“If anyone’s gonna make a depressing film about cheerleaders, it’s gonna be me!” laughs Christy Garland, two days before the premiere of Cheer Up, her new documentary. Her last film, The Bastard Sings the Sweetest Song, was a tender, wrenching portrait of a family in Guyana.
“I was editing Bastard, which was just such a sad film…when I met this woman at an art opening, a former cheerleader, who coaches cheerleading teams,” says Garland.
“She said there’s this one team you probably don’t want to hear about, they’re probably the worst cheerleading team in the world…they live at the Arctic Circle in Finland. And I said you know, that’s actually exactly what I want to hear about.”
Garland is in her kitchen in Toronto’s Parkdale. Finnish cheerleaders in their pyjamas wander in, looking for change for the bus. The filmmaker is on the phone with her Finnish co-producer, trying to approve some unexpected last-minute changes: reworking a scene where the team’s coach travels to Texas, cheerleading capital of the world, to get inspiration for her team. The National Cheerleading Association, having given her permission to shoot, has now threatened a lawsuit if she includes a performance sequence…a week before the world premiere.
“It was like this film school exercise… you have to keep the soundtrack and timing exactly the same, but create an entirely new scene. In the end it’s a better scene! But it’s been a nail-biter…”
Garland makes intimate, observational, character-driven films structured like narrative fiction, following stories as they unfold. Cheer Up, delving into the lives of teenage girls and the angst beneath the surface, is surprisingly soulful, with a kind of dark existentialist humour reminiscent of the memoirs of Karl Ove Knausgaard. In person, Garland is funny and irreverent; with Cheer Up, she takes a bittersweet approach, exploring the contradictions between the “American Dream” and real life, with a Nordic twist.
“Miaa, the team’s coach, is fascinated with American culture. She has a way of interpreting American culture that felt in a way, kind of Canadian. It’s so different from the mentality in the States, which has a super-psychology, ‘mind over matter’ mindset. Being positive…it’s something you hear about, that doesn’t necessary gel with reality. And the Finns were a nice comparison to that, because they smile when they have a really good reason to smile. Otherwise there’s no smiling.” When Miaa attempts to apply “can-do lessons” to her struggling team, the result is sometimes painful, sometimes awkwardly hilarious.
“I love the metaphor of the cheerleader. That contrast with putting on a uniform, and having to go out and smile and pretend you’re happy for two minutes and you’re on a team…I love that as a metaphor for life. You know, we all put on our happy suits when we go to work, or go to parties or whatever—and below it is an iceberg of a lot of other struggles.
“I’m very aware that I’m making autobiography, all the time…I identify very strongly with all the characters in my films. With Miaa, the team’s coach—just the pressure she’s feeling of the pain of failure, and the pressure of being taken seriously—it just felt like, being a documentary filmmaker!” she laughs.
Finding financing for her intimate films in Canada has been a struggle for Garland. With no broadcaster and only arts council support, Bastard wouldn’t have been made without support from the Danish Film Institute, which happened through a chance encounter at Hot Docs. Her next film, a portrait of a young Palestinian woman in the West Bank, will likely end up being a majority Danish co-production. “In Canada, it’s too controversial. That’s why they end up with such amazing films in Scandinavia…because they take risks.
“With the Danish Dogme films, you get crashed into some family story. Audiences are so smart, and especially if they’re human stories about universal issues, they don’t need explaining. It’s just tricky [making docs] because you have to be in a place where something is unfolding, or about to unfold.”
Hot Docs runs April 28 – May 8. Visit www.hotdocs.ca for more information.