The personal experiences of a social worker in Canada’s poorest postal code have come to life on the big screen at the Vancouver International Film Festival this month.
Sheltered Life, an independent film by first-time Vancouver director Carl Laudan, is one of nine features competing for Citytv’s Best Western Canada Film Feature award at VIFF this year. The film’s script was partially inspired by screenwriter Katherine Schlemmer’s experience working at St. James Community Social Services in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
Schlemmer spent three years working at St. James. “She wrote some of this script from real things that happened when she was working there,” Laudan explained. Schlemmer did not wish to speak with the media.
Sheltered Life explores the lives of a mother and daughter affected by domestic violence. “We tried to make as honest a film as possible about this material,” Laudan said.
“We are dealing with a complex problem, that is, violence. Simple solutions to this problem almost always do violence to all those involved,” Laudan explained. “What I am trying to say with Sheltered Life is that complex problems demand complex solutions.”
These complexities can be seen from the street corners of the Downtown Eastside. As Canada’s poorest neighbourhood, many residents also struggle with homelessness, crime, addiction and disease.
St. James Community Social Services is one of more than a dozen shelters operating within the Downtown Eastside. According to St. James’ 2007 annual report, the shelter provides 58 emergency shelter beds for women and children, as well as 183 permanent residences for the mentally ill, seniors and the homeless.
Jonathan Oldman, executive director at St. James, echoed Laudan’s call for nuanced solutions. “We’re always looking for more sophisticated ways to address social issues, so that the shelter system is not simply a revolving door.”
Although he had not yet seen Sheltered Life, Oldman expressed keen interest in the film. “It’s certainly something we can appreciate.”
‘Political climate uncertain’
Socially conscious features like Sheltered Life may become a rare commodity in Canada, since the government announced $45 million in cuts to arts programming in August. Among the eliminated programs are the Telefilm New Media Fund, worth $14.5 million, and the Canadian Independent Film and Video Fund, valued at $1.5 million.
According to Laudan, this means independent films in Canada will have a tougher time finding financial support.
Though Sheltered Life was supported by Telefilm and BC Film, Laudan said the project might not have withstood the blows of weakened government support. “Making a film is very expensive,” he said. “We would be dealing with little or possibly no federal equity investment, and without that we would be stuck making our case solely to the bank for our financing.”
Laudan said the private sector is not a reliable resource for independent film production. “If you’re an independent film, you’re trying to make something that’s original. So when you go to private investment, you have to tell somebody that your film is unlike anything ever made. They can’t really do a market survey about whether the film will be successful or not.”
In addition to recent budget cuts, a tax bill created by the federal conservatives threatens filmmaker’s creative agency, according to Laudan. Section 120 of Bill C-10, read before the Senate this summer, would allow the Canadian Heritage Minister to withhold tax credits on films deemed “contrary to public policy.”
The bill will remain in no-man’s land until after the election Oct. 14. “If the Conservtives win this election and get a majority, they won’t have to argue with anyone—they’ll just pass it,” Laudan said.
Throughout the 2008 election campaign, the Conservative government has defended its cuts to arts funding. In the English-language debate on Thursday, Oct. 2, Harper assured funds would be reallocated into more successful arts-related programs. Current Heritage Minister Josee Verner has also supported Bill C-10. In April, the CBC reported Verner said the bill “has nothing to do with censorship and everything to do with the integrity of the tax system.”
When asked if Sheltered Life could have been remade given today’s political climate, Laudan said, “I doubt our efforts would have been as successful.” He added funding pressures could bring about a “near complete halt” in Canadian film production.
Despite his worries, Laudan assured he would not make films in any other country. “I have to tell Canadians these stories because there are no other stories I can tell,” he said. “But it’s a pretty uncertain future for us all.”
Sheltered Life plays at the Vancity Theatre in Vancouver on Wednesday Oct. 8, at 3:45 p.m.