Di­rec­tor came full circle with fam­ily film


LO­CAL writer-di­rec­tor She­lagh Carter had to steel her­self to ex­am­ine her trou­bled re­la­tion­ship with her mother in her film Pas­sion­flower, on now at Cine­math­eque.

But there was a sym­me­try in the ex­pe­ri­ence. Af­ter all, it was a movie, seen al­most four decades ago, that brought Carter to a deeper un­der­stand­ing of that re­la­tion­ship in the first place.

The au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal drama takes place in 1962, when a young girl named Sarah (Kas­sidy Love Brown) grows aware that her mother Beatrice (Kris­ten Har­ris) is suf­fer­ing a pro­found psy­cho­log­i­cal dis­tur­bance, man­i­fested in provoca­tive be­hav­iour and an in­creas­ingly er­ratic re­la­tion­ship with her fam­ily.

“It’s from my child­hood,” says Carter, 58, over lunch near her home in River Heights. “This was my jour­ney and it was time to tell it.”

As Carter re­called her frac­tured fam­ily his­tory, she re­al­ized that many of the adults in her life were as con­fused as she was as a girl.

“Peo­ple re­ally didn’t know what to do, but also they didn’t re­al­ize how bright kids are and how they know what’s go­ing on, but no one is talk­ing to them.”

It took a 1974 movie to crys­tal­lize her feel­ings for her mother when Carter her­self was barely out of her teens.

“My mother and I weren’t get­ting along that well. She was go­ing through a bad time, but I wasn’t talk­ing about it with any­one,” Carter says. “But I had a very sharp prof, who said to me one day, ‘Hey, we’re go­ing to the movies.’ And she took me to A Woman Un­der the Influence.”

That John Cas­sevetes film stars Gena Row­lands in an Os­car-nom­i­nated turn as Ma­bel, a woman whose mad­ness threat­ens her re­la­tion­ship with her hus­band (Peter Falk), a man in de­nial of the ex­tent of his wife’s ill­ness.

“I was sit­ting in the au­di­ence and I had the feel­ing I had heard this story be­fore,” Carter says.

“I was look­ing at the screen at this woman, Gena Row­lands, who was so my mom,” she says, re­call­ing how a mi­nor out­burst in the au­di­ence sent her into a rage.

“There were these peo­ple be­hind me who started to laugh, and I now re­al­ize they were prob­a­bly laugh­ing with dis­com­fort, but at that mo­ment, it felt like they were laugh­ing at my mother.

“I went over the bench and I was go­ing to take them all on; my prof had to hold me back and say, ‘It’s just a movie.’

“But it was the start of me re­al­iz­ing I re­ally loved my mother and I wished I could help her,” she says. “But there were so many times I didn’t know what Cine­math­eque Sept. 22-23, Sept. 30 and Oct. 4 at 7 p.m. to do.”

It may have also been the start of Carter mak­ing a late de­but as a fea­ture film di­rec­tor. In the sub­se­quent years, Carter stud­ied de­sign, be­came a life­time mem­ber of the famed Ac­tors Stu­dio (where her tele­phoned in­quiry about their pro­gram was re­ceived by James Lipton him­self) and learned film­mak­ing at the Cana­dian Film Cen­tre’s Di­rec­tor’s Lab. With a num­ber of short films un­der her belt, Carter is cur­rently a pro­fes­sor of the­atre and film at the Univer­sity of Win­nipeg.

And at this stage of her life, Carter might not be in­clined to use a phrase as dis­mis­sive as “just a movie.”

“At the Ac­tors Stu­dio, you learn your in­ner life is so much a part of your art,” she says. “It’s funny how you can turn a lot of that into gold, to take some­thing that’s hap­pened to you and use it in a way that’s artis­tic.

“It’s also very free­ing be­cause it’s just hon­est,” Carter says.

Af­ter catch­ing my boyfriend of six months at a night­club with his new se­cret girl­friend, she said things that re­vealed he’d been two-tim­ing me for at least two months. I was a wreck. I couldn’t sleep that night, so I wrote a short story to ex­plain the dra­matic night when I found out. Writ­ing it down re­ally helped. The re­la­tion­ship is over. I thought I es­tab­lished an hon­esty pol­icy in that re­la­tion­ship. There were so many lies it makes me sick. What can I do in the fu­ture to avoid such a dis­as­ter? My in­tu­ition told me some­thing was off, but I had no idea it was a full-fledged other re­la­tion­ship! I’m glad I found out the truth. I’m glad the other girl found out, too. In the end, ev­ery­one is ac­tu­ally hurt. Keep­ing a col­lec­tion of part­ners (boyfriends or girl­friends) is only rec­om­mended to those who openly prac­tise polyamory or the like. — Crav­ing Hon­esty, Win­nipeg

Dear Crav­ing: Writ­ing is good ther­apy, along with this ex­er­cise. Ex­plore the all-im­por­tant “my in­tu­ition told me some­thing was off” state­ment by clos­ing your eyes and do­ing a re-run of your re­la­tion­ship. Start with the day you met and stop at any points where some­thing felt odd or wrong. You’ll prob­a­bly dis­cover there were sev­eral times when the sto­ries didn’t jibe, he sounded in­sin­cere, he was miss­ing in ac­tion for a pe­riod of time, had a pe­cu­liar mark on him, or smelled dif­fer­ent. This guy was not be­ing care­ful and he let other peo­ple know by tak­ing Girl­friend No. 2 out to a pub­lic place. You looked the other way, but hope­fully you’ll trust your senses next time.

Dear Miss Lonelyhearts: OK, I did it. I slapped my girl­friend, but she slapped me first and in front of a bunch of peo­ple. We were at a cottage-clos­ing party on the week­end. She slapped me real hard af­ter I told her she was “turn­ing into a drunk.” Re­flex­ively, I slapped her (medium-hard) right back. Now her girl­friends are telling her I’m abu­sive and never to see me again. My slap was only a nat­u­ral re­ac­tion af­ter be­ing pounded across the face. The whole thing was over in a frac­tion of a minute — her slap, my slap. Then I left and drove back to Win­nipeg alone. Ap­par­ently she got lots of sym­pa­thy and coach­ing from her girl­friends af­ter I left. I do love her, but my friends say I should never see her again. What do you think? — Mixed Up, North End

Dear Mixed Up: Run from this fire­cracker. The two of you, as a fiery cou­ple, could end up in a lot of trou­ble with each other and the law. She may hit you when­ever she’s an­gry, think­ing it’s noth­ing be­cause she’s a woman. And since (you say) she’s a drinker, her in­hi­bi­tions will fly right out the win­dow when she’s hit­ting the booze. And then, if you hit her back “re­flex­ively” (you have proved this can hap­pen) you will prob­a­bly be the one who ends up get­ting into trou­ble with the law, be­cause you’re a guy. She’s more li­able to re­port you for as­sault than you are to re­port her, am I right? It’s not fair, but it’s re­al­ity. So, put your fists away, and head in the op­po­site di­rec­tion.


Di­rec­tor She­lagh Carter on the set of Pas­sion­flower.

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