Living with uncertainty: Fellows Friday with Anita Doron

Anita Doron’s first feature film, The Lesser Blessed, is a love story that takes place in a remote community in the Northwest Territories. This moving film is being released theatrically in Canada today, and will arrive in the U.S. on June 13th. As it opens, we asked Doron to tell us about the film, her path from poet to filmmaker, and about her absurdist life as a nomad and mother.

What is The Lesser Blessed about?

It’s about a 16-year-old Tlicho kid — Tlicho is a First Nation in the north of Canada — and it’s based on the novel of the same name by Richard Van Camp. Larry Sole, the hero of the story, has to face down the devil right in the eyeball before he can set free his romantic heart. It is also a teenage love triangle. I cast a first-time actor from the Northwest Territories after spotting him in the school hallway. We had a very intense shoot with fires and wolves, Benjamin Bratt, knockouts, first-time kisses and all sorts of insanities. We barely survived, but it was glorious.

You started as a filmmaker from a very young age.

Yes. I made a film — or I tried to make a film — when I was 12 in Eastern Europe. And I got in trouble. There was this river in our city, and people lamented: “Oh, we used to swim in this river at one time. Look at it now, a sewer.” My friend’s dad had a Super 8 camera, and we started sneaking around trying to film factories dumping into the river and interviewing people about the river. Only drunks would speak to us on camera. But yeah, we got called into the deputy mayor’s office and told to stop filming. We were two 12-year-old girls with a little Super 8 camera, and it was hilarious. But we frightened them. There was no turning back after that, because I saw how powerful filmmaking can be.

Actually, as a kid, my first creative expression was through poetry. When I was five, we went to the Black Sea and I was mesmerized by these glowing underwater bugs at night. I wrote a poem, and I saw my mother touched by it — and she is a woman who is very careful about showing excitement. So it meant a lot to me. I kept writing, I couldn’t help myself. I was in a young poets group, and the poem was published in the regional paper. Once I wrote a poem about passers-by and the paper got a lot of mail with people complaining that a kid could not have written this poem, they must have cheated. I remember being very confused by the allegations — there was nothing complex in that poem, just an observation of faces on the street. Hungarian is a great language to write poetry in, you can really lay and twist words and concepts around, get elliptical and flavorful. When I discovered filmmaking, it was a natural transition. I don’t write poetry anymore but, to me, filmmaking is poetry.

How did you find the story for The Lesser Blessed?

I was at the Banff Centre for a filmmaking workshop and became very good friends with an artist named Shelley Niro, and she gave me this book. She knew Richard, and she loved the novel. I fell in love with it too, of course. I wrote the script and got lucky enough to find Christina Piovesan, a producer who had just finished studies at UCLA, and was looking for exciting new projects. (Since then she has made Amreeka and The Whistleblower.) This wasn’t an easy project to fund and get going because it was, without getting too political, a struggle. People would question, “Why are you making a story about a First Nations kid?” And I would say, “Why wouldn’t I?” I love the story, I understand the world and I think it’s one of the most original characters in Canadian literature I’ve come across. He happens to be Native. I identify with him because of who he is.

Where did you film it?

We filmed it in Northern Ontario. It was a logistical impossibility to actually film it in the Northwest Territories because there is no proper infrastructure for filmmaking, and it would have doubled our budget to fly everything up there. It takes place in the winter, so shooting outside in minus 40 would have been torture as well. The desolate, cold, northern landscape was quite close in feel where we filmed. We searched for a long time, too. I didn’t want to compromise and make it look like the north; I wanted it to feel very remote and northern.

The authenticity was brought by the lead character, played by Joel Evans, who is a first-time actor from the very town Richard is from. We did a 550 km casting road trip across the Northwest Territories from high school to high school of different communities because I really wanted to cast from the north. I’d been in the Northwest Territories when I was writing the script, and I met a lot of kids who could be right for the part.

I actually did this through the encouragement of my partner, TED Fellow J. Adam Huggins, who had gone out around the world to cast subjects for his documentary photo essays and believed we would be successful. We took our baby boy along with us, and it was quite the circus show. But we succeeded! On the very last day, as we were leaving and I was considering some kids for call-back, I saw this kid in the hallway cracking jokes and looking exactly the way I had envisioned this character in my head for six years. He didn’t bother coming to the audition because he had a math test and better things to do. But once we pushed his math test and I gave him the script, he nailed it. He’s amazing. He’s a really talented, wonderful guy.

To read the full interview, visit the TED Blog >>>