If ever there were a time for an animated film about a Canadian stick-figure poet of Chinese-Iranian descent, surely this is it.
Window Horses (The Poetic Persian Epiphany of Rosie Ming) is written, directed and produced by Vancouver-based filmmaker Ann Marie Fleming. Rosie Ming (Sandra Oh), the mixed-race stick figure, lives with her grandparents in Vancouver when she receives a life-changing invitation to read at a poetry festival in Iran. Cloaked in a chador, Rosie steps off the plane and into a world that is new to her, but also in her blood. In Shiraz, she learns many life lessons – and truths about her own life.
The stick-girl avatar has been Fleming's bare-bones extension of her creative self for more than 25 years. Fleming's past projects include the animated feature documentary The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam and the shorts Blue Skies and I Was a Child of Holocaust Survivors. Window Horses is doing well on the festival circuit, making TIFF's Canada's Top Ten and winning the Vancouver International Film Festival's Best Canadian Film award. Now, it's having a theatrical release in Canada.
Fleming, 54, originally wrote the script nearly a decade ago, but the film's release comes at a time when the story bursts with relevance. Window Horses had its U.S. premiere at the Santa Barbara Film Festival, just days after U.S. President Donald Trump signed an executive order barring entry into the United States for people from seven predominantly Muslim countries, including Iran. At the screening, everyone wanted to know how the two Iranian-Americans who had been involved in the project – and were there to present the film along with Fleming and Oh – were feeling. Their answer: devastated.
"I'm really unhappy that it seems prescient. Or that it seems even more important now. But I hope it can be used as a tool," Fleming said during a recent interview at her East Vancouver home. She served cookies baked by the family living in her basement – Syrian refugees. "This is a time when we need kind and gentle voices."
The spark for the film goes back 20 years. Fleming had been trying to get a film made in Vancouver: Dog Days, a Gothic family drama, about a daughter who was able to confront her mother's corpse every night with questions she didn't dare ask her when she was alive. But the film never got off the ground. Fleming was crushed; her disappointment sent her to Germany for an artist's residency – something she says she never would have done had the film not fallen through. It was there that she was first introduced to the poetry of Rumi – which plays an important role in Window Horses. Back in Vancouver, she became involved in the Persian community – thanks to a boyfriend – and grew aware of similarities with Chinese culture.
"I saw this huge affinity between Chinese and Persian culture because of the relationship to poetry; how ancient poets are still relevant and revered today – and how poetry is speaking through all of these generations," says Fleming, who is mixed race. Her mother is from Hong Kong, her father is Australian and Fleming was born in Japan. "And, also, I really wanted to … explore, combat, whatever, all of these sorts of negative stereotypes that we see about Iranians."
Fleming also became introduced to the work of the Persian poet Hafez – through a real estate transaction of all things (this is a Vancouver story after all). She had been thinking about selling her place in the West End, but was hemming and hawing. A friend suggested she consult the work of Hafez; he would tell her what to do. She selected a poem, he translated it for her, and it was supposed to contain her answer. It didn't – the poem meant nothing to her – but it did get her interested in the idea of adaptation and going on a search.
"So that was the beginning: a poem by a poet that I had never heard of that said something to me that I could not understand."
She wrote the script in 2008, but the film encountered obstacles. Diplomatic relations were cut off with Iran, making it impossible to collaborate with artists or producers in Iran. "People told me to change the setting. You can tell the same story somewhere else. And I spent a long time turning it around and I just couldn't. I just felt it had to be in Iran."
Eventually, she called Oh to see if she would play Rosie. Oh and Fleming had met way back in Vancouver – on Dog Days; Oh was to play the daughter. When Fleming went to Germany on the quest that slowly led to Window Horses, Oh went to Hollywood, where she landed roles on Arli$$ and then Grey's Anatomy and became a star.
Oh agreed immediately to play Rosie. Fleming urged her to read the script first.
"Because it takes place in Iran, she's in the States, I know it can be loaded and I wanted to make sure that she felt comfortable," Fleming explains. "I guess she's a brand. So I didn't know how she felt comfortable presenting herself, I didn't want to make any assumptions. Because so many people had said 'change it, don't make it Iran,' I thought that maybe the person that's going to put her name to this should have a say in that, too.
"And when she did read it, she called me up weeping," Fleming continues. "It just touched her so deeply, personally."
Oh didn't just give the project a couple of hours, as Fleming had requested; she dove in and became a spokeswoman for the project – and executive producer.
Oh's friend Ellen Page agreed to play Kelly, Rosie's BFF; and Don McKellar took on the role of the tortured Paris-based German poet Dietmar. Nancy Kwan (The World of Suzie Wong) played Rosie's grandmother; and Shohreh Aghdashloo (House of Sand and Fog) is Mehrnaz, Rosie's wise host in Iran.
"It seemed like an impossible thing to get done and then once it started, things came together very fast," Fleming says.
The film's message is about peace, diversity, understanding the other and the power of art. It would be lovely at any time, but right now, it feels essential. Not that that was Fleming's intention.
"The film is political only in that it's trying to not be political. We're dealing with all of these loaded symbols in a contentious environment when there are all of these discussions about fear of the other. We're not talking about any of that," Fleming says. "It's a story about how we are together and how art is a positive force in our life and is one that can heal wounds, but also lets us talk to each other."
Window Horses opens March 10 in Toronto and Vancouver; March 17 in Montreal and March 21 in Ottawa.