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.
“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.
Calgary Film interview: Circle of Steel director Gillian McKercher
Set to make its World Premiere at the Calgary International Film Festival Sept. 25, Circle of Steel is a satirical look at the oil and gas industry, based partly on the experiences of the film’s first-time feature director and writer, Gillian McKercher. McKercher spoke with The Mutt prior to the film’s premiere on Sept. 25. This interview has been edited and condensed for length.
THE MUTT: What’s the film about?
GILLIAN MCKERCHER: The film is set in 2016 and it’s about layoffs in the oil and gas field. We have a young engineer, it’s her first job, and layoffs are announced. She watches how morale degrades throughout the office and also has to wonder what she’s doing as an engineer in the first place.
TM: I understand there’s an element of satire to the film. What was it about the oil and gas field that you wanted to satirize?
GM: Well, I think the number one thing I wanted to achieve with this film was the tone. When you’re going through layoffs as an actual worker, the ambiance is really weird. It’s depressive and gross and weird but it’s also kind of funny, because people get this dark humour about them. In order to show that, I didn’t think it was effective to go hyper-naturalistic and gritty, so I pushed the film into a more satirical element. So it’s satirical and sympathetic. So by satire, for example, I mean the boss is a little bit more incompetent than he normally is. In the film, it seems like nobody is actually doing any work. If they are doing work, no one knows what it is. That’s not the case in actual oil and gas, but that’s the joke. What are these people actually doing here?
TM: How did you feel when you experienced being laid off yourself?
GM: We had known that layoffs were happening for about a year and a half at that point. At the time, I was feel pretty gross and drab and helpless. Everybody thinks they’re going to get laid off, so there’s a feeling of being stagnant, there’s no more passion or inspiration to do your work. So in that case, what is the drive to do a good job? It becomes a huge existential reckoning, professionally speaking. So when I was laid off, I was relieved, because I wanted to be out of this position that I was unhappy with, but I was also strangely upset, because nobody likes being told they aren’t needed. It’s also surprising because you have a routine and the moment it stops, a lot of the values you subconsciously associated with your life are now also gone. What does it mean to not receive a paycheque every two weeks? What does it mean to go on Employment Insurance? So there are a lot of things which surprise the unemployed.
TM: I imagine you incorporated those thoughts and feelings into the film. What sort of takeaways, looking back, do you have about corporate culture and largely the day-to-day working life most people find themselves in?
GM: I actually started writing the script while I was still employed. In terms of corporate culture, I don’t think the feeling is exclusive to oil and gas at all. You hear about tech giants who lay off thousands of people at a time. I think that when businesses get too big it’s really hard to find personal motivation for people. People want to feel valued and necessary and if you’re giving them a job anybody can fill it makes you disassociated with your work. Oftentimes, you’re not hiring for personality at that point. You’re working with people who in any other situation you’d never be friends with and would never spend 12 hours a day with and it further alienates you from your work. It’s a generational thing. People of a millennial age want to feel immediate value in their work and feel like they’re irreplaceable.
TM: And so you had a unique perspective, given the fact that you were younger and that your co-workers were likely older. What about that felt interesting to explore in a narrative?
GM: Well, firstly I like that there are huge implications to the oil and gas industry. It’s super controversial, it’s politicized, it’s a hot topic even though it’s our own country. That’s fascinating to me. I think that big money and big problems make for compelling stories. I also feel like very few people know what it’s like to work in oil and gas. Everybody understands what a doctor does, everyone understands what a lawyer does, but oil and gas in a conventional setting, I think that people are surprised and disbelieve how raw it is and how low-fi it can appear at times. A lot of conventional oil and gas, it’s basically like sticking metal straws in the ground and then poking everything with them. So because of that, I really wanted to show people something they might not expect. It’s satirical, so what I’m showing you isn’t necessarily technically correct, but it’s more about the feeling of what it’s like to go to the middle of nowhere and press a lever. That’s all you do.
