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Family dynamics inspire 'trilogy of madness'

B.C. filmmaker begins intimate series with Mothers and Daughters

How ironic is this? A movie made with no script and next to no money could be Carl Bessai's most "commercial" film yet.

It doesn't hurt that Mothers and Daughters arrives (at Empire Capitol 6) just in time for Mother's Day.

A compelling, mostly improvised meditation on the intricate relationship between mothers and daughters, Bessai's new feature is the first in what the Vancouver-based indie filmmaker terms his "trilogy of madness" about family dynamics.

It will be followed by Fathers and Sons, which he just wrapped and is now editing, and Brothers and Sisters.

"Then I'm going to stop this nonsense," laughs Bessai, tearing himself away from 15 hard drives full of Fathers and Sons footage that need attention.

His choice of words seems strange, until he elaborates on why he needs to get back to doing more conventional films such as Cole, his upcoming drama, shot in Lytton last summer, about a young man seeking to escape his small-town roots.

"I enjoy the freedom of quietly creating these intimate films but there's no money, so it's tough," says Bessai, who made his mark with the small-scale character studies Johnny (1999), Lola (2001) and Emile (2003), filmed here with Sir Ian McKellen.

"But that's also one reason I wanted to work this way. It's hard to explain to funders how films like this might work or not work, so by doing it myself I have a kind of freedom to f--k it up. And the actors love it, so I get incredible energy. They're so grateful for the opportunity, which is kind of weird because they're getting just the crappiest paycheque for doing it."

Made for just $12,000 -- the prize money he was awarded for his ensemble drama Normal, also filmed here and named best Western Canada Feature Film at the 2007 Vancouver Film Festival -- Mothers and Daughters was pure guerrilla filmmaking.

A hybrid of documentary and fiction, it was shot in Vancouver on the fly in 10 days with a small high-definition camera, allowing for maximum mobility. Real-life characters, such as a consultant at a cosmetic surgery clinic, were incorporated. Actors worked for a pittance, and the usual huge film crew and circus of white trucks and trailers were nowhere to be seen.

Bessai assembled some of Canada's most respected performers, including Gabrielle Rose (The Sweet Hereafter), Tantoo Cardinal (Dances with Wolves) and Babz Chula, to help him flesh out his creative blueprint and improvise dialogue during workshops held on and off over a few months.

"It's akin to rehearsing for theatre," the Edmonton-born director explains. "In this case I had such a strong connection to the women. One of my struggles is usually getting access to actors -- not just meeting them, but finding out what makes them tick and what their strengths are and how committed they are. It's like meeting a new friend. It takes time."

Describing himself as more of a "distiller" than a director on this film, Bessai says that while cost-effective digital technology can be liberating, it can also get ridiculous. He ended up with 75 hours of footage he had to boil down to 82 minutes. "Take 18, Take 19 -- I was feeling like Kubrick. It takes a while to sculpt a narrative."

The film interweaves the stories of Micki (Chula), a dysfunctional romance novelist, and her exasperated daughter Rebecca (Camille Sullivan); and Brenda (Rose), a fragile middle-aged housewife devastated by her husband's mysterious departure, and her daughter Kate (Tiffany Lyndall-Knight), an uptight therapist with issues of her own. Then there's Celine (Cardinal), a warm Metis woman who runs a house-painting business and has a soft spot for a client, Cynthia (Tinsel Korey), a young native woman adopted by a white family.

Bessai, who has four sons, says Mothers and Daughters is a love letter of sorts to Evangeline, his two-year-old daughter, and his wife, who inspired him.

Raised by his mother -- his father died when he was very young -- the filmmaker says his most powerful relationships have always been with women, which might explain why he feels so comfortable directing females, strong fixtures in his films.

This isn't to say he does not derive satisfaction from directing men, he adds. He says getting to work with such actors as Blu Mankuma ("a soulful dude"), Viv Leacock, Jay Brazeau and Benjamin Ratner in Fathers and Sons, made for $20,000, was another improvisational blast.

"When you give ownership to such a creative force, they give back in a very profound way, and the films benefit enormously," Bessai says. "With the industrial machine (i.e. the big-ticket Hollywood films and TV shows that B.C. performers routinely appear in), actors are treated more like cogs in a wheel than creators."

Not having to rely on such industrial accoutrements is empowering, he says, and lets him speak more clearly.

"Mothers and Daughters speaks to women because it doesn't have Meryl Streep in it, or distracting big production values," adds Bessai, whose film took the audience award for best Canadian feature at last year's Vancouver film festival.

"I think they see pieces of their own lives in it."

> See REVIEW, Page D4