By Etan Vlessing
Struggling through opiod addiction or a toxic relationship hardly allows the comfort of distance.
So prepare yourself for oppressive, claustrophobic sound and imagery when Ashley McKenzie’s debut feature, Werewolf, a gritty look at ex-junkies in the director’s native Cape Breton Island, arrives at your local theater.
“No, I wasn’t trying to rub people the wrong way#8221; McKenzie told me after her bleak drama that screened Berlin after a Canadian festival run that started in Toronto.
But however not intended, Werewolf as a relationship drama about people compelled to stay put when others judge it best to leave, has left audiences strangely, yet satisfyingly unsettled.
“It may be a vision that’s difficult, but they (audiences) appreciate that#8221; McKenzie says.
The abrasive aesthetic of Werewolf mirrors the inner turmoil and chaos of its two main characters, a young man and woman, Blaise and Nessa, played by Andrew Gillis and Bhreagh MacNeil.
No maps or compasses are immediately available to the former opiod addicts to help get their lives back on the rails between methadone doses.
Their world remains as spatially confined as McKenzie’s tightly framed camera work on Werewolf, as Nessa plots an escape, while Blaise edges towards destruction.
“I cried during a Q&A (in Berlin)#8221; McKenzie volunteers. “For me and the two actors and my producer and DP (director of photography), we all come from the same community, the story is close to home and very personal.”
Never mind the perennial struggle of McKenzie making a low-budget indie.
A friend, punk rock musician Phil Tarr, who the director first conceived the film around in the role of Blaise, committed suicide a few months in McKenzie writing her script.
It also didn’t help the film’s writer/director was herself in a toxic personal relationship, which leaves Werewolf at times feeling like a breakup film with characters tethered by a suffocatingly short leash.
“Both of those things have been tough experiences in my life and I’ve had to grieve that a lot. So it hits close to home#8221; the director says of Tarr’s death and her own breakup.
The idea for Werewolf and its narrative tension came about after McKenzie one summer in her Cape Breton town, Whitney Pier, saw a young couple going door to door on her street with a lawn mower to see whose lawn needed cutting.
At one point, they went into a neighbor’s house, and an argument was soon heard.
For McKenzie, the turmoil of Atlantic Canada’s opiate epidemic, which often leaves victims isolated and vulnerable, had arrived on her doorstep.
“It’s a huge problem not being addressed in society#8221; she explains, as Cape Breton has seen hard times after mining and steel industries close down, and leave high unemployment and poverty behind.
“A lot of workers were prescribed prescription drugs for their injuries. No one really talks about it that much#8221; McKenzie says.
Blaise and Nessa as small town outcasts pushing their rusty lawn mower around in Werewolf struggle to take back their lives.
Their poverty and isolation is mirrored in Cape Breton and elsewhere by people abusing prescription drugs.
They’re in survival mode, not thinking of the next hour, much less later that day or tomorrow.
“When you’re living that close to the bone, trapped in a place, trapped in a body, you literally don’t know how you will get through a day and the seconds are like hours#8221; McKenzie observes.
The Canadian director knew the fear of being stuck in Cape Breton. “I felt, until this film was made and I could travel to film festivals, I had no means to travel: I didn’t have a car, not enough money for a plane ticket#8221; she recalls.
Then her film was made and festival audiences responded, with Werewolf having earned the Focus Prize at the Festival du Nouveau Cinema in Montreal.
And graduating from making short films to her first feature brought yet more welcome revelations.
“I didn’t really understand the film world until I made a feature. People pay way more attention, they engage with the work way more seriously, there’s more press, audiences come out more. It feels so different#8221; McKenzie says.
And the stakes are raised when a feature director answers audience questions after a festival screening.
“There’s this moment in the film, where Nessa, who is nude after Blaise wakes up, puts her hand between her legs and wipes off some cum, and I always expect people to ask me about that#8221; McKenzie recounts.
No one at Canadian festivals dared ask, but in Berlin, “people aren’t shy about asking anything here#8221; she adds.
Theatres at the Berlinale are also generally larger than back in Canada, and filled with avid viewers of world cinema who ask a lot of questions about a film’s imagery and sound design.
“At home the audiences are more shy and conservative. I feel here so overwhelmingly emotional because the screenings here are so well attended and audiences are so perceptive and attentive and calm – everyone just sits through the credits and wait for the Q&A rather than rush off to the next screening#8221; McKenzie says.
Berlin is also not like Cannes, where you risk audiences booing and critics writing career-ending reviews.
Audiences are quieter, more deliberative, in Berlin.
“It’s hard to watch, but it seems to hit home with people#8221; McKenzie says satisfyingly.