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Ava DuVernay directs Origin.Handout

The new drama Origin from director Ava DuVernay (Selma, Netflix’s When They See Us) arrives in Canadian theatres this weekend as something of a paradox: It is one of the most purely fascinating films of the season – demanding of discussion – yet hardly anyone outside a small group of critics seems to be talking about it.

Despite a solid showing on the festival circuit this past fall, including a world debut at Venice followed by a North American premiere in Toronto, Origin has been lost in the current awards-race discourse. Perhaps it is because the film itself is such a tricky, layered thing to sell: Origin is an adaptation of Isabel Wilkerson’s award-winning 2020 book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents that both dramatizes the content of the non-fiction work examining the roots of American racism while also fictionalizing Wilkerson’s own life.

Over the course of Origin, DuVernay traces the work of Wilkerson (Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor), including the pivotal roles that her husband Brett (played by Jon Bernthal) and best friend Marion (Niecy Nash-Betts) played in her research and writing processes, while also re-enacting myriad historical tragedies chronicled in Caste, including the rise of Nazism in 1930s Germany and lynchings in the U.S. South. The result plays like a meta-fictional documentary, an ambitiously knotty and rather experimental Hollywood drama that cannot be marketed with, say, a few hot-dog memes à la May December or the ripped bod of The Iron Claw’s Zac Efron.

Which is why DuVernay herself has been passionately promoting her film at every opportunity – including visiting TIFF’s Lightbox headquarters this past November to screen Origin inside the organization’s newly christened Viola Desmond Cinema, named for the Canadian civil-rights advocate.

After the screening, DuVernay sat down with The Globe and Mail to discuss the film’s unusual journey.

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Filmmaker Ava DuVernay poses for a photograph after unveiling the permanent plaque officially renaming Cinema 1 to the Viola Desmond Cinema in Toronto on Nov. 8, 2023.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

How important is it to have Origin as the first film to play the Viola Desmond Theatre?

Vitally important in ways that are a little odd, because before [TIFF CEO] Cameron Bailey called me in August, I had never even heard of Viola Desmond. And that fact angered me, because this is a Black woman who had challenged segregation inside a cinema and I hadn’t known about this before? I became a little obsessed with her, and it was a gorgeous and meaningful night to have it play here.

I can’t recall ever watching a film that actually explores an author’s process so deeply – certainly not non-fiction authors. How much time did you spend with Isabel before making this?

Once I read the book a few months after it was published, we spoke in the fall of 2020 and she decided to allow me to acquire the rights pretty quickly. From there, we fell into two years of conversation, so many Zooms. But it was in those long conversations where she was telling me stories of her family and personal experiences, who her husband and best friend were, people not really mentioned in the actual book, that allowed me to interpret them onscreen.

So it was during those conversations when you decided this was the way to unlock this adaptation?

That was my initial pitch when we first spoke. I didn’t want to make a doc, but a film where she would be the main character. From there, it was trying to piece together enough of her personal story to weave through the more non-fiction-based pieces.

Did Isabel have any reticence about becoming, well, her own main character?

I can’t speak for her, but I know I would be reticent! But she gave me everything that I needed to tell that story, and I’m grateful to her for that, what she talks about and went through in terms of loss. It’s a little unusual.

The film oscillates between Isabel’s story and history with an interesting fluidity. How much of the film’s structure was on the page versus being found in the editing room?

As I shared the script with people, I was aware that what I had in my head was not easily digestible on the page. A lot of those cuts were on paper, but if you’re reading it and it says, “Isabel is walking in an airport, now cut to Nazi Germany where people are saluting Hitler,” you go, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, what is this?” I did find a lot more in the editing suite, but people struggled with the script. Which is why I held onto people so tightly who saw what I was doing in the script. Not film executives but fellow filmmakers like Guillermo del Toro, who told me, “I see it, keep going! Go further!” It was so helpful to make this outside the studio context, where I could break boundaries and experiment.

What was it like working with your actual best friend, Niecy Nash-Betts, who is cast here as Isabel’s best friend?

When Isabel was talking to me about Marion, Niecy just came to mind: her warmth and how important she was as a friend. That’s who Niecy is to me: comfort, beauty. But I had to get her out of the ABC show she was shooting, The Rookie: Feds, which was filming at the same time. She went to ABC and said, “My friend needs me, help me figure it out.” So they let her off every Friday, after working till midnight on Thursday, to catch the red eye to Atlanta, and then another flight to Savannah. We got her in the wig, got her dressed, handed her pages, and shot. For four weeks in a row. Fly in and fly out. That’s real friendship. Agents don’t do that. Friends do that.

You’re going to have to direct a few episodes of The Rookie as a trade.

Yes, that’s fair!

Your initiative ARRAY Crew, a kind of LinkedIn that offers producers access to thousands of diverse film and TV crew members, just celebrated its one-year anniversary in Canada. How is that service growing?

It’s expanding in North America well, but I want to have some global capability, too. I have no real interest in running a tech company – I just want a database that can get people work. Now that the strike is over, we can do some great work.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Origin opens in theatres Jan. 19.

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