In Corona’s third winter, it was hard to care about cinema as one should. The kind of cinema that requires one’s physical presence in theatres and at festivals. Gathering indoors with strangers has become a charged, almost radical activity depending on where one is for any given surge of the world’s latest virus variant. Which makes the 72nd Berlinale’s decision to take place in shared time and space against the backdrop of rising German Omicron cases all the more brazen. A reminder, yes, that cinema, indeed culture, needs its critics and cinephiles – the ones who, in the first instance, receive, value, share, support, and perpetuate the artistic products of this industry. Without Cannes and Venice’s assurance of milder weather and outdoor revelry, the Berlinale had made do with an online edition in 2021 and would have risked dimming all the political promise of its new international leadership (artistic director Carlo Chatrian and executive director Mariette Rissenbeek) in a second virtual format. 

Kicking and screaming, Berlin’s cinephiles and a thinned out international press and professional contingent returned to an eerily empty Potsdamer Platz to bear witness to the world’s newest works of cinematic artistry. With a unidirectional flow of bodies, unfilled seats between us, faces bisected by FFP2 masks, and a deliberate disruption of traditional festival lounge areas, the raucous festival experience of years past gave way to spontaneous interactions at the Coronavirus test buses, where Russian film critics assured me that Putin would never actually invade Ukraine, and to hastily exchanged film tips in a tiny nearby café that, through sheer proximity to the press venues, had taken up the festival geography’s intersectional slack. But just as the festival seemed to be a shadow of its former (think: 2020) self, it also offered a glimmer of recognition: films need this, filmmakers need this, critics need this. The concentrated attention of a few days structured by screenings, the refinement of one’s tastes, the stretching of one’s artistic sensibility, the agility to move between cultures and genres and to jump in time. 

Accepting the Berlinale’s historical circumstances, I found myself drawn to the films that need festivals the most (the works of first and second-time directors, films of limited budget, films that take aesthetic risks) and to the festival’s Encounters section, one that celebrates a confluence of programming sensibilities and a daring array of filmmaking modes and styles. It is also the section that has inherited a number of feature directors who used to be showcased in the Forum and inched them ever so slightly closer to the red-carpet limelight. Indeed, the section’s selection committee is the very same one that chooses the Competition films, and the attentions of an Encounters-specific international Jury further enhance the value of this artistically diverse mélange of talents. Dare I suggest that the Encounters films function as a second version of the Berlinale Competition – the cinephilic one, unbeholden to star appearances and box office expectations? This was the place to discover Mitra Farahani’s epistolary documentary À vendredi, Robinson about the multi-media intellectual exchange between Iranian filmmaker and writer Ebrahim Golestan and Jean-Luc Godard; Kurdwin Ayub’s stunning debut feature Sonne, which manages to weave together a refreshingly nuanced, intercultural story of teen angst, female friendship, and an immigrant family in Austria with forms of audiovisual expression unique to lives lived on social media; Kivu Ruhorahoza’s Father’s Day, set in Rwanda in times of covid, with its three loosely connected narrative strands and moments of silence and profound humanity; Cyril Schäublin’s Unrueh, an atmospheric period piece exploring two opposing impulses of 19th-century Switzerland: rationalisation through time, coordination, and efficiency and the nascent anarchy movement; and Ruth Beckermann’s Mutzenbacher, which uses the trope of the casting session to probe, with men of various ages and backgrounds, the themes, characters, and female protagonist of an erotic novel long banned in Austria.

The Encounters section is also where I went to see what Canadian filmmaker and screenwriter Ashley McKenzie had done next. In 2017, I had interviewed her for a Forum screening of her first feature Werewolf (2016), and had been struck both by her relative isolation from North American film culture and filmmaking hubs on Nova Scotia’s remote Cape Breton Island and by her commitment to telling local stories with local talent, specifically nonactors. I remembered her devouring filmic oddities on Fandor, spelling out the importance of streaming platforms for her evolution as a filmmaker, but also the quiet dignity of her young characters, struggling to kick their drug addiction in a public methadone program, and the precision of her audiovisual language. In that way that feels necessary when film festivals are operating as they should, it felt necessary to see Queens of the Qing Dynasty, to take that leap with a promising director to the next level of her artistic expression. To witness the leap – something that two years of festival programming in a digital void have failed to do adequately for early-career filmmakers.

