Director Tarique Qayumi’s Black Kite pulls off a rare balancing act: the film is a well-observed character study that is both defined by and serves to help illustrate a setting of complex political and cultural strife. Filmed “guerilla-style” in Kabul, Afghanistan over a period of 14 days, the production of Black Kite was challenging and often risky.
“It’s like an overly ambitious project. There’s like five different storylines going on,” Qayumi said. “Of course it’s a personal small story, but it has an expansive, epic backdrop. It’s kind of a miracle the way it all came together.”
The movie follows Arian (Haji Gul), a young Afghan boy born in the late 1950s. As he grows up over the decades, Arian’s love of kite-flying is outlawed by the various authoritarian regimes that control the country – so years later, when his young daughter expresses a desire to learn how to fly a kite, he risks severe penalty to fulfill her wish.
“After those chaotic 50 years, it all changed. The Afghans were living diaspora for the first time ever and all their dreams, all their dreams are unachievable,” Qayumi said. “The last 50 years, they lost their whole land, a lot of them had died or were living in diaspora around the world. All those people living inside Afghanistan, they all couldn’t achieve their aims, their goals, their dreams.
“John Lennon said, ‘Life happens while you’re making plans.’ But this is that on a huge scale. My parents didn’t imagine they’d end up as refugees in Canada. It’s amazing. All their dreams are dashed. So it’s a symbol for all those Afghans who lost that.”
Born in Kabul, Qayumi grew up in Vancouver and attended the UBC Creative Writing program. From there, he moved to Los Angeles to study at UCLA, and went on to direct Targeting (2014) before moving to Afghanistan to become executive producer of the country’s version of Sesame Street. There, he began work on Black Kite.
“We didn’t know if it was going to work out. When we first shot it, there was an intense security situation in Kabul,” Qayumi said.
At the time of shooting, Ashraf Ghani had just been elected and the Taliban had vowed to remove him in retribution for a security arrangement Ghani had committed to with the United States government. Qayumi said the production crew suffered many close calls, including when lead actress Leena Alam nearly died in a bombing.
According to Qayumi, the crew was invited to a show about suicide bombings at the French Cultural Centre, though only Alam attended. During the show, a bomb smuggled in by a young boy went off near the actress. Though she was not hurt, she was shell-shocked – but still insisted on continuing with the shoot the next day.
“(She said) we can’t let these people do this – if we stop then they win! We continued an intense day of shooting. I’ll never forget that,” Qayumi said in an email.
Unable to afford a camera operator, Qayumi was forced to shoot the film himself – something he hadn’t done before. After returning to Vancouver in 2015, his wife and collaborator Tajana Prka edited the first cut and sent it to the Canada Council for the Arts. The council awarded the film the full amount – a huge milestone and moment of validation, Qayumi said, considering he had felt the film hadn’t initially emerged the way he had envisioned.
Soon, Black Kite was accepted into the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), playing at subsequent festivals following that. Though the film took shape slowly with parts being added throughout the post-production process, Qayumi said being accepted into TIFF was a big moment.
“As an artist, I think you never think you have enough time, enough money, enough experience,” he said. “Things come together like a child playing in a sandbox. It’s like, ‘What are you making?’ and you say, ‘I don’t know. I haven’t finished yet.'”
Qayumi said the film’s executive producer, Agata Smoluch Del Sorbo, was instrumental in polishing the film and getting it festival-ready. “She took a big chance with us,” Qayumi said in an email, adding Del Sorbo called their film a “diamond in the rough.”
Black Kite premiered at TIFF in 2018 and is scheduled to play until June 7. Qayumi said the film could help Canadians better understand the conflict and history of Afghanistan.
“There are complexities around the world in different regions, and a lot of times you don’t fully understand them because it’s hard to decipher all the different ethnic and tribal things that are going on. But we have spent a lot of Canadian treasure and lives in that country. For some people, it can be very confusing,” Qayumi said. “But if you come and see Black Kite – it’s 90 minutes – I guarantee it’ll give you perspective.”
“And those aren’t my words. Someone came up to me at TIFF and said that. (They said), ‘We spent so much of our treasure and lives in this country, we had no idea. We saw this film and it gives me perspective. It gives me scope.'”
