If there is one theme that continually surfaces during interviews with Canadian filmmakers – emerging artists or veteran players, those with U.S. exposure or those who cannot get run over in Toronto – it boils down to one word: sacrifice.
The Canadian system has myriad benefits for our artists: Telefilm, grants, talent labs, tax credits, dedicated domestic supporters with global platforms such as the Toronto International Film Festival. But if you want to be a filmmaker who stays close to home, who stays true to your vision, it will require demands on your family life, your economic mobility, and all your many life choices.
These are the circumstances that Ashley McKenzie has spent the past six years balancing, considering, trading off. The Cape Breton Island filmmaker burst onto the film scene – in that polite and highly respected Canadian industry kind of way – in 2016, when her debut feature Werewolf floored audiences during its TIFF premiere. A devastating drama about a pair of drug addicts as they meander across the island, killing time and mowing lawns between their next gulps of methadone, the microbudget social-realist masterpiece was delivered with a sharp eye, a stunning vision, and a sense of control that was remarkable.
So much so that the Toronto Film Critics Association awarded McKenzie its Rogers Best Canadian Film Award that year – a prize that came with $100,000. It was money that helped McKenzie not only remain in the place that she calls home, but allowed her to create art there without sacrificing her vision, her life, herself.
“Once you get that first feature out, you look at your life and say, ‘This isn’t sustainable.’ Filmmakers do other jobs, don’t pay themselves, take on every job possible to get a film to completion,” McKenzie says in an interview. “I feel the path that most people take is to integrate commercial work, or work in one of Canada’s main cities. But if you are a regional filmmaker, trying to transition into a sustainable career is hard.”
Which partially explains the gap between Werewolf and McKenzie’s follow-up feature: the new dual-character study, Queens of the Qing Dynasty. But as challenging as the journey has been, the wait has been worth it. Queens of the Qing Dynasty, which screens at TIFF this week after enjoying its world debut at the Berlinale this past winter, is a genuine triumph – evidence that the world’s most exciting cinematic voices are right here, patiently waiting for the support and spotlight they deserve.
What’s more exciting: the film is one of three vibrant Canadian TIFF features set to be theatrically released by Toronto’s renowned MDFF production company, as the art-house power player (Anne at 13,000 ft.) branches out into distribution.
Following two lost Cape Breton souls, Queens focuses on the 18-year-old Star (Sarah Walker), who we meet in the hospital after she has ingested poison, and An (Ziyin Zheng), a lonely student from Shanghai assigned to watch over the suicidal patient. What sounds like the log-line of an exercise in Maritime miserablism is instead a delightfully playful, energetic and empathetic work – an extension of Werewolf’s focus on how easily people can become stuck in one place, but also a tremendously ambitious stretching of form and vision.
“I said outright to people that I was trying to take a big step, a change in scope and scale, and I think that was partly a result of touring Werewolf and getting outside my hometown bubble for a while,” McKenzie recalls. “This was an exercise in trying to break free of certain limitations that I had put on myself, or that were put on me.”
As with McKenzie’s earlier work, the line between real life and fiction in Queens is a blurred one. Star was based on an actor that McKenzie first met during auditions for Werewolf – the young woman wasn’t cast, but the two became friends, with McKenzie witnessing her many ups and downs through the Nova Scotian social-services system.
“Because I was able to spend time with her, I got to both play the character and channel how this real person sees the world. It was an eye-opening experience,” recalls Walker, who infuses Star with both a naivety and world-weariness that is beguiling. “Just watching her mannerisms, seeing her at table reads, it helped me draw a line to the Star of the script.”
Zheng’s character, meanwhile, wasn’t based on someone else – it was an extension of their own life spent navigating gender identity and the startling nuances of making a life for yourself halfway around the world from your home. A “co-created” character, in Zheng’s words, developed in collaboration with McKenzie.
“I took inspiration from a past version of myself, which I almost had buried deep in my heart,” Zheng says. “In my real life, I didn’t let it explode as much as it shows on-screen. And there are some exaggerations. But it was a wonderful experience, it felt like paradise.”
Whether McKenzie will continue to be able to make cinema in her own paradise of Nova Scotia is a question that – for her and for the moment – doesn’t even need to be asked.
“I have made a commitment to being here, it’s where I want to be, where I will be based as a filmmaker, where I find my inspiration,” she says. “It’s become a circular process. It is where I spend my time and encounter my world, which feeds my projects. There is a specificity that’s involved in my work. Making Queens somewhere else, there would be so much texture and authenticity lost.
“I’m not able to predict the future,” McKenzie continues, “so maybe there will be something I’ll get excited about that isn’t connected to the geography here. But at this point, it feels hard to imagine making a film somewhere else. My future is linked to here.”
Queens of the Qing Dynasty screens Sept. 12 and 13 at TIFF (tiff.net); it will be released theatrically in the coming year
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