
“In front of the camera and behind the camera, (the film involves all) kinds of amazing artists. It’s really a Canadian film and a Toronto film,” Keltz said. “It’s not trying to either hide that or beat you over the head with that.
“I think that’s done in a very unique way, and in a way that is both Torontonian and Canadian but also universally and commercially viable.”
Keltz said he thought the film would be emotionally affecting to audiences, offering perspective that could help to contextualize modern love and relationship.
“I think this is a really raw and honest and beautiful film about what it means to be in love, to be heartbroken, to be devastated, to be inspired and to try and build a life for yourself and figure out what that means,” Keltz said.
Acquainted is now playing at Cineplex Movies Yonge and Dundas in Toronto, International Village in Vancouver and at Landmark Cinemas nationwide.
Next up on The Mutt: With maturity and depth, An Audience of Chairs reflects on mental illness
With maturity and depth, An Audience of Chairs reflects on mental illness
Based on the novel of the same name from Canadian author Joan Clark, An Audience of Chairs is a complex and contemplative look at mental illness, a wise film that approaches its subject matter with significant emotional maturity.
Much of that refinement and subtlety is found in the original work, but director Deanne Foley and screenwriter Rosemary House build upon it, drawing an affecting performance from Carolina Bartczak, who plays Maura.
“(Maura) has a very complex and tormented relationship with her children and her career and her marriage,” Foley said. “It’s really about one woman’s journey of survival. For me, it’s a powerful redemption story.”
Upon reading House’s adaptation of An Audience of Chairs and in digesting the original novel herself, Foley said she identified scenes and moments that she felt were illustrative as to Maura’s character.
“It was a lot of time trying to find those moments, being able to strip away all the dialogue. Because there is so much that is not said,” Foley said. “We were telling visually the story of a woman with a mental illness. So even using the way we lit the house, there was light and darkness within her environment. That helps in being able to illuminate her mood.”
Portraying mental illness on screen in an effective and responsible manner can be a challenge for any filmmaker. Foley said she felt that responsibility, even feeling a level of trepidation prior to beginning work on An Audience of Chairs.
“We wanted to make sure it was authentic and it was an honest portrayal of this woman,” Foley said. “We contacted a psychologist, who (Bartczak) worked with closely. That psychologist gave us reassurance that whoever wrote the script had a strong understanding of bipolar disorder.”
Foley said she established a rule on set that if something were to occur in the film that wouldn’t take place in real life, it would not make it into the film. Maura’s physical and emotional responses were also checked by the psychologist to ensure their authenticity.
The film’s resulting approach to mental illness is factual and genuine, something Foley said was a goal for the filmmaking team from the outset.
“Even though her life isn’t perfect, (Maura) is still able to function in society,” Foley said. “I wanted to give a message of hope, that no matter how broken a person can be, they can still manage to find the light again.”
Next up on The Mutt: Tantoo Cardinal propels Falls Around Her in first leading role
9 Canadian films screening at the 2019 Calgary Underground Film Festival
Returning for the 16th year, the Calgary Underground Film Festival (CUFF) is set to once again showcase the best in genre film at Calgary’s Globe Cinema April 22 to 28. Brennan Tilley, lead programmer at CUFF, said this year’s festival (CUFF’s biggest ever with 30 features and 33 shorts) included a strong Canadian lineup.
“(With our lineup), it’s not like we’re saying we’re going to just pick the 12 best Canadian shorts or six best Canadian features. It really is that these are the films that we love,” Tilley said. “As long as Canadians and Albertans keep making great films, those are exactly what we’re going to want to show. There’s so many good ones.”
This year’s Canadian lineup includes Harpoon (directed by Rob Grant and produced by Michael Peterson and Kurt Harder), Brent Hodge’s Who Let The Dogs Out and the debut feature from Calgarian Cameron Macgowan, Red Letter Day.
Tilley weighed in on nine of the exciting Canadian productions featured at this year’s Calgary Underground Film Festival. This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for length.
Harpoon arrives at CUFF after having made its world premiere at the International Film Festival Rotterdam. The film follows three best friends stranded on a yacht under suspicious circumstances.
“Rob Grant is the director (of Harpoon) and he’s someone we’ve worked with before and are pretty familiar with. And the producers are friends of ours, and we’ve had their stuff come through our festival before,” Tilley said. “It’s quite an exciting selection to be part of that at Rotterdam and we were so happy for them to get that. And we’re so excited to host the Canadian premiere.”
WHO LET THE DOGS OUT
From CUFF alumnus Brent Hodge, the documentary Who Let The Dogs Out traces the curious origins of Baha Men’s hit song of the same name. Hodge’s previous film, Freaks & Geeks: The Documentary, took home the 2018 CUFF Audience Award for Best Documentary at last year’s festival.
“(Who Let The Dogs Out) just had its world premiere at SXSW. It’s a terrific Canadian film,” Tilley said. “I think it’s something in pop culture that so many people know but don’t really know the story behind it. A lot of people know at least know two or three lines from that song but don’t know what the song’s about. But this is about the history of it – it’s a great comedic documentary about copyright law.”
RED LETTER DAY
Calgary director Cameron Macgowan’s first feature film Red Letter Day, a satirical horror/thriller, is set to screen at CUFF 2019. The film was a selection at the 2019 Brussels International Fantastic Film Festival, Cinequest 2019 and the 2019 Haapsalu Horror and Fantasy Film Festival.
“We’ve gone way back with (Macgowan) as a filmmaker. To have his feature debut screening with us is very exciting. That’s another film that is very much in the wheelhouse of the types of films we play,” Tilley said. “It’s really a film for video store nerds, as well as people who would rent a horror film on VHS and watch it over and over all night. I think it harkens back to that better than any film I’ve seen in quite some time.”
From director Alexandre Franchi (The Wild Hunt), Happy Face is a part autobiographical drama and Franchi’s second feature film.
“This film is just so raw in its portrayal of its (characters). Every (character) featured in the film is playing a version of themselves, and in a way that really exposes them in quite an amazing way,” Tilley said. “You really feel for these characters. It raises questions about how people with deformities or disfigurements are treated, and how people deal with sick family. Plus, it has Dungeons and Dragons in it.”
“We’re really excited to be championing it. This filmmaking team is on the cusp of greatness. (Lipvosky and Stein) have made such a compelling film,” Tilley said. “It goes in unique directions and really pushes boundaries. It’s a science fiction thriller with a real family angle. It has some twists and turns that are really exciting for fans of genre-bending thrillers.”
Fast Horse (screened before Ask Dr. Ruth)
“That’s one that actually won the Best Director award at Sundance,” Tilley said. “So it’s really great given all the success it’s been having to be able to play it for a Calgary audience. That’s exciting, especially because it’s about the Calgary Stampede.”
Love After Ann (screened as part of the package Shorts: The Shape Of Things To Come)
“(Love After Ann) is by Darrin Rose, who is a pretty big standup comedian known throughout Canada,” Tilley said. “This is a real quick hit short all about Henry the 7th, basically on speed dating. It’s terrific.”
Memento Mori (screened as part of the package Shorts: Friends And Lovers In Confusing Times)
“Memento Mori is from Alberta. It’s quite a raw portrayal of a young woman coming to terms with her cancer diagnosis,” Tilley said. “It’s great.”
I Swallow Your Secrets (screened as part of the package Shorts: An All-Consuming Fear)
“That was made through SAIT,” Tilley said. “That’s really great to see them coming up and getting festival play.”
The 2019 Calgary Underground Film Festival runs April 22 to 28 at the Globe Cinema in Calgary. For full lineup information, visit calgaryundergroundfilm.org