Focus on Festivals

Hot Docs 2013: Chi

Courtesy National Film Board of Canada

Anyone who knew one of Vancouver’s most endearing actresses, Babz Chula, remembers her as a lively spitfire, an adventurer, a woman whose life-force, or chi, vibrated with vitality. In the new documentary Chi, she says, “I want to live, live, live—until I don’t.”

At 62 years young, Babz is in the advanced stage of an eight-year battle with breast cancer that has metastasized to her liver and is further complicated by a rare blood cancer. She decides to share her health struggles on film. The trusted filmmaker she invites to document her journey is esteemed west coast director Anne Wheeler (Bye Bye Blues and Better Than Chocolate). “We didn’t know each other well,” Wheeler recalls about starting the film. “I got pulled into her story. It was a psychological story. Sometimes Babz was in serious denial and sometimes she drew great strength from the camera. Things unfolded like a psychological thriller.”

Babz seeks ayurvedic treatment at a small, remote clinic in India where a friend of hers was reportedly cured of cancer. Wheeler’s documentary starts as they leave Canada and arrive in India, with Babz worn down and in need of immediate care. The camera is often between them, like a third friend, with both women keeping to the side they’re most accustomed to from their careers. “I shot about 80 percent of it,” Wheeler says. “I had not made a documentary like this since the ’70s. I’d been waiting to come back to documentary. I enjoyed using the camera again and shooting on the go.”

Wheeler documents the ups and downs of the treatments that Babz finds excruciating but accepts, hoping to put her cancers in remission. When she’s up to it, Babz borrows the camera for several harrowing diary segments. They take strolls around the clinic and sneak away for a brief outing of song, shopping, fun and laughter. After six weeks, Babz looks 20 years younger than when she arrived. She declares with renewed energy, “I feel like I’m healing, I don’t feel sick anymore.”

Three weeks after their return to Canada, Babz admits to not following the ayurvedic treatment plan. She looks sick again, and worse, she has an untreatable tumor on her brain. The prognosis is palliative care, which she requests to spend at home. “Filming Babz to the end demystified the process of dying for me,” Wheeler remembers. “I hadn’t seen anyone face certain death before.

“Babz stretched out the palliative time at home longer than the doctors predicted. She was able to say her goodbyes, to have reconciliation, to enjoy those extra enjoyable moments. That’s Babz.”

Click here for POV’s full list of Hot Docs previews.

Screenings:
Sat, Apr 27 8:00 PM
TIFF Bell Lightbox 3

Mon, Apr 29 11:00 AM
Isabel Bader Theatre

Sat, May 4 1:00 PM
TIFF Bell Lightbox 3

Janis Cole holds an MFA in Documentary Media from Ryerson University. She is a professor at OCAD University, and her award-winning documentaries include Calling the Shots, about the working lives of women filmmakers.

View all articles by Janis Cole »