Director came full circle with family film

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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.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 22/09/2012 (3614 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

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.

Handout photo Director Shelagh Carter on the set of Passionflower.

“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 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.

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca

Passionflower

Directed by Shelagh Carter

Cinematheque

Sept. 22-23, Sept. 30 and Oct. 4 at 7 p.m.

Randall King

Randall King
Reporter

In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.

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