Queens of the Qing Dynasty once again explores figures at the margins of Cape Breton society. The film opens on a teenaged girl sitting on a hospital bed. She has swallowed a dangerous substance. An incessant beeping and a series of close-ups on various objects in the room draw us into Star’s (played by Sarah Walker) particular universe, one in which sound and image tend to serve as conduits of access to her mental illness, rather than as a means of social contextualisation. The camera is fascinated by things, their shape, their colours and by Star’s eyes, their big, staring pupils ringed with blue. Looking allows us to see what she sees, to participate in her logic, which is only ever given the vague institutional contours of ADHD or bipolar disorder. The frame is never one of judgment; rather it draws lines around a world that might otherwise go unseen. The subjectivity it renders invites us to participate in Star’s small triumphs, no matter how self-destructive, in her surveilled world.

Queens of the Qing Dynasty

Later, as the nonbinary An (played by Ziyin Zheng), a volunteer caretaker and recent immigrant, is introduced, the two strike up an unlikely friendship, enriched by a space of fantasy, isolation, and longing that seems to cushion each of them from their relative powerlessness in the real world. While An, whose sarcastic wit slices right through Star’s fog of communicative idiosyncrasies, dreams of becoming a “trophy wife” and looks to the powerful empresses of Chinese history for inspiration, Star might be on a mission to find dopamine, to chase down little bits of freedom in her highly controlled surroundings, or to experience the intimacy of another being attempting to communicate with her. Queens of the Qing Dynasty is laced with an intricate matrix of tech sounds, electronic music cues, and bits of Chinese-themed animation that pick up on an impulse that McKenzie explored more modestly via video games in Werewolf, but that she now fully unleashes. These sensory elements, extended from social media feeds, cell phone screens, TVs, and even a VR headset, seem to connect the consciousnesses of both characters in a purposeful blurring of narrative perspective.

On February 15, 2022, I met with Ashley McKenzie to speak about her creative journey to this unique second feature as a writer, director, producer, and editor.

BW: The last time you were in Berlin your first feature Werewolf was in the Forum. What was the afterlife of that film?

AM: We had done our world premiere at TIFF. The Berlin screening was its international premiere, and it had a really nice life afterwards. The release of that film was like a slow-burn process. After Berlin we went to IndieLisboa and Bafici, and we had our US premiere at Maryland, which was amazing, and after we screened there, Factory 25 came on board as the distributor. Around 8 months after that we did a small theatrical release in the US. We screened at the Anthology Film Archives. And then in January of 2018 the film was nominated by the Toronto Film Critics Association for the Best Canadian Film Award, which is a $100,000 prize, and it won. That changed my life.

What kind of funding did you have for that film?

We had Telefilm Talent to Watch funding, which was a newer program that was established for first-time feature filmmakers. It’s a lot more flexible because you can access that funding, and it can be your entire budget, whereas most federal funding in Canada would only make up 50% of your budget. No one will come in at 100%, so then it really just complicates things, especially if you’re in a Province that doesn’t have provincial funding. Or if there aren’t many distributors around. Completing your financing is tricky then. Talent to Watch is really nice in that it’s getting more filmmakers and more diverse voices to the point that they can make a first feature. But we also had Arts Council funding, which is also a nice thing in Canada.

Once you had the prize for Best Canadian Film, was that money that could flow back into your filmmaking or your living costs as a creative person?


How did you get from that journey with Werewolf to the point of having an idea for your second feature? What was the initial spark?

Actually, I wanted to do a series of contemporary portraits of women living in my community. And at one point I was imagining a series of vignettes or stand-alone short films or some sort of episodic thing. I normally don’t think outside of traditional film form, but I had several stories percolating in my head. And I saw this linkage between them all. They were all women, whom society sees as having some sort of affliction, but I wanted to look at the so-called-affliction as an advantageous quality that normative society deems to be different. I was calling it “The Ophelia Series” at one point and had each of the flowers that Ophelia had in her hand when she died as the names of the characters – Rue, Rosemary . . . And as three of the stories expanded, I was like, “Okay, I’m going to make a really long feature film that’s like a tapestry with one story moving into the other.” And then one of those stories expanded even more and became a 160-page script, and it just had to be its own film. That’s Queens of the Qing Dynasty

I was impressed to see that you still wear many hats on the film: writer, director, producer, editor . . . 

Now that I’m on the other side of it and have done all the work, I would say I didn’t want to be all those roles. It was incredibly challenging, which I had underestimated. With this film, I knew I was taking some risks, and I wanted to explore different things.

What were you trying to accomplish this time around as a writer?

I wanted to write a script with lots of dialogue, which is not what I typically do. Because of where I live, my filmmaking model, and all of these factors that affect film form, Werewolf and all my shorts operate in a social realist mode. In that mode, there’s not as much characterisation and dialogue as there are actions and behaviours and scenes that are shorter – not quite single note scenes, but ellipses and a minimalist, austere storyline. 

