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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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Honey Bee is a revealing look at human trafficking in Canada

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Honey Bee, directed by Rama Rau, stars Julia Sarah Stone as an underage truck stop sex-worker on a journey of survival.
Honey Bee, directed by Rama Rau, stars Julia Sarah Stone as an underage truck stop sex-worker on a journey of survival. Photo courtesy A71 Entertainment

Honey Bee director Rama Rau may be known to Canadian audiences mostly due to her acclaimed work in documentary, including League of Exotique Dancers (2015) and No Place to Hide (2015) – the former profiling aging burlesque dancers and the latter taking a focus on the world of cyberbullying.

But though Honey Bee marks Rau’s narrative feature debut, her instincts honed in documentary filmmaking remain essential, as much of the film is shot as though it were a documentary feature.

“I think that was key in telling the story, for me,” Rau said. “The actors were never acting – they were always in that state.”

Much of the film’s dramatic power is supplied by lead actress Julia Sarah Stone, who plays Natalie, an underage truck stop sex-worker on a journey of survival.

“She was literally the crux of the film. She was everything,” Rau said. “When I saw her audition, and I looked at a lot of auditions, I really wanted her to be in my film.”

Rau spoke with The Mutt about Stone, transitioning from documentary filmmaking and the too-infrequently discussed prevalence of human trafficking in Canada. This interview has been edited and condensed for length.

THE MUTT: So tell me about Honey Bee.

RAMA RAU: It’s about a girl groomed from the foster home system and put into a human trafficking ring. She thinks the person grooming her is her boyfriend. That’s how they get young girls from the foster care system in Canada. Then, she’s caught in a police raid and sent to a farm and the movie really begins there, her coming to terms with what has happened. A lot of it is her finding herself.

TM: What were your first thoughts when you initially read the script?

RR: I was a bit shocked, to be honest. I was stunned that these things happen in Canada. I wondered if I wanted this to be my debut feature. But it’s never frightened me to go into the underbelly of society. But films have the power to open up areas that we don’t normally talk about. I also said as a woman director I can bring a certain perspective to it. And I found my way into the story, and said, “This is how I’m going to do it, and if you’re OK with it, I’m happy to work on this film.”

TM: What were those specific elements you wanted to bring to the film?

RR: I knew I wanted it to be totally told from the perspective of Natalie, from her POV. I knew I wanted it to be a very personal film. In documentary, we use handheld cameras a lot. We literally run behind our characters. I wanted that sense of urgency in this film. We kind of blurred the lines between fiction and fact. I wanted to go so deep into the story, so the audience never knows, “Is this a real story, or is this a person acting? Does this really happen in Canada?”  [There was a scene where] and we ran behind [Natalie] like we were a camera crew.

TM: This film is obviously so based on character and Natalie’s experience. Do you think approaching things with that documentary mentality, did that help you capture small character moments?

RR: Yes, absolutely. I think that was key in telling the story. For me, the actors were never acting, they were always in that state. I encouraged them to be that way for as long as we were filming. I think they really took that to heart. They really lived their characters, and that was so rewarding for the camera because the camera picked up every little twitch of the cheek and movement of the eyebrow. I think that really lent to the authenticity. I even told Ryan (Steven Love), I want you to not talk too much to the women and I want them to hate you by the end of the film. So it’s really beyond method acting, it’s really living and being that character for that period of time.

TM: Having someone capable in the lead is obviously very important, because you need someone who is able to deliver that authenticity. How important was it having Stone in that role?

RR: Oh my god, she was literally the crux of the film. She was everything. I know she did so much research. I think she really carries the film on her shoulders. That’s why I had to choose such a strong actor like Martha to offset Julia’s stunning performance. I got so lucky in getting such great actors. God knows what I would have done if Julia wouldn’t have been able to deliver, because the film is totally based on every nuance of her face.

TM: Why would you recommend people check out the film?

RR: I think human trafficking in Ontario is not talked about enough. I think people watching this film will find a way into thinking about it. It’s not a news item. It’s more of a story of a girl who has been through the sex trade and has been bartered like a piece of furniture. I think we need to give these girls a voice. Since documentaries on these subjects can’t be made because it brings a lot of danger to their lives, these sort of films based on social issues is what opens up peoples’ minds to these sorts of issues. That’s why I think this film is crucial for people to watch if we have to tackle things like human trafficking in Ontario.

