With her first feature film Black Field (2011), Winnipeg filmmaker Danishka Esterhazy carved out a place for herself in the landscape of local artists as a singular voice. She has a boldly feminine/feminist sensibility and a willingness to take a different approach to old tropes.
She proves it again with her second feature, H & G, a contemporary realist take on Hansel and Gretel. Esterhazy, 44, talked with the Free Press about her new film.
FP: What inspired a realist take on Hansel and Gretel?
D.E.: In the original, child poverty, bad parenting and neglect are all there in the first part of the story before the children go on their magical adventure and have to battle a cannibalistic witch. But it starts with the child poverty and their experiences with their family. And to me, that's what makes it an interesting story because it deals with a tough topic -- child abandonment -- and it deals with it in such a straightforward way.
FP: What is the personal appeal of fairy tales for you?
D.E.: I've been exploring fairy tales in my work for a while and I've done a few short films -- The Red Hood and The Snow Queen. It's a method I'm really fond of because I believe fairy tales provide a narrative frame that allows us to talk about social issues in a way that's engaging rather than off-putting. The audience is already familiar with those characters so you already have a certain level of depth with which you can communicate with your audience. So you can have a much more layered conversation with them about these issues using that structure.
FP: In the past two years, Hansel and Gretel has been retold in a horror-fantasy (Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters) and even a stoner comedy (Hansel and Gretel Get Baked). What is it about Hansel and Gretel these days?
D.E.: Hansel and Gretel is a really important fairy tale. It's a very international tale taken up by cultures all over the world. I originally wrote this as a short screenplay a couple of years ago, just before all those other movies came out. And by the time I got around to making my film, they had already been released. But I haven't worried about it. Our take is very specific and different.
FP: How is it directing young children through material that would be, for most adults, more than a little disturbing?
D.E.: It is tricky. There's two elements in working with children: to get natural performances and to engage them. But there is also protecting them from the material. So a lot of that involved having the parents on board in a really strong way. We asked the parents not to give the full script to the children. The children were asked not to prepare. And they weren't really told much about the context. They were just given their character. And every day they would come to set and we would just treat it like make-believe. Each scene, we would just invent, in the moment, together. They weren't there on set for when we did some of the darker scenes.
They didn't have a lot of insight into some of the darker scenes, which I think worked because the children in the story were only supposed to be able to understand so much. I wanted the child actors to have a similar level of insight.