I wanted to write scenes with a lot of words, and when the scene gets to the point where I’d normally cut, I wanted to stay in the scene and shift it in a new direction and keep going. I remember listening to a podcast by Rachel Cusk, in which she said that the meaning of the term ellipsis was “to hide behind silence.” And because I was writing a dialogue-heavy script, I was like, “Okay, I don’t want to hide behind silence.” I went into it knowing that I was writing a lot and that the film was growing larger than I was used to. The script quickly got to be twice as long as Werewolf. Because I often work with people who are acting for the first time, having a heavily scripted film is a bit intimidating. It felt like, if I wanted to have them say things in their own words, maybe the pattern and mapping of the whole thing would fall apart because this line links to that line. Those elements made me feel like I was entering uncomfortable territory. It felt ambitious in scope for me.

Werewolf was stylised a bit, quite consciously, even though it’s done, as you mention, in a realist mode. In Queens of the Qing Dynasty you base your characters Star and An on people you know. What was your process for morphing real people (a young woman you almost cast in Werewolf and your neighbour Ziyin Zheng) into characters?

I was so inspired by the woman that the character Star is partially based on. So intrigued by the way she holds herself in the world. I didn’t cast her in Werewolf, but I really wanted to create something with her because she was also incredibly creative but had no outlet. I could see her creativity on her social media. Maybe that’s how those stand-alone portraits came about because I wanted to do something like that with her. The reason I didn’t cast her in Werewolf was because it felt too big. She was uncomfortable in auditions, and that made me feel uncomfortable. It didn’t feel like it was going to be fun. 

I thought maybe I could do something super small with just me, her, and a DoP. I did some tests, but even that felt too stressful. Then I tried giving her a tiny camera to see if she wanted to shoot things. But after that last idea, I was like, “No, we just need to be friends. I don’t think we need to make a film together.” We became very close friends, and I went through a lot of experiences with her that are reflected partly in the film. When all that was happening, I was still so inspired by her, that I felt I had to write things down. But I also remember this moment where I realised that I couldn’t capture everything that she puts in the world because literally every word she said was so fascinating. I couldn’t contain it. I have a collector’s instinct – every line, gesture, or look – I wanted to record everything. But it was so plentiful that I had to let go.

Were you taking notes? Were you trying to capture some of it before you started writing?

Once in a while, after the fact. I couldn’t in the moment because it was always very immersive, and everything she said felt brilliant and interesting to me. Generally, just from being a part of her life, I came to understand her brain. There are recurring patterns of speech that she has that would never have to be written down if you know her. 

Not only did you translate your friend into the character Star, but you also had the young actress Sarah Walker interpret the character. In the film, there are a few moments in which Star’s mental illness background is alluded to – bipolar disorder and ADHD are mentioned. How did you prepare Walker for this challenge?

Sarah Walker is a first-time actor, who’s very different than Star, superficially at least. I was hesitant to cast her even though the audition went well, and she actually seemed like Star. But superficially she seemed like the opposite, and because I’m so used to casting people who are close to the character, I didn’t know if I could trust her. But as it turns out, and as we have gotten to know each other better, there is a lot of similarity beneath the surface level. She also has ADHD and is comfortable with me saying that. 

I was incredibly fascinated by Star’s dialogue, the patterns of her speech. I was wondering whether the actress speaks that way or the character? One of the words I jotted down was “ancient.” Star’s very use of the English language feels consistently out of time. She leaves the “g’s” off her “ing’s” and relies so heavily on the present progressive tense. She is both so thorough in her use of language, yet somehow so removed from modern usage. 

That is very linked to my friend. It’s interesting to hear you describe it as ancient. I always felt that it was so creative, every single exchange. I didn’t know that words could stimulate my brain so much. In the scriptwriting process, as the character formed, I could really get into her head and could talk like my friend. It was very fun. In her performance, Sarah is saying the lines on the page. At a certain point in the shooting, there were a few scenes that we ended up improvising, and similar to me in the writing process, Sarah got to the point where she could talk like Star even if she was generating the lines in the moment. I think everyone on the film started to talk like Star. She definitely infiltrated all of our brains. 

And did your friend have any part in the process?

