More than three years after her death, the absence of Babz Chula will be sharply felt at this year's Vancouver International Film Festival, with two films inspired by her life, and her passing.
In the documentary Chi, Chula's final film, director Anne Wheeler (Bye Bye Blues) follows Chula first to India on a quest for a miracle cure for her cancer, and then back home to Vancouver, to document her final journey. Later that year, Chula's close friend Ben Ratner began writing Down River, a film inspired by her – and with a Chula-like character at its centre.
"Everyone in Vancouver knew Babz," says Ratner, tearing up a minute into our interview. "I think showing this film in Vancouver will be profound."
Born and raised in the United States, Chula moved to Vancouver in 1971 and became a darling of the local film and theatre scene, with dozens of roles to her credit. In 2002, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and in 2005 with an unrelated blood cancer.
She kept working. In 2009, she was shooting the film Fathers & Sons when Wheeler was called in to teach the actors how to play poker for a scene. Like just about everyone in this town, Wheeler had worked with Chula, and the actor pulled Wheeler aside. "What do you know about India?" Chula asked. Wheeler said she was interested in visiting a place called Kerala. It was one of those signs from above that Chula seemed to attract in life (and death). That morning at chemo, Chula had heard about an ayurvedic centre – in Kerala.
It had been a long time since Wheeler had made a documentary, and her last experience had not been a good one. But with Chula, she decided to try again. "Here was a subject who loved being on film, who embraced the camera, who made it all the more reason to go," says Wheeler, now 67.
The two of them left for India on New Year's Day, 2010. There, Chula found herself dealing with homesickness, nausea, weakness. But the treatments began to have an impact. And then she decided it was time to go home.
Back in Vancouver, doctors found a tumour. Chula went into a hospice and then returned home to die. Wheeler was there to document it, right up to her death – and beyond. In a stunning scene, Chula's family surrounds her deathbed, and prepares her body for what's next. Wheeler kept rolling.
"There was a great sense that she was hovering while her body lay there all day and we just let her be for some time," says Wheeler. "You felt she was leaving. There was a tremendous sense of closure."
A constant presence at Chula's bedside was Ratner, her old friend and collaborator. They had met years ago at an audition and became close while shooting Bruce Sweeney's 1998 film Dirty. When Ratner made his first feature, Moving Malcolm, he cast Chula to play his mother. That was 10 years ago.
A few months after Chula died, Ratner felt ready to make his second feature. He constructed it around a Chula-like character, Pearl (Helen Shaver), who acts as a mentor to three young women (Gabrielle Miller, Colleen Rennison and Jennifer Spence, Ratner's wife). He wrote much of it in Spain and finished it in Vancouver at the Sylvia Hotel, at a table overlooking English Bay. It's the same table I happened to choose, completely unaware, for our meeting.
The film was very low-budget, with actors working for $100 a day and Shaver paying to fly herself back and forth from her Vancouver Island home. The film's executive producer, Jack Ong, was a friend of Chula's, and put up the money to have the film made.
Chula's widower, Larry Lynn, was the film's cinematographer. The set was decorated with her furniture, the actors wore her bracelets, and in a pivotal scene at the end, her clothing. A letter written by Pearl was excerpted from a letter Chula wrote that was read at her own memorial. The song Down River, sung in the film by Rennison's character, was performed by Rennison for Chula in her final weeks of life, and again at Chula's memorial.
Making the film was, Ratner says, "emotionally epic," and he was so stressed-out at times that his wife would find him in the kitchen in the middle of the night, sleep-directing.
"With Babz after she died, the feeling was very unresolved about saying goodbye to her. And I think through writing the film, it was a way of saying goodbye. Babz's last words to me were, 'Thank you, Benny.' So this is sort of a way of saying, 'Thank you, Babz.'"
VIFF runs from Sept. 26 to Oct. 11.