Honey Bee opened in select theatres on Sept. 20 and will be available on Video on Demand on Dec. 10.

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Director Rob Grant on the tension (and dark comedy) of HARPOON

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From director Rob Grant (Mon Ami, Fake Blood), Harpoon will make its Canadian premiere at the Calgary Underground Film Festival. Photo courtesy CUFF
From director Rob Grant (Mon Ami, Fake Blood), Harpoon will make its Canadian premiere at the Calgary Underground Film Festival April 28. Photo courtesy CUFF

Adrift on the seas on a luxury yacht, three friends find themselves stranded without food or supplies and quickly realize their survival is less than assured. An official selection at International Film Festival Rotterdam 2019, Harpoon made its Canadian premiere at the Calgary Underground Film Festival (CUFF) April 28. The film will release on VOD in Canada on October 15.

The Mutt spoke with director Rob Grant prior to the film’s screening at CUFF 2019. This interview has been edited and condensed for length.

THE MUTT: Can you tell me a bit about the genesis of Harpoon?

ROB GRANT: I had a great relationship with my producers (Knuckleball director Michael Peterson and Kurtis Harder) from a film called Fake Blood. I pitched Mr. Peterson on this idea that was a mix between Polanski’s Knife on the Water but by way of Seinfeld characters on the boat. I grew up in Vancouver, and the original idea was, “Well, I spent a lot of time on a boat, we could go take a boat out to the ocean and try to isolate ourselves out there.” Once a budget came into play and the idea grew, suddenly we were shooting the interiors of the boat in a set in the middle of freezing winter in Calgary, and shooting the exteriors on a boat in tropical Belize down south.

TM: Was it difficult for you to balance those comedic elements and still find a way to ratchet up the tension?

RG: It was very difficult, and there were a lot of discussions about that. When you have to give the elevator pitch, you have to say: “This is the genre and this is what it means.” But I subscribe to the logic that in life you can feel in one moment that you’re in a love story and the next minute in a horror movie, and that’s the way real life actually works. But it seems a little more rigid in movies. We were aware of potentially disrupting viewers’ experiences of watching the movie. (We thought) a movie could, or should, be multiple things at once. We’re willing to accept that there’s going to be some audience members that are going to reject that as a movie experience, but we wanted to try it.

Harpoon director Rob Grant said premiering the film at International Film Festival Rotterdam 2019 was a very validating experience. Photo courtesy CUFF

Harpoon director Rob Grant said premiering the film at International Film Festival Rotterdam 2019 was a very validating experience. Photo courtesy CUFF

TM: Can you tell me more about those influences you mentioned? I’m curious about how you mixed something like Seinfeld with more traditional thriller elements.

RG: Hitchcock’s Lifeboat was definitely in there, as well as Polanski’s Knife in the Water. But I had to still find the dark humour in it, and Seinfeld came up specifically because as much as we all find the Seinfeld characters enduring, they’re very much in it for themselves. They’re worried about their own outcomes. So I tried to use a lot of that. As much as these people like to say they’re looking out for each other, the second it becomes a survival story they’re all kind of in it for themselves. Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia was another one, not only for mixing drama and humour, but definitely because the narration was less focused. It sets up what’s going to happen without speaking to much on the nose about what you’re about to see.

TM: I understand there’s some great gore and effects in Harpoon. What was your approach to that, and what effect do you think that has? 

RG: I’ve explored the effects of violence in cinema with Fake Blood, and this was an extension of that. The entire movie, these people speak very casually and aloof about the things that potentially will need to be done without actually considering what that entails until suddenly when it happens. I felt like it would be a good idea to make sure that was extremely violent and horrible, not only because we’ve been teasing up to this moment, but I do believe there’s a certain element that people do not consider the actual realities of having to do something like that. So it’s very shocking, very brutal, it’s like, “ha ha ha this was all funny to discuss” and now that it’s happened it sucks the wind out of you. That was a very intentional decision.

TM: What do you think Harpoon does in a unique way when compared to other similar films? What do you hope the audience walks away with?

RG: I hope when people leave the cinema that it wasn’t the movie they were expecting, that it was a little bit of a different take. I do think it’ll challenge them depending what their expectations are. I just hope they’re expecting something interesting in the genre, and that they’re along for the ride.

Harpoon will be released on VOD in Canada on October 15.

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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.

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