I had a lot of material that I had recorded with her because she was very much a part of the process. Any time I had a draft of the script, she would do the table read. If I had a camera test, she would be in the camera test. And she was comfortable with me sharing that with Sarah Walker. But Sarah said that actually spending time with my friend was the most useful thing. Sarah is a dancer and a singer and has a very good ear for languages. These are all things I’ve learned after the fact that help me to understand how she was able to achieve this performance. I think she was able to pick up on my friend’s cadence and different gestures.

Queens of the Qing Dynasty

It sounds like your friend was an infusion [We’re drinking tea.] – that she infused everyone working on the film. There were so many instances of fluidity between the consciousnesses of your two characters. It’s interesting to hear about all of the preparation going into making yourself as a writer and Sarah Walker as an actor feel and inhabit somebody else’s sensibilities. Queens of the Qing Dynasty seems, in part, to be a film about gaining that kind of access to another person. 

On one hand, it seems like a natural outgrowth of Werewolf’s concerns with substance abuse and addiction, a chance to delve deeper into the world of mental health. But you add to the story this layer of alienation through immigration – someone not quite being at home, but trying to find their place in a new world. At what point did you decide to take that turn and make this a story about a relationship between two people?

When I made Werewolf, I was trying to make a story about what Cape Breton Island felt like to me at the time – emotionally. It had the highest youth migration in Canada and the highest unemployment, and I was interested in looking at the young people who didn’t get out, who were left there. I felt like it was capturing the place “right now.” And when I was back home after touring with Werewolf, the island started to change for the first time in my lifetime. No one new had come to the island for as long as I’d been there, but shortly after Werewolf a lot of newcomers started to arrive to go to Cape Breton University. It was an immigration pipeline, and suddenly there were young people of diverse backgrounds and cultures. And it was so interesting to see the landscape changing. In living there and wanting to tell stories about the place, I felt there was a new story developing. So, when I was thinking about these more singular stories, I felt that one of them had to be about a young immigrant. And I was specifically thinking about a Chinese immigrant. And that was a separate thought I had before Ziyin Zheng moved across the street from me. When I was touring with Werewolf, I was able to connect with queer communities in cities – which I had never really been able to do at home. 

Is there a queer community on Cape Breton Island?

There is, but I wasn’t able to find it until after Werewolf. And that also felt like a shift in the area. After being in touch with queer communities in other places, I knew how important and affirming it felt. And if I was going to live on Cape Breton Island, I needed to find some queer friends. That was a strong yearning that I had. Ziyin had come to Canada to do their MBA, but they were also searching for a queer community because they didn’t have one back home. In that way we were very primed to connect with one another. So, I began a dialogue with Ziyin not unlike the ongoing dialogue I had with my friend who inspired Star. These dialogues were so separate, yet both ended up leading to this film. As you said, the meeting of these two consciousnesses is very fluid, free association.

It sounds like these two characters or narrative strands almost grew towards each other.

And they do link, interweaving in the film. But I’m surprised that it came together as easily as it did. Ziyin really wanted to be in a film, and since I had already written this other script, I wasn’t sure if they would fit. But then I thought, maybe An could go to a karaoke bar and sing in the city, which was something Ziyin did. I was imagining some kind of story with them, but then I reached a point, where I was like, “Okay, maybe I can actually rewrite the script that I have.” Ziyin was appealing to me to put them in a film because they had finished their MBA and were working at a call centre. There aren’t that many job opportunities, and they were looking to do something more meaningful.

Did all this development happen before you had funding in place? Was anyone waiting for this script to be ready?

Yeah. Telefilm had this “fast-track” funding program for a moment, and if your first feature had played at one of four festivals, including Berlin, you were guaranteed funding for your second feature. Maybe because of that comfort, I could just exist in my life experiences and the writing process in a more relaxed way. And maybe that did benefit the script because I didn’t have that anxiety, like, it’s going to go in front of a bunch of readers, and what are they going to think of this material? I did feel a lot more free, but there was a deadline. We had to apply for the funding within two years of when Werewolf screened at Berlin, and I pushed it right to the very last day. So, in that sense, there was someone waiting. 

Was your process of working with Ziyin similar to the way you worked with your friend who inspired Star?

No, it was a bit different. Sometimes, I do a Proust questionnaire with people I meet. It’s an ice breaker. I fill out the questionnaire, and they fill out the questionnaire. I do this when I meet someone in my community or a young artist and think, “You seem really interesting. Maybe you’re making music in your bedroom right now, but maybe you would be in a film.” To get to know one another or explore the idea of making a film together. When Ziyin filled out the questionnaire, I was like, “Whoa.” They have so many ideas in there, so many interesting viewpoints on life and spirituality and reincarnation and sexuality and identity. Ziyin is a very brilliant person. I was just really fascinated by that. Then we had a phone call because I wanted to ask them, “When you say this in the questionnaire, what do you mean?” I feel like that questionnaire and phone call gave me so much material to work with, and then I just rewrote the script based on that. 

