A good film festival always yields some fresh discoveries from filmmakers who tackle hard questions and shake things up with film form. Last year’s winner for Canadian film, Mathieu Denis and Simon Lavoie’s Those Who Make Revolution Halfway Only Dig Their Own Graves, for example, offered a bracing shock of anti-establishment energy with its radical tapestry of drama and archival footage. Even a veteran like Deepa Mehta proved with her unclassifiable Anatomy of Violence that a filmmaker could reinvent herself by challenging the foundations of everything she’s worked with in the past.
Graves and Anatomy of Violence are both unique hybrid films (in a very flexible sense of the term) that use an exchange of drama and documentary to challenge the shakiness of the state and national consciousness in Quebec and India, respectively. In a similar vein this year comes Vancouver-based filmmaker Wayne Wapeemukwa with the audaciously innovative Luk’Luk’I (pronounced Luck Lucky) that adapts a short film of the same name, which audiences might have seen at TIFF 2014. The film recalls the work of Abbas Kiarostami with its poetic blend of reality and fiction as it invites a series of non-professional actors, residents from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, to play variations of themselves in a drama set against the flag-waving backdrop of the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. These stories introduce an Indigenous sex worker named Angel (now retired in real life), a local celebrity and transwoman named Rollergirl, a disabled actor named Ken, a heroin addict named Eric, and an Indigenous man named Mark (played by Joe Dion Buffalo), who struggles with loss and recurring visions of UFOs coming to abduct him.
There’s a lot more to these five characters than the simplified labels provided above. Wapeemukwa invites audiences to explore a side of the city that didn’t make the airwaves during the moment of unabashed patriotism that culminated in Sidney Crosby scoring a gold-medal winning goal. Luk’Luk’I revisits the Vancouver Games at a moment of hyper-nationalism circa Canada 150, and the divide between Canada as we present it and Canada as it really exists is more pronounced than ever. As Wapeemukwa says, the film presents a gap between truths and fictions that exposes the “cracks in the façade of settler patriotism.” POV spoke with Wapeemukwa about Luk’Luk’I ahead of its world premiere in TIFF’s Discovery programme.
POV: Pat Mullen
WW: Wayne Wapeemukwa
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
POV: If you could start by setting the scene for us, what was it like for you in Vancouver at the time of the Olympics?
WW: I was still in school, but I wasn’t attending classes much since I was going through a bit of a crisis of my own. My buddy was put in jail for going to a protest. I went to a couple of demonstrations at the most; I wouldn’t say that I was an active activist at the time, but I was certainly cognizant of the political implications of the Games. I had friends who were involved and felt the repercussions of the police state come down on them.
POV: And were there always plans to return to this tale after the short? Was the idea of “five Olympic rings, five stories” there all along?
WW: I always had the intention of creating a feature film out of my short work. The difference is that I’ve been making movies with some of the people from the Downtown Eastside who appear in the movie for three to four years in different forms—hybrid fiction, documentary, a dance film—and throughout all these forays, I always had the intention of doing a feature, but not an amalgamation of those movies. It was more a question of circumstance.
POV: The premise of the film is intriguing. Can you walk me through the process of meeting people and working out fictional interpretations of their lives?
WW: I think that’s actually the most important part of the movie because of not only the ethics but also the content is highly dependent on my relationships with the non-actors. That’s not something you can develop according to a schedule. I’ve known Angel since 2013. Same with Eric. With Eric, I was helping him out when he was being reno-victed from his place, so I was his housing advocate for a while. I helped him find his biological son—the son who meets up with him in Luk’Luk’I is his actual son—so they could reconnect. With Angel, there was something similar with her daughter in a short documentary I made called Mirrors last year.
Joe is probably the most interesting character because he’s technically the only one who is actually “playing” a character. The person he’s playing is Mark, who passed away before production. It was tough. He was Eric’s best friend, so that’s why Eric and Mark have such a bond in the movie because they actually had that relationship. The problem there was how to tell Mark’s story without changing it and how to be honest to both Joe and Mark at the same time—hence the metaphor of the UFO for a settler/colonial figure, which made sense in the context of an Indigenous actor like Joe.
POV: That metaphor was very interesting, especially in the context of blurring fiction and reality in the hybrid style. While developing relationship with these characters now over the course of a few films and years, how do you balance the personal relationships with, say, objectivity? How does that help the film?
WW: The more trust that we have, the better. A lot of these stories are deeply intimate for these characters. For example, you can take Rollegirl being arrested by the police. She ended up suing them through a human rights tribunal and won because of gender discrimination. That itself is taken from her life. When I was able to show her the movie, she had a strong emotional reaction to the scene and it was very touching. That kind of emotional reaction could only happen due to our proximity. Getting close to these people, helping them, and building relationships actually helps create a more honest and precise point to the picture.
POV: That’s fair, especially since they’re giving so much of themselves.
WW: It’s a reciprocal process.
POV: Was anything off limits?
WW: There were certainly discussions, like with Rollergirl, when they use her previous male name, I had to make sure she was ok with that. There were extensive rehearsal processes and she said she was fine with it. She wanted to fictionalize it and she understood that is was make believe, so to speak, even though it was taken from her life. Same with Eric shooting up and showing his rig: that was another scene that took a lot of rehearsals and discussion.
POV: It’s implicit in the style how part of the complexity of these issues is how people talk about them, especially the people implicated in them.
