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.
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