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John Bell in a scene from A Shine of Rainbows.

Tina Pehme

The call came just over a week ago. British Columbia filmmaker Vic Sarin was told that his new movie - A Shine of Rainbows - would open this year's Vancouver International Film Festival.

"To be able to open in your own home town - this is the best gift I could ever have received," he confides with a wide smile.

Born in Kashmir in 1945, and brought up in Australia, Sarin became a Canadian citizen in 1968. "I have a very strong allegiance to Canada," he proffers, when we meet in Vancouver. "It's the country where I have lived most of my life, and my family and my children are here in B.C."

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Family, he says, is everything to him; he had his three children late in life and he cherishes them daily. A Shine of Rainbows is a "family" film - and unapologetically so: "Families don't watch movies together any more because there are only adult films and children's films," he says with a sigh.

Both an experienced cinematographer and a director, Sarin has combined those roles on many projects, including the 1989 thriller Cold Comfort and more recently Partition , starring Jimi Mistry and Kristin Kreuk. For Rainbows , he did double duty once again.

Watch Globe film critic Liam Lacey's 60-second video reviews.

Based on Scottish author Lillian Beckwith's novel of the same name, Rainbows follows eight-year-old Tomas's journey from a life of misery in an Irish orphanage to a new beginning on the isolated island of Corrie with prospective adopters Maire (Connie Nielsen) and Alec (Aidan Quinn).

While Alec is reserved and unsure about Tomas, Maire brims over with happiness, brightening up everything and everyone around her.

"It was the character of Maire that really drew me into the story," Sarin recalls. "She is so full of love, so positive - and I think it is more important than ever to be a person who sees the glass half full, instead of half empty. To know there is magic all around us, you just have to look for it."

Calling on her cellphone from the San Francisco playground of her two-year-old son Bryce's daycare, Nielsen says that she related completely to Maire's attitude to life.

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"I share her personal philosophy that the basis of everything in life is love," she explains.

Nielsen received the script for Rainbows just after giving birth to Bryce, and had already determined that she would only go back to work for a project that really moved her.

"By page 30 of Rainbows I was sobbing, and by page 60, I rang my agent and told her I was in," she says, laughing. "I am a complete sucker for these things."

Sarin had wanted a European for the role and expected that the Danish actress would use her own accent for the part (he thought it would add to the character's exoticism). To his surprise - and initial consternation - Nielsen decided to make Maire Irish, engaging a voice coach and, for the duration of the shoot, speaking in the Donegal dialect 24/7. Her professionalism, he says, completely won him over.

Though Maire is the film's spiritual and emotional centre, the story is told through the point of view of Tomas - played by Scottish newcomer John Bell. In every scene, Bell (just 10 years old at the time of shooting) was only allowed to be on set seven hours a day.

What could have been a problem turned out to make the shoot run more smoothly: The crew were so happy to be working shorter days, the director says, they pulled out all the stops on set.

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It didn't hurt that the notoriously fickle Irish weather played along with six weeks of sunshine, Nielsen notes, adding, "It really was a charmed set."

It was exactly that sense of wonder - a certain unexplained magic - that was, Sarin says, something he strove to capture on screen. Much of that magic came from nature: the location itself (a character in its own right, the director insists), Tomas's befriending a seal pup and, of course, the rainbows of the title.

The key for all of this was Sarin's skill as a director of photography: He spent a great deal of time in Ireland before the crew arrived, just him and his camera.

Though, he admits he never could get the sheep to do what he wanted them to - "Irish sheep are very stupid," he says, adding the seals proved more amenable. "I went to a secluded bay and spent many days, just me and the seals," he recalls. "Morning, noon and night - to get them used to me."

With an assistant, he also drove around the narrow country roads in search of rainbows. "I'd scream, 'Stop!' and jump out and crank the camera - they are such fleeting phenomena," he says with a smile. "One time I was so intent on catching a rainbow, I didn't look around until after it had vanished. There must have been 20 cars all queued up behind us watching me. Not one person so much as beeped their horn."

A Shine of Rainbows opens the Vancouver International Film Festival on Thursday at 7 p.m., and screens again Friday at 12:45 p.m. See for the full schedule.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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