Throughout the process of writing the script, wanting to keep in touch with them, and ultimately not knowing for sure if I could cast them, things developed. They were on board in the script consulting capacity. But I was like, “We need to do a camera test and audition before I know if this is going to work.” But I was also like, “If it doesn’t work, I don’t know if I can cast anyone else.” My friend who inspired Star did the camera test with Ziyin before the script was finished. We were just running some acting exercises, and they were just talking to one another. Some of the material from that made it into the film. 

As a spectator, one of the first things you are trying to figure out with any film is, “How is this film going to be presented? What will this viewing experience be?” As a writer-director, you are probably dealing with these thoughts simultaneously in the creative process – the visualisation of what this film will be. You had such a strong and consistent visual style in Werewolf and made some very distinct choices about how to actually put that story together visually. In Queens of the Qing Dynasty, you not only create a distinctive visual style, but also sound design and music cues that enhance the experience of Star’s and Ziyin’s worlds. As you were moving from the writing process into pre-production, how specifically were you thinking about your audiovisual approach? 

That’s a good question. Did it feel like the same filmmaker?

Yes. One of the notes I had from Werewolf was on the video game scene, this little moment of video game graphics accompanying Blaise’s overdose. At the time, that choice struck me. There were a few things that you were already doing in Werewolf that I could recognise fast-forwarded in Queens of the Qing Dynasty, like, “This is where she’s going.” 

The overarching thing I felt I wanted to do was to burrow into Star and An’s brains and their subjectivities. The whole time I was just so into these characters and so wanted to bring them to life that I wasn’t really worrying too much about all the other elements. Whether the narrative form or the style. I was just like, “I’m going to try to go deep with these two and try to bring that subjectivity with all the film techniques.”

With Werewolf I did really like finding a definitive place to put the camera in each scene and not shooting traditional coverage. I scout and do camera tests and all those things, but on the day that I shoot a scene, it takes a while to start because I basically walk around with my phone or one of the cameras and shoot every single angle. I need to find the perfect shot or what just feels right. In that way, I’m not saying from the get-go that it all has to be in this kind of frame. It’s just something, where I trust my gut every single time. The cumulative effect of that is what the film ends up being. 

But we did camera tests. The very first one was me, my DoP, and my producer, and we went into one of the hospital rooms. We were just shooting our producer as a stand-in, and we put on a 50mm lens. A lot of Werewolf was shot on a 50mm, and right away, we were just like, “Nope.” It was too flat. Star and An were too dimensional. We could not shoot them on a 50mm lens, so we shot the whole film on a 35-25mm, a 16mm, and even a 11mm for a few really wide shots. We knew right then that we needed to shoot on a little bit wider lenses for close-ups and medium close-ups, and that we needed to shoot a ¾ profile because with anything flat on, everything felt flat. The background felt flat. There needed to be depth. I needed to be shooting into corners. I wanted to shoot in a more square aspect ratio, similarly, because I wanted to see where the walls met the ceilings. You could have this frame around the characters and sense the architecture they’re existing within. Those were some general guidelines for camera decisions.

You also used some nice blur in the background. We don’t always know with 100% clarity what we’re seeing in the backgrounds. It feels, in a lot of shots, as though something can still develop within them: such as someone coming from the blurred background into the foreground – moments that are exciting and murky. Like Star’s night in the motel room, where we don’t know exactly what’s going on – an experience, a memory, a combination of both? There are interesting opportunities in those spaces of the image. 

But I was also intrigued by how much you made of Sarah Walker’s eyes. If there is a gripping, salient feature of the film, it’s those eyes. 

Sarah was able to not blink for 10 minutes straight with the camera in front of her. For me, Star’s stare is the thing that opened up the entire world of the film. I feel like she gets her stimulation from interacting with people, by staring at them way longer than anyone else would. By doing that, she processes people and says something about them that no one else would say in typical social etiquette. It’s all about the way she looks and the way she sees and the duration of that, which leads to a different type of social interaction. That’s what the whole film stems from: the way my friend made me feel when I interacted with her and the way she opened me up and the way I saw her open so many people up. Thinking about an international student coming to Canada from Shanghai and ending up in a small island town, probably very isolated and wanting a friend, Star could be just the person to befriend them because of her way of interacting with people. No one else’s stare would linger long enough to allow for the possibility of something to happen.

