Since the early 2000s, the Israeli West Bank barrier has been a constant presence in the country, separating Israel and Palestine with the stated purpose of acting as a barrier against terrorists, but to some symbolizing existing divisions between people in the region. In WALL, a feature-length animated film directed by award-winning Calgary filmmaker Cam Christiansen and written by and starring British playwright David Hare, those divisions and the psychology of separation are examined on a philosophical level.
“WALL follows our main character, David Hare, who also wrote the screenplay. He stars as an animated character and it follows his journey through Israel and the West Bank,” Christiansen said. “It’s a sad statement that you feel you have to put up walls. So he’s trying to understand, how did it come to this?”
Christiansen said he was focused on trying to portray both sides of the debate surrounding the barrier, telling people that as a Canadian filmmaker and outside observer he had “no axe to grind.”
“I tried to make it really clear that we’re outsiders coming to try and understand the situation. We have tried to show both sides and I think David Hare did an absolutely exceptional job navigating a really difficult terrain,” he said. “I’ve been all over the world with the film and I initially was completely worried. But the reaction has been the complete opposite. I have had people complain about the idea of fairness and balance, but it’s very much in the minority.”
Though the West Bank barrier has remained highly controversial in the region for nearly two decades, its lasting impact has been complex and is near impossible to understand if one is only exposed to intermittent reporting and occasional sound bites. Christiansen said WALL was an opportunity to approach the subject at an intellectual level.
“The Israel-Palestine conflict doesn’t fit into a sound bite,” he said. “The film doesn’t (solve the conflict), but I think it does offer insights through really high-level discussion.”
Some of those insights come through discussions with prominent Israeli authors, such as David Grossman, who was awarded the 2017 Man Booker International Prize for his novel A Horse Walks Into a Bar.
“(Grossman) is so poetic and thoughtful and he offers a really unique perspective that’s actually very pro-Israel, but I think a very unique perspective,” Christiansen said. “He is willing to accept that there is vulnerability in his point of view. Whereas often in these conflicts, there’s this kind of saber-rattling that happens where both sides feel like they can’t give an inch because it undermines their position.”
Other academics on the other side of the debate also help to humanize what often becomes an abstract concept of division, Christiansen said. Though the film deals with thorny issues such as land ownership and United Nations resolutions, Christiansen said there was a specific effort made to personalize the struggles of the human beings affected by this physical installation.
Christiansen said he was also cognizant of the parallels between the West Bank barrier and various other international conflicts and situations. When the project began, the filmmakers were unsure whether its long production cycle would eventually undermine its relevance.
“It was the most amazing thing that the world just went the absolute opposite direction than in the way you would hope it would go,” Christiansen said. “All the problems with immigration, the rise of nationalism all across the world. The film became more and more relevant and it couldn’t be more relevant now.”
WALL boasts a unique aesthetic style, one that Christiansen said was partly inspired by graphic novels and was supported by the National Film Board of Canada.
“I like an occasional superhero film, but you don’t have a sense of authorship (in terms of) who made that film,” Christiansen said. “There’s not an artistic thumbprint or impression that is really distinct. So I really like that idea and wanted to try to give the aesthetic an impression that it was made by a person.
“I tried to (use) really broad brush strokes, so it’s really messy. It goes with the subject matter – it’s really raw and messy, just to really give it a distinct authorship.”
Christiansen said that those interested in a high-level discussion surrounding the Israel-Palestine conflict would find WALL illuminating.
“There are many bright minds who have tried to solve the Israel-Palestine conflict and have failed dismally. But the more you can learn about it the better, so I think the film does offer some new insights,” Christiansen said. “Plus, they describe (Hare) as the greatest living playwright, so you know you’re in incredibly good hands on a word level.”
WALL screens at the Globe Cinema in Calgary with a Q&A with Christiansen on August 17, 2018. The film is also scheduled to screen August 17 at Cinémathèque québécoise in Montreal and at the Vancity Theatre in Vancouver. For more information, click here.
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.
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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