A Canadian Film is Playing in the USA

Actress-screenwriter Deragh Campbell ponders ideas of home and Canadian-ness in her new film with director Kazik Radwanski, Anne at 13,000ft.

On the occasion of Anne at 13,000ft’s American release, the director Kazik Radwanski and I were brought to thinking about how our Canadian film plays to an American audience. At the start of the film, the protagonist Anne (who I play) has the trappings of an ordinary life: a job, her own apartment, at least one friendship; but a history of mental health crisis is alluded to and as Anne pushes herself to have a life that exceeds the ordinary – to have love and a skydiving habit – the structure of her life begins to come apart, suggesting that these structures are in themselves fragile and can quickly come apart, taking ourselves with them. While such a story could take place anywhere, an image is by nature particular and carrying the connotations of a single place – the history and social infrastructure and the behaviours and attitudes they impress. Therefore, the rendering of our specific environment might appear as a sliding-doors alternative to an American experience and conjure a kind of uncanniness and diffused sort of alienation.

I returned to Toronto (where I was born), after years spent in Montreal, London and New York, with the desire to act in Canadian films, feeling that there was something unarticulated there that I wanted to be a part of. Especially in the case of New York, I could feel so strongly how much the place had been filmed and how this brought a certain density and vitality to the city. So I wanted to see Canada filmed, not out of some desire for a psychoanalysis of the Canadian personality, but out of a feeling that just by seeing it in its pictorial exactness it would become more vivid, more real. When Kaz was in the editing room, he was surprised to find how stereotypically “Canadian” my co-star Matt Johnson and I appeared. (Matt is himself a Canadian filmmaker who is responsible for my favourite Canadian joke, with the plot of his TV show Nirvanna the Band the Show constructed entirely around the central characters trying to get a gig at an extremely mediocre downtown Toronto bar.) There is one scene in particular in Anne at 13,000ft when Anne is waking up in the morning and rushing to work. She starts apologizing to Matt saying, “Sorry, sorry, sorry,” again and again. Her accent is so apparent. You can hear the longer “o” and it sounds more like “sore-y.” It’s so interesting to me that Kaz hadn’t recognized Matt and I as behaving that way until he saw it through the framework of his film.

Deragh Campbell and Matt Johnson filming a scene in Anne at 13,000ft. (Image courtesy Kazik Radwanski.)

While taking a Canadian literature course in university, I remember reading that Canada is an ideal position for studying postmodernism because, between its proximity to the United States and it being in the British commonwealth, it is an outside position, a point of looking-out from. The process of funding a film in Canada differs so wildly from the United States, stemming from a fairly navigable arts council system, rather than private equity. But often self-representation gets caught in a strange loop of projection where Canada seems to be playing itself as it might imagine others seeing it. Kaz’s films, while not striving to make a claim upon representing Canadian identity, do represent a splinter of it through the close capturing of environments as themselves. His films make use of live locations and the way the central character responds to the locations – whether institutions or family homes – not only make up our understanding of the character, but also evolve into the plot of the film. A further emphasis of this is perhaps embedded in the film by the length of the shoots that take place over years, shooting sporadically as the schedules of the key cast and crew permit, so that the film is in fact lived with as part of everyday life.

The myth of the Canadian personality – polite, kind, apologetic – is propagated not just by non-Canadians that have no reason to think more deeply about Canada, but seems actually to be most reiterated by Canadians themselves. Myths of identity as thin as punchlines. It is regressive and not especially useful to think in terms of a national identity, especially when the cliché of the Canadian character implicitly refers to settlers in a colonial relationship and excludes the experience of a large portion of the population. In the case of both Kaz and I, we’re speaking to the experience of (those who are probably actually being referred to in the cliché) middle-class, white, second-generation immigrants of British parents. It is the strangest mythology because as you prod it, it doesn’t really seem to either fall apart or yield a deeper level. It has this strange, almost anesthetizing quality that protects against further investigation. I find that politeness isn’t so much a guise as a willingness (or sometimes a compulsion) to put yourself on an equal or lower footing to another person. I think this comes from a desire to be trusted, for people to share themselves with you. However, this is sometimes extended without the self-inquiry of whether you’re trustworthy, of whether your initial curiosity and desire for closeness can extend to a genuine and sustainable care. And if you discover after the fact that you’re not really up to that task, that is where the disingenuousness occurs.

Deragh Campbell practicing her sky-diving on the set of Anne at 13,000ft. (Image courtesy Kazik Radwanski.)

 With Anne, she offers herself somewhat like how a dog tries to play with you but, when people are put off, she becomes desperate and exerts herself further, becoming frenzied and somewhat aggressive. By the end of the interaction, she has put so much distance between herself and others and is confused by the rejection, not understanding why someone would be put off by such a genuine desire to engage and feeling that she has somewhere along the line been misunderstood. She insists throughout the film, You didn’t understand my joke! You need to get in on the joke! The last time I was in New York (after an 18-month Canadian-American border closure), I was struck by the feeling of immediacy, of there not being a veil of self-consciousness between other people and myself. It made me wonder how Anne might fare differently in New York and whether, in fact, people might be willing to play with her. In Anne’s self-sacrificial fool-hardiness there is a desire not only for her to feel something but for you to feel something too.

Deragh Campbell is a Canadian actor and writer. She has starred in numerous independent films such as Fail to Appear, Stinking Heaven and I Used to be Darker. For her most recent performance in Kazik Radwanski’s Anne at 13,000ft, she received a nomination for Best Actress in a Leading Role from the Canadian Screen Awards. She co-wrote, co-directed and starred in MS Slavic 7 with Sofia Bohdanowicz, which premiered at the 2019 Berlinale. She was selected as a 2015 Rising Star at the Toronto International Film Festival, received a 2017 Macdowell Fellowship for screenwriting and was awarded the 2019 Stella Artois Jay Scott Prize for emerging film talent from the Toronto Critics Association.