Queens of the Qing Dynasty

Returning for a moment to the idea of “morphing consciousnesses,” I found myself wondering at several points, “Who’s dream or fantasy is this? Who owns the animation at this moment?” I enjoyed that. It’s something I like to play with, too. We’re used to conventions like POV that establish clarity about who is looking, what they’re looking at, and what it means – all the ways of conventionally constructing and reading images. You, on the other hand, give us a space of uncertainty and fluidity. And fluidity in general was interesting in this film – the fluidity of trying to understand Star’s consciousness and also the fluidity of gender coming from Ziyin’s character. Are they playing with Star at certain moments (e.g., the zucchini), or are we in a dream, a nightmare? Is this reality? Is this interaction between patient and caretaker really something that can happen in a hospital? It’s all very playful, and you’re not marking the boundaries super clearly. Was that something you had planned, or did it evolve as you were shooting?

It did feel important to leave some ambiguity and uncertainty in there, but I think it gets there by not defining it beforehand. Because I spend a lot of time with my films in the edit, and I’m not having to articulate to people, “If it goes into this fantasy sequence, it has to be this person’s perspective. This is the device. It’s going to repeat three times because that’s what you do.” I’m playing with the footage in the edit for a long time. I had a co-editor [Scott Moore] with this film who was also my DP. He did a lot of days as well, so we were both working the material a lot. In doing that, there’s just a little bit more freedom to try anything and everything. And then let’s decide how we think it’s operating formally. We figure out ways in our heads to organize it. Is it doing what we want it to do? But it’s just a little more free and looser because it’s not a pattern that’s done at the script stage. 

Was the animation done after you shot or during the main shoot?

Four of the animations were licensed from Canadian animators. And that stemmed from what was at first a practical idea. We saw that there were TVs in a lot of the rooms and thought, “That’s part of the production design.” So having predetermined things to put on there meant that we didn’t have to try to clear things in post. We decided to use animation, which stemmed originally from being in the paediatric ward of the hospital. And then in the edit, both Scott and I ended up weaving it into the fabric in a much more dominant way. But then there was the scene in the cafeteria where An and Star are in close-up for quite a while, watching the videos on the phone. Those were original animations that a young animator Cyril Chen did for the film. So, again, it was something that started as this production design detail that, in the edit, became something much more. 

It often feels as though something is bleeding from one character to the other – in that murky, ambiguous way between the two of them. One character starts the act of watching, but then another one ends it. Speaking to the sense of who’s viewpoint it is and what is really going on. On one hand, yes, Chinese-themed animation, but it’s as if An is somehow giving Star the keys to the Queens of the Qing Dynasty, maybe unlocking that space of power for her. Despite their differences, it seems as though she and An are able to transmute little bits of genuine communication to each other. As a spectator, you don’t know at certain moments if a story is true or made up within the narrative world of each character, and at the same time there’s something about the motif of An’s long nails and the lore and the fantasy of being these powerful queens and empresses that does penetrate Star’s world – something that would have been hard for a lot of the other characters, for example, doctors, to do.

That’s so nicely described. Both characters to me are very generative. I just see such creativity in each of them. It does feel that in all of their interactions, it had to be about expanding the universe and dissolving boundaries. All those things you mentioned about the certainty of a person’s subjectivity and whether the animation is linked to this – I just see each of them as very creative. Once they start talking, that energy has a creative effect in the world. It’s almost as if it is affecting all the stimuli in the environment, like they’re shaping their own world.

Dissolving boundaries is a great way to put it, too. I can’t help thinking of it in scientific terms. Imagine two objects, like this plate and this table, that are touching each other. There are chemists who study those boundaries. We think of the plate and the table as distinct objects, but how does the one give way to the other? Those surfaces are touching. Those molecules are touching. I attended a presentation by a chemist I know, who very much humanised the science, almost talking about it in narrative form. And I was like, “If the molecules are people, I get what you’re saying.” With human interactions we can fathom the dissolution a little bit, the point at which boundaries between one being and another give way.

Yes, totally. A key word of the film is chemistry. That felt like a guiding touchstone of the film, and even in thinking about how the cultural landscape [of Cape Breton Island] was changing. It’s a largely white settler, Colonial, Scottish-Irish culture. How were people going to respond to new people coming, communities of colour? I feel that the film also reflects that aspect of the different perspectives and everyone thinking maybe they’re distinct with some discrimination and separateness. But An and Star transcend that in a very chemical way. They prove that this separateness can be totally dissolved.

The distinction between what is considered a mentally stable person functioning in society and somebody who might not function in those normative ways gets dissolved as well.