There Are No Fakes is a shocking journey into the world of art fraud
Some of the best documentaries of the past two decades involve hard left turns – films that begin in one direction but end in another due to events that unfolded during production. There Are No Fakes, directed by Jamie Kastner, joins that select company of documentary as its comedic opening slowly morphs into something much darker.
There Are No Fakes centers on the work of Norval Morrisseau, the Indigenous Canadian artist of the Bingwi Neyaashi Anishinaabek First Nation, sometimes referred to as the “Picasso of the North”. Morrisseau, who died in 2007, sought to remove forgeries of his art from the marketplace, establishing the Norval Morrisseau Heritage Society in 2005.
After Kevin Hearn (of Barenaked Ladies fame) buys one of Morrisseau’s paintings, he starts to doubt its authenticity and discovers a bizarre feud consolidated around Morrisseau. It’s this conflict, and the dark secrets hidden beneath it, that form the backdrop of There Are No Fakes.
Kastner (The Secret Disco Revolution, Free Trade Is Killing My Mother), who was friends with Hearn in high school, learned through conversation about Hearn’s ongoing lawsuit surrounding the Morrisseau paintings. It became clear to Kastner that such a story would be perfect for his next project.
“It was almost unbelievable. There was so much crazy stuff in this story, I couldn’t quite believe it,” Kastner said. “I told him if I was going to proceed with it, though we were friends he would have no editorial control. As a journalist, I would be talking to both sides, and he agreed.
“I went off on my own doing my own kind of digging and research. Lo and behold, everything he told me and then some turned out to be the case.”
As the story unfolded and as Kastner continued to meet a succession of larger-than-life characters, he found himself shocked at what he uncovered. Bringing footage back to his editor provoked a similar reaction.
“He’d say, ‘Holy f***!’ Then I’d do another one, and he’s quite an even-keeled guy, and he’d say ‘holy f***,’” Kastner said. “So it was a series of ‘holy f***’ moments. I tried to recreate that experience for the audience.”
Documentaries can often unfold much as expected, with a known story dictating the outcome of the production. But given the fluid situation surrounding the events of There Are No Fakes, Kastner followed the story as it led him, knowing he had been handed an incredible gift.
“It’s definitely a privilege and a responsibility (to tell this story). You’re dealing with the legacy of one of our most important artists,” he said. “You wind up dealing with very serious issues of abuse of different kinds, so I felt a real responsibility.
“You have to handle it very carefully as a documentary filmmaker. It really is so unique and unusual and special and horrific and inspiring and a whole range of things that you don’t usually get in one film.”
There Are No Fakes made its world premiere at Hot Docs 2019, receiving highly positive reviews. Kastner said the film provided fascinating insight into the legacy of Morrisseau, touching on multiple problems still at play in Canada.
“It’s a very dramatic story. People can’t believe that they’re real people. They seem like characters out of some HBO series or something,” Kastner said. “I think it’s a very entertaining, edge of your seat, jaw-dropping type of story that happens to be a documentary.”
There Are No Fakes will screen at multiple locations throughout Canada in July 2019. For more information, click here.
Next to read on The Mutt: Tantoo Cardinal propels Falls Around Her in first leading role
Isabelle brings psychological terror to an idyllic neighbourhood
In a quaint New England neighbourhood, a charming young couple (Adam Brody and Amanda Crew) find the perfect home to move into. But what they find in that home complicates their dream to start a family, as darkness and paranoia emerges in director Rob Heydon’s Isabelle.
Following in the footsteps of other psychological horrors such as Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, Isabelle comes from a screenplay written by Donald Martin (Milton’s Secret). Having grown up watching genre films like The Omen and The Shining, Heydon approached the project looking to put his own stamp on psychological terror.
“Reading the script, I just got into it cold. Then once I got into it, I couldn’t put it down,” Heydon said. “I thought a lot about what other references it could be like and how I could help bring something to the story and the storytelling.”
Much like other films in the genre, Heydon’s intention for Isabelle was to emphasize the psychology of the terror as a priority. That meant slowly building up the characters and introducing new elements throughout the runtime of the film.
“In a sense, it’s trying to tell a story in three arcs and build the audience’s expectations up to the third act,” Heydon said. “We used the combination of cinematography and editing and music to bring the audience into the mind of the main character and have the audience experience what our main characters are going through.”
