For our next iteration on our Eyes on the Prize theme, we present an evening of three Canadian films about child competitors. The Cuber is a charming micro-documentary about Eric Limeback, a Toronto student who is most notable for being able to solve a Rubik's Cube blindfolded. In Dear Scavengers, a scavenger hunt marks a lighthearted generation clash between a shopkeeper and a kids camp. These shorts will be paired with the feature film of the evening, Bee Nation, a heart-warming and thought-provoking tale of First Nations children in Saskatchewan aiming to win the first ever First Nations Provincial Spelling Bee. All three films are perfectly paired as they follow remarkable young children vying for a crucial win. These empowering films will warm your heart and leave you inspired.
Below we discuss prize-vying and working with young people in an interview with Directors Lana Šlezić (Bee Nation), Chris Frampton (The Cuber) and Aaron Phelan (Dear Scavengers).
CPFF: This year's Christie Pits Film Festival programme is titled Eyes on the Prize, exploring themes of perseverance and the drive to win. Do you have a favourite movie about goal-seeking, rivalry, or prize-vying?
LS: I do! I love the film Billy Elliot because it is about a boy who, against all odds, followed his heart and pursued his love of ballet at a time and place when to do so brought much angst within his family and community. But he found a way to dance and he stood up to his father and his brother, who eventually accepted and supported him. So it’s about standing up for something you love, no matter the cost, which requires a unique strength. I admire that strength in people.
AP: Rocky is the best, unquestionably. But for anyone who wants to go down the road less traveled, I can recommend Thrashin’ from 1986 with Josh Brolin & Sherilyn Fenn. Not because it’s a great film but because it has excellent skateboarders. They used all the best L.A. skaters of the time (future pros), and [professional skateboarder] Christian Hosoi writes about it in his autobiography.
I also really like the Do-Deca-Pentathlon by Mark & Jay Duplass. It's funny and relatable but there’s a deep pathology going on between these two aging brothers who revive a childhood competition and compete in ten goofy made-up events.
CF: One of my favourite movies of all time is Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank, about a young girl living on an English housing estate who wants to be a hip-hop dancer, not because she’s a prodigy but because she has no real guidance from the adults in her life, who don’t have her best interest in mind. It’s a social-realist masterpiece. Katie Jarvis, the lead, had never acted professionally before, which is in itself an incredible story of perseverance and confidence. A must-see.
CPFF: Lana, your film deals with a number of thorny issues around Canada's First Nations, including questions of social and economic marginalization, language, culture, and assimilation (this is, after all, an English spelling bee). How did you, your collaborators, and your subjects approach these sensitive issues in the development of the film?
LS: Bee Nation is about First Nations children and their families who work together to overcome fear and obstacles as they study for and eventually compete in their first Provincial level and National level spelling bees. Getting up on stage for the first time in front of an audience is a daunting task for anyone at any age, let alone learning 400 words and being tested on those words in front of peers and parents. It requires hard work, courage and persistence. As a mother of two myself, being a witness to the children’s progress and watching as the families supported their children under very pressure-filled circumstances was so inspiring. Making the film also gave me a chance to highlight some of the many issues First Nations people face today - the funding shortage for on-reserve education and both the importance and challenge of preserving First Nations tradition and culture. My hope is that Bee Nation inspires First Nations youth to pursue whatever path they choose in life and that all Canadians make sure this is possible. First Nations children deserve every opportunity that other children receive in Canada. There is a wonderful organization who Bee Nation has partnered with called Indspire. They are an Indigenous-led registered charity focused on investing in Indigenous education. Definitely worth checking out at www.indspire.ca.
CPFF: What was it like working with young subjects in your films?
CF: I’ve worked with a lot of young people in various ways and I really identify with them. Being young is being painfully self-conscious, but if you can show kids that you respect them and that you’re listening they will often open up in these wonderful ways, because they’re dying to share all the intense things going on inside their heads with someone. As adults we can dislike earnestness in ourselves because it makes us feel vulnerable, and I think that’s a shame.
AP: The young cast members [of Dear Scavengers] were fantastic to work with. We had a fun little rehearsal in the store before shooting where I let them roam around with [lead actor] Hrant to tap into the comedy & confusion of the scenario. I wanted them to explore the movement & the beats naturally, without cameras and the pressure of set. I think movement, mixed with dialogue, mixed with distraction, is important on screen. It makes things more alive!
I also asked the girls to go into a neighbouring appliance store, as an exercise, and browse around without telling the owner what they were doing. Even though they're open to the public, there’s always a shade of tension in little shops. You're on the store keeper’s territory. There are layers to the scene between Hrant & [main character] Helen. I remember Helen quite sincerely searching to play with age & social position the way that she does.
LS: I loved working with all the families in Bee Nation. From 8-year-olds to teenagers and all the parents, it gave me a unique insight into family life on the reserve and I feel so fortunate to have had that time with them. Sometimes the kids were a bit shy on camera and other times not. It just depended on what we were doing at the time. It’s not easy to be in front of a camera, I feel shy too! Mostly, I learned about and saw firsthand what it’s like to be a kid on a reserve today - and for many of them it’s not easy. Still, despite their circumstances the kids and their parents seized this learning opportunity and pushed hard to do their best.
CPFF: Did you have any personal experience with scavenger hunts, Rubik's cubes, and spelling bees to draw on while making your film, or was the subject matter new to you?
AP: I have warm memories of scavenger hunts, but nothing specific. I remember asking questions of strangers or local people who you don’t normally cross paths with (or rather whose path you cross all the time without noticing). I think the point is that scavenger hunts can get you to see a bigger picture of your community, which is worthwhile for people both young and old.
CF: Interestingly, the cube’s creator, Erno Rubik, didn’t imagine people using mental libraries of algorithms to solve the cube quickly, he just stumbled through the puzzle fresh every time. It’s a weird bit of lore in the world of speedcubing that the guy who invented the thing isn’t very good at it. I remember the Rubik’s Cube craze from when I was a kid, but mostly my friends used to peel the stickers off and rearrange them to make it look like they had solved all the sides. I’m generally fascinated by fringe cultures, so competitive cubing was somewhere on the edge of my awareness long before I started the film, but I had no idea about blindfold solving or just how much established methodology there was.
LS: I took a lot of spelling tests as a kid in elementary school (which oddly I remember fondly) and I remember being rather fastidious about my spelling. But no, I never had any personal experience with spelling bees. I will say though, that you would think watching a 6-hour spelling bee wouldn’t be all that interesting but in fact, it is so exciting to watch kids on stage who have worked so hard to get there. When the kids I was filming went up to the mic to spell their words, it was so nerve-wracking for me that many times I forgot about the filming altogether! Spelling bees are an incredibly exciting way to watch children literally grow in front of your eyes.
The Cuber and Dear Scavengers screen alongside feature film Bee Nation at Christie Pits Film Festival on July 30th, 2017.