Yeah, Star and An exist in these rigid environments that impose labels onto each of them. When they create their own space, it’s very much about dissolving those. I feel like they’re creating a new world together. Even when they’re interacting with people who are different from them, they’re stimulated by new people and maybe speaking very clumsily in ways that might offend another person by not understanding certain social cues. But if you stick with a conversation like that, continue it through the ruptures, you see that what seems like problematic dialogue can actually lead to all these humans realising that they have a molecular connection. If you just stick around, maybe you can mix chemicals and get to a more free space together.

I really liked the way you used VR space within the scene in which An takes Star out. It felt very much connected to the video game scene in Werewolf – a space, where the characters are both in their bodies and free of them. It’s another animated space, but one in which An and Star, as disembodied avatars in a virtual world, both make sense.

It feels like the climax of them finding their self-power again. In this world where they are excluded, their ability, together, to push the edges of the boundaries and break out of them – all that comes to fruition in the VR scene.

One of the striking ways that you construct this special space for An and Star’s particular communication and friendship is through the amount of effort you put into sound.

You noticed!

It’s such an intricately produced soundtrack and seems so incredibly carefully thought out.

I think that’s one of the reasons why my post-production was so long.

How long?

A little under two years.

I love Canada. Everyone from Canada says that! Two years!?

I know a lot of people who aren’t doing that, who would hire a union editor. I spent a little over a year and a half editing, and then my co-editor probably did 124 days with me, which would be him at one station and me next to him, so that we were working on different scenes at the same time. One reason it took so long is that I shot a ton of footage. The scenes were long, and I really wanted to sculpt the performances. But the way my brain works, it’s not just about finding the best take. It’s like, “Oh, but the actor does this really interesting little thing with their face in this take, but say the lines in an interesting way in that take.” Probably every line in the film was replaced with a different line read. And I was just so interested in all the idiosyncrasies. And I was so vibing on Star’s absurd, slapstick energy. In the edit I was really trying to refine that. 

I also felt that I had to learn to edit again because Werewolf was so focused on the two characters and the vortex they were in, and I never cut away. But then the energy of these two characters, especially Star, is about how she interacts with others and sees the world, so right away I was like, “I have to do shot/reverse shots. I don’t know how to do this. I need to learn how to edit from the beginning.” And then it became more about getting the rhythm and the beats right. That took time. And then Scott and I were just passing scenes back and forth. That took a lot of time.

The music was something that developed organically over time from working with the footage. It wasn’t something I knew would become such a huge part of the fabric of the film. Early on, I was listening to a lot of music for my own stimulation and writing. In the editing process, one thing led to another, and now there’s quite a complex musical language to the film. The sound began to develop in a way where the musicality of the characters so defined the rhythm of the film and became this technique.

And they both have that kind of musicality in the way that they speak.

Yeah, in the way that they express themselves and in their body language. I felt like that was a huge part of their subjectivity. They were vibrating at certain frequencies. The music started with Sophie and Cecile Believe and a particular synthesiser that they both use. I was listening to it at the time because it sounded like a new musical language to me. I wanted to understand why and found out that they both use this monomachine synthesiser, which allows you to sound design from scratch. You can change waveforms to create sounds. I was just listening to it because that’s what I like to listen to, but in reading this article that described it as sound design, I had that in the back of my head as I started to go into post. I couldn’t quite get that thought out of my mind. So, I had a folder of music by Cecile Believe and Sophie and Autechre. I wanted to bring these things into the edit, and it ended up being a lot of Autechre songs and a few Cecile Believe songs. And then in the cafeteria scene, where Star and An are watching the video, Scott brought an obscure Susan Ciani song in. She uses this Buchla synthesiser, which is like a vintage version of the monomachine. Where you’re just like, “What is this sound?” It’s not anything you’re used to hearing. 

So, this matrix started to form around these musicians, and then Ziyin was bringing this musicality that was different from that more experimental, glitchy music. And I felt I needed to find someone who could connect to their musicality. And that’s when I connected with Yu Su, who spent most of her life living in China and was a classically trained musician but then moved to Vancouver in Canada in her early 20s and got into electronic music. She was another piece of the puzzle – still in that palette, but drawing on this other cultural connection with a different, more traditional instrumentation bleeding into the electronic stuff. Then there were a few little pieces at the end that weren’t quite complete, and Cecile Believe came on board and scored some original cues, which completed the whole vision. But I had no idea there was going to be any music in this film.

