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What Walaa Wants’ central subject is a “force of nature”

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Directed by Cristy Garland, What Walaa Wants traces the journey of a young Palestinian girl from age 15 to 21. Photo courtesy National Film Board of Canada
Directed by Christy Garland, What Walaa Wants traces the journey of a young Palestinian girl seeking to join the Palestinian Security Forces. Photo courtesy National Film Board of Canada

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.

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There Are No Fakes is a shocking journey into the world of art fraud

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Directed by Jamie Kastner, There Are No Fakes is a shocking feature-length documentary that centres on the work of Norval Morrisseau. Photo courtesy Cave 7 Productions
Directed by Jamie Kastner, There Are No Fakes is a shocking feature-length documentary that centres on the work of Norval Morrisseau. Photo courtesy Cave 7 Productions

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.”

Norval Morrisseau of the Bingwi Neyaashi Anishinaabek First Nation was sometimes referred to as the "Picasso of the North". Photo courtesy Cave 7 Productions

Norval Morrisseau of the Bingwi Neyaashi Anishinaabek First Nation was sometimes referred to as the “Picasso of the North”. Photo courtesy Cave 7 Productions

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

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Isabelle brings psychological terror to an idyllic neighbourhood

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Starring Adam Brody, Amanda Crew, Zoë Belkin and others, Isabelle returns to Canada for a theatrical run starting June 28. Photo courtesy GAT PR.
Starring Adam Brody, Amanda Crew, Zoë Belkin and others, Isabelle returns to Canada for a theatrical run starting June 28. Photo courtesy GAT PR.

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.”

Isabelle made its world premiere in South Korea in October 2018, and has since played at 33 film festivals around the world. Photo courtesy GAT PR

Isabelle made its world premiere in South Korea in October 2018, and has since played at 33 film festivals around the world. Photo courtesy GAT PR

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

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Horror materializes in unconventional ways in Things Fall Apart

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Things Fall Apart, the first feature from director/writer Hussein Juma, plays June 2 at the Globe Cinema in Calgary. Photo courtesy Hussein Juma
Things Fall Apart, the first feature from director/writer Hussein Juma, plays June 2 at the Globe Cinema in Calgary. Photo courtesy Hussein Juma

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.’”

Through using improvised dialogue, Juma says he was able to capture the essence of a dinner party, complete with moments of levity, tension and awkwardness. Photo courtesy Hussein Juma

Through using improvised dialogue, Juma says he was able to capture the essence of a dinner party, complete with moments of levity, tension and awkwardness. Photo courtesy Hussein Juma

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

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