The strength of the cast – which includes Brody, Crew and Zoë Belkin as Isabelle – was essential given the nature of the material. Brody was the first to sign on, but other cast members took longer to materialize.
“Amanda Crew wasn’t available at the same time. So it took almost two years to put together the cast,” Heydon said. “But when their calendars lined up, we also got some amazing talent to surround them. Belkin, Sheila McCarthy, who played Isabelle’s mom… we were really lucky.”
Isabelle shot in Hamilton, Ont., with old Victorian homes posing as New England. Beyond the locale, Heydon said the cost savings attained shooting in Hamilton were significant.
“In Toronto, to rent a house for a day might be 10 or 15 thousand per day. In Hamilton, we were lucky to get three houses right next to each other for 20 days for $20,000,” he said. “You just can’t find that anywhere in Toronto.”
Having initially premiered in South Korea as part of the Busan Film Festival (along with fellow Canadian horror Lifechanger), Isabelle will now open to a larger release in Canada. Heydon said genre aficionados should find much to enjoy in Isabelle.
“I’d say read what the film’s about and check out the trailer – I think the trailer says it all. And if you’re interested, come check it out,” he said.
Isabelle begins its theatrical run in Toronto June 28 at the Carlton Cinema. For more information, click here.
Next up on The Mutt: Horror materializes in unconventional ways in Things Fall Apart
Horror materializes in unconventional ways in Things Fall Apart
Those familiar with Hussein Juma, director and writer of Things Fall Apart, know that it’s somewhat fruitless to attempt to fully summarize his work. That’s largely by design – Juma himself says he enjoys injecting ambiguity into his projects.
But more than that, what’s exciting about Juma as a director is his ability to create a sense of atmospheric dread based heavily on context and character and not cliché. So horror fans on the hunt for films that are likely to surprise should take note of what Juma says about his first feature, Things Fall Apart.
“If you like arthouse cinema, things that are going to challenge you and even scare you a little too, I think this film would be for you,” Juma says. “If you’re interested in new ways to tell stories, in indie cinema and the way it can reframe things and put them in different contexts, I think there’s a lot to think about with this film.”
That unique approach to story was evident throughout Juma’s 12-episode web series Horse Mask, a surreal horror that centres around a missing daughter, a forest and many mysterious masks. Though Things Fall Apart is Juma’s first feature, he says working on Horse Mask helped prepare him, given the fact that the runtime of that web series evens out to be around the length of a feature.
Set during a dinner party, Things Fall Apart lets audiences act as a sort of fly on the wall as tensions and emotions emerge.
“Things progressively get more tense between the characters. I think there’s a good balance — there are those moments where you’re going to feel uncomfortable, there are moments where you’re going to be scared, there are moments where you’re going to feel like, ‘What the hell is going on right now?’” Juma says.
Furthering his desire to tell a story in a fresh way, Juma says he employed improvised dialogue throughout Things Fall Apart, making up 80 per cent of the dialogue. Though actors were provided with full scripts, dialogue was written in beats that guided where conversations would go.
“When we finally selected our actors, we extensively rehearsed it multiple times. That was a really cool process,” Juma says. “I had a bare-bones, skeleton idea of where I wanted each conversation to go, but these actors got so into it and took it to interesting places. (Many times) I was like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s great. We have to keep that.’”
The cast, which includes Chengis Javeri (one of the leads in Horse Mask), Bobbi Goddard, Gina Lorene and more, was already familiar to Juma, giving him confidence that they would be able to pull off the improvised dialogue. Juma says surrounding himself with smart, funny people led to a number of happy accidents that made their way into the finished product.
Other times, Juma says he would play off what he knew about the actors themselves.
“If I could see even a sliver of tension between them in the real world or a sliver of something in a look that I see, I can kind of harness that in the film,” he says. “I think that worked really well in terms of when I wanted to play someone against another person. Because I worked with them before, I knew things I could whisper in their ear before a take to throw them off.”
Ultimately, Juma says he wanted to make a film that he would want to see himself. Based on his track record, it’s likely that horror fans looking for a surprising, experimental feature with strong character work will find it in Things Fall Apart.
Things Fall Apart plays June 2 at 2 p.m. at the Globe Cinema in Calgary. For more information, click here.
Next up on The Mutt: The story behind Uwe Boll, the so-called “worst filmmaker” ever