TM: Was that difficult, to deal with these big implications and big themes but still ground it on a character level?
GM: Yeah, I found that super challenging. This is my first-ever feature film. My first script, an earlier draft, I felt this pressure to hit social points and political points and feminist points. But I did strip it back down to personal experience, and was inspired by stories of my friends and co-workers. I really tried to root it in reality. The more the draft continued, the more it became rooted in an emotional place, or a day-to-day place. It’s better, and the story came about once the characters developed and the universe developed. I’ve learned so much in making this.
TM: What would be your pitch to get folks to check out Circle of Steel?
GM: You should come and see a story that I know nobody else can tell. And it’s your story. It’s very Albertan. It’s very Calgary. And it’s you. I think that you’ll be surprised to see yourself on screen this way.
Circle of Steel makes its World Premiere at the Calgary International Film Festival at 7 PM on Sept. 25, with a second showing scheduled Sept. 30. For tickets, click here.
Calgary Film interview: Keely and Du director Laurie Colbert
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.
THE MUTT: When did you first become acquainted with the play?
LAURIE COLBERT: I first read the play some 18 to 20 years ago, and have been following the play since then. I was compelled by the play’s strong message of humanity and tolerance, and how despite our ideological differences, with some efforts we can come to share an understanding of the issues that would drive us apart. It was a long journey from first reading the play to finally optioning the film rights, having first to convince playwright Jane Martin that we wanted to confine the characters and their story to an island, rather than setting the story in the play’s original location of a basement. Along the way we made our first feature film Finn’s Girl and our second feature film Margarita, and the making of these films have provided us with the experience and the insight for making Keely and Du.
TM: How do you feel your style has developed over the years and what themes have been most important to you?
LC: Over the past 30 years we have experimented with feminist storytelling in film, through our documentaries Thank God I’m a Lesbian and My Feminism, our Berlin-premiered short film Below the Belt, and then our feature films Finn’s Girl and Margarita and now Keely and Du. Each of these films explored facets of women’s experiences that are close to our hearts. Reflected in this growing body of work is our commitment and our passions for telling women’s stories that often don’t form part of mainstream media and discourses.
TM: How does this film fit into that context?
LC: Oh, it fits in perfectly. My Feminism included discussions of sex and abortion. Finn’s Girl, our first feature, was about an abortionist. In each of our films, in different ways, we have examined women’s control of our own bodies, of our sexuality, and of our reproductive rights. All of these themes came together in how we conceived the film adaptation of Keely and Du. Keely and Du is by far our most ambitious and our most challenging film to date.
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: While the recent encouraging developments of the #metoo movement may signal a paradigm shift in how women’s sexuality and consent are negotiated and discussed in mainstream media, there are still many facets of women’s sexuality, bodily experiences and reproductive rights that are still controlled, legislated and managed by the very much male-dominated domain of conservative social agenda and religious fundamentalism. Our film Keely and Du speaks to the urgent need for women to help each other overcome the societal hurdles that have thwarted women’s struggles to control our own bodies and our own reproductive rights.
TM: What’s your pitch to folks to come out and see this film?
LC: We believe that everyone should form their own informed position on the abortion debate, but no matter where people find themselves on this continuum of public opinion, they should open their hearts and mind to circumstances (such as rape and domestic violence) that sometimes necessitate more nuanced contexts for forming opinions on the polarizing debate on abortion. It is our hope that our film Keely and Du will provide an engaging experience that will open hearts and minds. Come see for yourselves!
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.
Director Lowell Dean on the “violent, kick-ass” world of SuperGrid
SuperGrid, directed by Lowell Dean (WolfCop, 13 Eerie), opens in select theatres across Canada on Dec. 14. He spoke with The Mutt prior to the film’s Sept. 21 Calgary World Premiere 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?
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 opens in select theatres across Canada Dec. 14.