And yet the sound is so important in your film in the way it draws our attention to certain things and creates a sense of subjectivity. Of all possible objects in a shot, what is the thing to look at? What’s the thing to listen to at that moment? When it comes to Star, we always get distracted as she does. In terms of content, spectators can look at Star, and think, “That’s not me. That’s not my experience of the world.” But through the audiovisual techniques you use, you give your audience insight into her perception of the world. Because what we see and hear draws us into those same patterns. The “Will you burn down your house?” test is a great example. As we see the colours and patterns that intrigue Star (maybe going from a moment of narrative progression to one of suspended spectacle), it’s easy to forget that the stove is on.

How do films like yours – small, creative arthouse – come together in Canada? Whether the mechanism is one of regional funding or the first and second film, there seems to be a strong cultural perpetuation of a certain independent and very aesthetically open filmmaking in Canada. I’ve spoken with several Canadian filmmakers over the years who mention time – time for development, time for editing – as a significant factor in the aesthetic outcomes of their films. This mixture of creative freedom and public funding seems to combine aspects of the U.S. independent scene and the European funding systems in a way that is more conducive to the creative process and to pushing the boundaries of what is cinematically possible. Do you see it that way coming from within that system? Is it indeed as supportive as it seems from the outside? 

I can see the process from the outside because I feel like I’m outside it because of where I live and have built my film practice. The model of making films in Canada is the Toronto and Montreal and Vancouver model. It doesn’t feel as though it’s totally transferrable to me. But there is definitely kinship between what I’ve been doing where I live and other filmmakers like Jacqueline Mills and Winston DeGiobbi, who are also making films in Cape Breton. There’s kinship with filmmakers across Canada who are making films in the Arts Council model. And those are often the films that end up at the Berlinale. The Arts Council basically funds artists, not a producer, and you need to maintain creative and editorial control and ownership of the film. If you have a producer that owns the film, you can’t get Arts Council money. They would rarely fund anything that didn’t have the artist’s living wages included in the application. The Council basically funds artists to live as artists and to make work as artists and to not have that compromised by commercial issues. There’s a national Council, but then I think all the Provinces and Territories have provincial versions of it. Some municipalities even have municipal versions of that. At one point it was $60,000 that you could get to make a feature, which is not much. But now you could get a bit more and maybe some money to write your feature. It’s more like a micro-budget version of making a feature, but that model gives you way more flexibility in terms of the timeline. And you own your film. It’s just a simpler, more pure thing. 

If you’re in Québec, you have even more funding options. They have Sodec, which can offer even more money and make a film feel less micro-budget-like, but [the Arts Council] model felt like something I could do in my way in the area that I wanted to make films. Kazik Radwanski and Dan Montgomery from MDFF (Medium Density Fibreboard Films) and even Denis Côté’s more low-budget films are all made in that model. Most first-time feature filmmakers are now making films in this model because Telefilm developed this first-time feature “Talent to Watch” program, which was the first time that you could get Council funding and Telefilm funding. So, all of the sudden you could make a film for $250,000 or $300,000. That has really changed the filmmaking landscape, which is great. But once you get to your second or third feature . . . I didn’t know what I was going to do for my second feature. It was confusing to know which direction to go. And I think I’ll be in that situation again with the third feature. 

As you look towards that third feature, do you want to leap towards something larger or maintain your current level of freedom? Do you want to continue to film locally on Cape Breton or expand the geography of your storytelling? 

It’s really defined by the idea for the film and what it needs. I feel like I really need a break. Queens of the Qing Dynasty – I just put everything into it for a really long time. I don’t know if you notice this, when you’re finishing a film and maybe still have 10% left to do, and your brain starts thinking about the next film almost to distract you from the hard work – 

The hardest part of the work . . . 

My brain is doing that right now, and I need to say, “No. You need to step away and take care of your life a little bit.” After that . . . I really love Foley as you probably heard in the film. So, when we were doing the film, I was like, “I just want to make a film that’s all silent and all about Foley.” And it’s going to be really simple and therapeutic to make this film that’s just about Foley. But then I also have this feature idea that feels bigger and very musical. I love how the music came into form in Queens of the Qing Dynasty, but it was a huge learning curve and a lot of work. So, I’m scared. Because the feature ideas that are brewing in my mind are related to music. And I’m like, “If I’m going to do that again, I need a bigger team.” Anyway, it’s a bit tricky and all based on the project. And it’s all hard. Making films is really challenging.

About The Author

Brigitta Wagner is a film historian and filmmaker. She is the author of Berlin Replayed: Cinema and Urban Nostalgia in the Postwall Era and the director of Rosehill.

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