Life, Above All has its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival this Tuesday, a film with a Canadian screenplay based on a Canadian novel, but not, alas, a Canadian film. The film is at Cannes as a German-South African co-production. Efforts to create a three-way co-production that included Canada failed last year, when the producers were unable to attract a Canadian distributor.
"It is disappointing," says the film's screenwriter Dennis Foon, who is based in Vancouver. "This could be a big Canadian film at Cannes."
The film is based on the book Chanda's Secrets, by Toronto writer Allan Stratton. The award-winning young-adult novel explores the impact of the African AIDS crisis on orphaned children who are left to raise younger siblings alone - often while ill with the disease themselves.
If we made a choice that wasn't filled with integrity, then the film ultimately wouldn't work as well as it could.
In 2005, Stratton was doing research about child soldiers in Africa for a sequel to Chanda's Secrets, when he approached German producer Oliver Stoltz, who was in Toronto for Hot Docs with his film Lost Children (which deals with child soldiers). After meeting for lunch in Yorkville, Stratton gave Stoltz a copy of Chanda's Secrets as a sort of thank-you memento for taking the time to meet with him.
It became much more than that. After Stoltz read the book, he suggested a film adaptation. He brought on South African-born director Oliver Schmitz, and screenwriter Foon ( Little Criminals) was hired to adapt the story. Stoltz tried to set it up as a triple-co-production: Germany, South Africa and Canada. Canadian producer Dan Schlanger came on-board and brought the project to Telefilm, which funded its script development.
But when it came to finding Canadian funding for the film's actual production, Schlanger hit a brick wall: He couldn't find a distributor, and without a distributor, Telefilm was unable to provide further funding.
"It's just the way the system works," says Telefilm's John Dippong, who had funded the project's development and was a passionate supporter. "That's just the way it shook out, and it's unfortunate."
Timing was part of the problem: When Schlanger was trying to work out a deal last year, the economy was in the tank. Meanwhile the German funding came through quickly - and there was a deadline attached to the money. So the decision was made to go ahead with the project as a German-South African co-pro, without Canada and without Schlanger (who did not respond to a request for an interview).
"For the Canadian co-producer, it turned out to be a rather difficult game," Stoltz said from Berlin last week, after pulling a virtual all-nighter to complete the film's final edit.
"It's a disappointment that it's not a Canadian co-production," says Richard Brownsey, president and CEO of British Columbia Film, which also kicked in development money. "But it's marvellous that it's at Cannes and it's marvellous that it's written by a Canadian and a B.C. writer."
Stoltz adds that the film remains Canadian in some ways. "This is not a Canadian co-production, but it came to life through Canadian help. ... And there are some values that make this film a Canadian film [in terms of]its heart and feeling."
During development, Foon travelled to South Africa, where the film is set. It was a life-changing experience.
Within an hour of arriving in Johannesburg, Foon's driver took him to an enormous cemetery in Soweto filled with children's graves - victims of AIDS. Families unable to afford grave markers used toys or baby cribs instead. Later, Foon visited three houses, each run by young children whose parents had died from AIDS. "I was devastated by the end of the visit," Foon says. "I'm still feeling the aftermath of having seen all that stuff first-hand."
As a result of that trip, the project was transformed. The protagonist, who was 16 in the book, became 12 - based on the age of the children Foon saw running households there.
And while initially the creative team had discussed the possibility of using Hollywood stars such as Queen Latifah and Danny Glover, those ideas were scrapped. They also decided to shoot the film in Pedi (or Northern Sotho), the local dialect, rather than English.
"I was so fervent, all of us were at that point, having seen what we had, that we couldn't play even a touch with any kind of lack of believability," says Foon. "It had to totally feel as real as possible."
A film produced in Pedi - a first for the dialect - comes with challenges, not least of which is the commercial one.
"We were making a choice for the integrity of the film," says Foon. "And I think in the end the decision was that if we made a choice that wasn't filled with integrity, then the film ultimately wouldn't work as well as it could, and it probably wouldn't have any commercial appeal anyway.
"I think that to be completely honest that's probably one of the factors that weighed against us in terms of our initial attempt to get a distributor in Canada, but I think that ultimately we'll be proven right and I don't think we're going to have any problem getting distribution in North America now," Foon says, adding that there are "major-league" players showing interest.
A premiere at Cannes tends to have that effect.
"We've been at other [top]film festivals [with other films]and won prizes," says Stoltz, "but Cannes is a different game. And to be selected for the film festival of the world: 1,600 films [submitted]and you're among the 40 films [chosen] that's a huge honour."
Stratton, who visited the set in Elandsdoorn, South Africa, has supported the changes to his book - including the title. And he's blown away by what he's seen. "I was just in tears watching the rushes," he says. "It's just so moving."
The film will have its world premiere as an official selection in Cannes's Un Certain Regard program. Both Stratton and Foon will be there. "We're going to be the Canadian presence," says Foon. "This is a Canadian-generated project ... and as a Canadian, I want to wave the flag."