WW: Fiction might have been the thing that made it possible. If I were doing a capital D “Documentary,” then some of these scenes would be off limits. Being able to see them through the lens of a fiction even though they’re really happening, filming a documentary as though it were a fiction, enables a safe distance between a non-actor and the event from their life, which we’re documenting.
POV: What about the style? I felt like I was never sure what exactly I was watching, or if some of the background action and extras were like Candid Camera strokes of luck.
WW: There isn’t anything like Candid Camera since I didn’t want to exploit anyone by hiding a camera, per se. I personally have no problem doing that to people who live in Yaletown or are millionaires, but I would certainly not do that on Hastings. To your point on unscripted moments, towards the end of the movie, after we see Angel abandoned at the ice rink, she’s having a drink in the bar and we can see through her reflection at two hockey fans, much like the way in which the state sees through the image of an Indigenous sex worker at the Games. Her husband knocks on the window and they go outside to have a conversation—that scene was unscripted and entirely improvised on that day. She knew that the last scene of the film would be her death at the hands of a fake [Robert] Pickton, so she said there wasn’t a moment where we saw her die emotionally, so to speak. She happened to find her cousin crossing the street and she said he might be good for a scene, so we brought him in, wrote that scene where she passes him his presents and he says that he’s sober, which is entirely true. That’s just one example of a scene that was written mostly by Angel.
POV: That’s fascinating. I had a few moments while watching the film where I had to remind myself that it wasn’t actually shot during the Olympics, like that scene where Rollergirl is accosted by a group of rowdy guys on the street.
WW: That’s taken directly from her YouTube video, actually. Her channel is chock full of GoPro videos.
POV: I absolutely love the sequence with Rollergirl where she performs in a dazzling light display. It reminded me of the scene in Xavier Dolan’s Mommy where Steve opens his arms and the film releases this amazing energy as the frame expands. Why give this particular sequence such a unique aesthetic? It’s really a centrepiece of the film.
WW: One of the guiding motifs of the movie was to try and give the non-actors agency [to show] the way in which the settler state deprives them of subjectivity and agency. One of the formals ways we wanted to facilitate this was to provide the non-actors with cameras and to have the movie formally transform into whatever the non-actor was going through. Like with Eric, after he talks with his son and is invited to the game, he fantasizes about singing to him, which is a true story, so the movie itself becomes like a karaoke video. Rollergirl is a local icon and wants to be a celebrity—the Rollergirl you see in the movie is the Rollergirl who exists in real life—so when she is in jail and she’s fantasizing about that dream and aspiration, it’s just natural that the movie transforms into a music video, which is a form of fantasy. What is a music video other than something that shows hyper-realized images of celebrity or fake images of celebrity status?
POV: I like that, and you can tell the scene just gives her this exuberant joy. And going on a different train to talk about Canadian film more broadly, your friend and fellow BC filmmaker Kevan Funk had a very engaging exchange with TIFF’s Cameron Bailey earlier this year in terms of the conversation of what more Canadian filmmakers should do: take risks, innovate with style, and tell stories that really engage with our conception of what it means to be “Canadian.” Luk’Luk’I checks all those boxes, so I’m interested to know if it had much troubled getting made and out there. I know it has Telefilm and Canada Council support, but was a film like this one an easy sell?
WW: I’m fully aware of the debate that was posed by Kevan to Cameron. I think that they’re both right.
POV: Oh, yes. I agree.
WW: I don’t think that there’s entirely a disagreement between them. I think Cameron is entirely correct to point out ‘It’s not about you, it’s about us.’ It’s about telling stories about Canadian identity that don’t need to told through the prism of a bildungsroman or single coming of age tale. Kevan’s point was the there’s “an incentivized path to mediocrity” where, even if you fulfilled that as he attempted to do [with Hello Destroyer], you would still be marginalized and that’s precisely what this movie is going through at this moment. I made a movie that checked every single box of Cameron Bailey’s editorial and what we are finding ourselves is that we are consistently being marginalized by different festivals, buyers, and sales agents. We are the proof of Kevan’s point, if I could say that. There is indeed an incentivized path to mediocrity.
POV: Which is so frustrating because there is a demand for more stories about who we are…
WW: Or who we’re not—
POV: —or who we’re not. And so what can we do?
WW: I don’t know if that’s the right question. One of the things we’re hearing from distributors and sales agents is that they think the movie’s amazing, they can’t believe these are non-actors, they like how it’s political and emotional, but they just don’t feel it’s right for them at this time. I think that a larger symptom of the industry as a whole is that this is an industry that prides itself on telling stories that are quote-unquote “accessible to mass audiences” despite the fact that movies like mine and Kevan’s are appealing to mass audiences. Everybody’s felt the emotions that are going through these questions. The answer to your question is a far more structural change. There is very little I can do as a filmmaker aside from telling stories that I think are important to tell.
POV: And that in itself is very important. What about this generation of filmmakers? Who are other up and comers, Canadian or international, whose work inspires you?
WW: First and foremost Chelsea McMullan… her cinema is absolutely astounding. It’s always been an inspiration of mine—we went to the same high school, but she was a few years older than me. She came on board to executive produce the documentary because I’ve been showing her my shitty shorts for years and she’s been criticizing them to pieces. She’s always been a great asset. If there is one filmmaker I can isolate today that is doing great work, it would be Chelsea McMullan.