It was the birth of his fourth child – and only daughter – two years ago that gave Carl Bessai the subject for his latest film.
Mothers and Daughters, a genre-bending blend of fact and fiction, screens Saturday at the Yukon Arts Centre as part of the Available Light Film Festival.
Described as a very funny and honest exploration of three contemporary mother-daughter relationships, it’s also a movie that Bessai refers to affectionately as “a labour of love.”
“It’s a movie I made on the back of a film prize I won at the Vancouver International Film Festival in 2007,” Bessai says on the phone from Vancouver.
Normal, a drama starring Carrie-Anne Moss and Kevin Zegers, won Bessai the $12,000 Citytv Western Canada Feature Film Award.
“So I had this money, and I thought, what can I do that’s a bit radical, risky and not really conventional?”
“What if I try to take the screenplay out of it and do something with improv?”
Bessai also wanted to work with three female actors – Gabrielle Rose, Babz Chula and Tantoo Cardinal – whose work he admired, but who, “as middle-aged women, tend to get overlooked for leads in movies.”
“What if I just bring them together and propose an improvised piece? I had this baby girl and I was thinking a lot about women and their daughters and their relationships. So I thought, let’s do something about mothers and their daughters.”
Bessai began without a plan in mind other than co-creation, but the idea quickly evolved into a three-part narrative, each featuring two actors playing a mother and daughter.
“Over about three or four months we met off-and-on. I would meet each mother-daughter duo and we would talk about the idea of the movie.
“I’d run a camcorder and I’d get my intern to transcribe these endless hours of tape, and out of it I wrote an outline – no dialogue, just sketches of scenes.”
It’s the kind of movie, Bessai explains, that’s impossible to raise money for in a conventional way.
“I didn’t want to spend my time raising a lot of money,” he says. “I’d been doing that for a lot of years and I just thought, this’ll be something different.”
He used a six-person crew and shot endless hours of footage, all improvised, “so some of it was great and some of it was terrible.”
But when he put together some of the raw footage to raise money for post-production, “it was really amazing how good the stuff was – the characters came across really quickly.”
He got his money and spent four months editing the film with a young film editor – another process of improvisation.
“It’s got lots of beauty and insight, and there’s something really lovely about these women and their narratives. And it was completely made on a dime.”
The little-film-that-could was invited to the Toronto International Film Festival and won the Audience Award at the Vancouver International Film Festival.
“We have these huge industrial ways that we make film – they’re enormous financial machines – and sometimes I think that along the way the heart of the movie gets left behind,” says Bessai.
“There’s something really personal and intimate and honest and simple about this film. It rejuvenated my enthusiasm for the process.”
Normally, says Bessai, making a movie involves an enormous amount of time dealing with agents and producers and very little time actually talking to the actors.
“And I thought, that’s so backward. Why not spend time with the actors, getting to know them and developing the story?
“It was a wonderful way to work – so much so that I’m planning to shoot the Fathers and Sons movie, with a similar format.”
Bessai admits it’s scary going out on a limb with limited money and relying on favours.
“But if you put Meryl Streep in this kind of movie, it’d be a different film. It wouldn’t be a bad film – she’s great – but you’re talking about movie stars, and suddenly the average viewer is relating to that film differently.”
Bessai has made eight feature films and says the documentary habits he acquired earlier in his career affect the way he makes drama.
“If I go out to make a documentary I want to make it dramatic in some way, and I find when I go out to make a drama I want the documentary there – the idea that you’re trying to find truth in these dramatic moments, and you’re trying as much as you can to keep the actors from feeling like they’re in a movie.”
That’s why Mothers and Daughters was so refreshing, says Bessai – he was returning to “a really simple, raw, exposed kind of documentary authenticity and getting away from all the fakery of sets and lighting and locations.”
Bessai found his way into filmmaking after abandoning university studies in commerce and then in English, where he felt he was headed for a teaching career.
“That seemed really narrow, and I was really panicking about it. I was looking around, and I took a film studies course, and I liked it.”
After his BA he headed off to film school in Toronto.
“It was really unstructured, and it seemed kind of flaky, but it opened my eyes to the fact that, if you wanted to make something, you had to get off your ass and make it. You had to learn the techniques.
“The first experience of screening something in front of an audience – I got really hooked on it. But it was a long time before I could make a professional movie.”
Bessai has worked in every facet of the industry and knows only too well how difficult the movie business is.
“The variables and the headaches and the kind of nonsense that goes into getting a film made is just mind-blowing. It’s not a job for the faint of heart.”
Nevertheless, he feels very lucky to be able to make his living as a filmmaker. “You have to want to make your film more badly than anyone else does,” he says of his route to success.
Just back from the Berlin Film Festival, he found that “the appetite and enthusiasm in Germany for Canadian artists is really overwhelming.
“We are not genetically incapable of producing great art in this country.”
Mothers and Daughters screens on Saturday at 7 p.m., with director Carl Bessai and actress Tantoo Cardinal in attendance. On Sunday morning Bessai and Cardinal host a free workshop on actor-director collaboration from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. Register at email@example.com, or call 393-3456.
Whitehorse writer Patricia Robertson’s most recent book is The Goldfish Dancer.