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Winnipeg-set short film explores barriers to making art

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Behind the scenes, The Ballad of Gus is a story of firsts: the first time director Brian Barnhart has made a film with any kind of funding and the first time lead Trevor Merasty has done any kind of onscreen acting — although, according to the 23-year-old who plays the title character, it won’t be the last.

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Behind the scenes, The Ballad of Gus is a story of firsts: the first time director Brian Barnhart has made a film with any kind of funding and the first time lead Trevor Merasty has done any kind of onscreen acting — although, according to the 23-year-old who plays the title character, it won’t be the last.

“I was born to be a performer,” says Merasty, who hails from Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation in Saskatchewan and was raised in Thompson. “So I really got into it.”

The short film, which premières at the Vancouver International Film Festival this week, follows Merasty’s character, Gus, as he pursues an art career while navigating a life entangled in Winnipeg’s drug underworld.

The story explores the “nexus of art and class in Canada and who gets to decide what is tasteful,” says Barnhart, the film’s director, writer and producer. It’s inspired by his own experience living in a Manitoba group home as a teen, where several of his housemates had raw artistic talent, but lacked the connections and opportunities to make it in the art world.

“I saw how the future looked for some of these guys living in these group homes and it looked like sh—, frankly,” he says. “It was something that I had never really addressed with my own filmmaking… the story was kind of a lament for those people, forgotten artists who are, you know, on the downside of socio-economic advantage.”

Barnhart, 38, was born in Brandon and moved around a lot as a kid. He got into filmmaking in his late teens while living in Winnipeg and got his start shooting punk rock shows in the city before being accepted into film school in Montreal. His credits up to now include numerous indie music documentaries with niche appeal.

The story of Gus is something he’s been sitting on for more than a decade; a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts finally made the vision a reality.

While Barnhart is grateful for the financial support, going through the grant-application process validated some of the themes in The Ballad of Gus.

“This was the first time we’d ever pursued a grant or anything like that and it was very difficult for me at times — I worked with a grant writer and it was hard, it was really frustrating at times,” he says. “I’m somewhat literate; I didn’t finish high school, I only have a ninth-grade education… but some of the guys that I was living in group homes with, imagining them trying to get a career going as an artist in this country would probably be next to impossible.”

The 16-minute film follows Gus as he connects with a mentor (played by Stephen Eric McIntryre) at a local drop-in art centre, filmed in Winnipeg’s Graffiti Gallery. McIntyre’s character sees potential in the young artist’s work and puts his name forward for a gallery show.

Supplied

Winnipeg rapper Tyler Rogers, a.k.a. Charlie Fetta, plays drug dealer Felix in director Brian Barnhart’s short film, which is screening at the Vancouver Film Festival.

At the same time, Gus is being pulled in another, more dangerous direction by a local drug dealer (played Tyler Rogers, a.k.a. Winnipeg rapper Charlie Fetta).

The dichotomy between making art and survival is something the lead actor can relate to. In real life, Merasty is pursuing a career in music, making inspirational rap songs for people who, like him, grew up in the foster care system and have struggled with mental illness.

“Growing up as a young kid in Manitoba, there’s a lot of trials and tribulations you face and sometimes in life you don’t always get dealt a good hand,” he says. “There’s some scenes that I can reflect on my life and be like, ‘Oh yeah, I’ve been there, I’ve done that.’ It’s almost like the movie was made about me.”

In high school, Merasty was involved in drama and choir, but never imagined he would be cast in a movie. Barnhart discovered the young performer through a rap video he recorded for the Manitoba Advocate for Children and Youth.

“We were looking for somebody who had a vulnerability and who didn’t look like they came in and auditioned from the suburbs,” Barnhart says, adding that the casting had a meant-to-be quality. “We’re almost like brothers or something. He’s from Thompson originally and I lived up in Thompson for a time… we’re really connected in the soul, Trevor and I.”

Merasty took part in acting classes and extensive rehearsals to prepare for the role of Gus.

Supplied

Winnipeg actor Stephen Eric McIntryre, left, plays an artistic mentor to Trevor Merasty’s title character in The Ballad of Gus.

“There was a lot of studying that I would have to do and I’d ask my friends to help me (rehearse) scenes,” he says. “It was really a whole new experience and I really enjoyed it.

“I was really nervous because I didn’t want to mess up anything and I pushed myself to be 100 per cent — I wanted it to be perfect.”

The preparation process was also a new experience for Barnhart. With a grant looming large, filming, as well as pre- and post- production, was more intense than usual.

“It led me to rewrite the script and tighten up the production overall,” he says. “It was a big job, but I’m grateful we did it and it elevated me as a filmmaker.”

For both Barnhart and Merasty, embarking on so many firsts together was a memorable experience and one they hope to embark on again in the not-so-distant future. The Ballad of Gus is just the beginning.

“I would love to have the character of Gus in a feature-length film,” Barnhart says. “Now that I have my Gus, I can show everyone my proof-of-concept.”

The Ballad of Gus

Brian Barnhart is the writer, director and producer of The Ballad of Gus.

The Ballad of Gus is only screening in-person at the Vancouver International Film Festival, but Barnhart hopes to get it into the local film fest circuit so Winnipeg viewers can experience the story live, before it’s shared in full online in the future.

eva.wasney@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @evawasney

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Eva Wasney

Eva Wasney
Arts Reporter

Eva Wasney is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.

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