In a 2014 personal essay submitted to The Globe and Mail by Vancouver-based Diana Sarkis, the mother of two young children detailed her brief but unnerving experience in lockdown at an elementary school. In the span of several hundred words, Sarkis went from a busy mom with bananas and permission slips on the brain to a woman thrust into crisis, sending a frantic “call 911” text to her husband while volunteering with another student, away from her own children who were elsewhere in the building. The essay was a nimble odyssey into the fragility of existence, packaged with a subtle layer of commentary on parenthood and overwork.
Now, Sarkis’s essay, along with five others from The Globe’s First Person series, have been adapted by three Canadian directors into short films. (First Person is a compilation of personal stories and essays submitted by readers to this paper.)
In 2017, Toronto-based filmmaker Renuka Jeyapalan, whose résumé includes directorial credits on Workin’ Moms and Kim’s Convenience, was approached by producers Tyler Levine (of Carousel Pictures) and Patrice Theroux (of Sugar Shack Productions) to discuss the possibility of working on a series. Jeyapalan suggested an anthology, and turned to the newspaper’s First Person (formerly Facts and Arguments) archive for inspiration.
In addition to Code Red, based on Sarkis’s lockdown story, Jeyapalan also directed My Father’s Dignity, based on a 2018 First Person essay by Robyn Sheppard, and Life Support, based on a 2017 essay by Barbara Wackerle Baker.
“I was looking for stories that had an inherent beginning, middle and end,” says Jeyapalan, who selected the adaptations based on what spoke to her. “I’m always thinking about the audience, so I was looking for a complete piece. Thematically, I was looking for ideas I found moving or emotional, or that I could relate to personally – a sick parent, people trying to connect, loneliness."
Jeyapalan, who executive produced the series, notes that all six films were allocated one day of shooting, a logistical component that – while perhaps a little challenging – helped maintain the rawness of each story.
Alongside Jeyapalan were directors Joyce Wong, whose debut feature film, Wexford Plaza, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2016, and Jessie Gabe, executive producer of the comedy series Mr. D. Wong directed My Toronto Home, a comedic take on a couple feeling scorned by the city’s real estate hustle, and Masculinity, a playful criticism of gender norms. Gabe directed My Wife’s Affair, a surprising story of how one real-life couple found their way back to happiness after adultery.
“I really connected with the idea of using humour to heal,” says Gabe, who says that what compelled her about the script was the reversal of stereotypical husband and wife dynamics within the original essay. “I have a dark sense of humour. Even in traumatic times you can find a little nugget of comedy.”
“You might think that because they were amateur writers, we had to do a heavier edit,” Gabe adds. “But actually it was the opposite. Because these were true stories, I wanted to be as committed as possible to the original written word.”
The voice-over that runs throughout My Wife’s Affair is, by Gabe’s estimate, 98-per-cent verbatim. Gabe’s voice-over approach also serves as a mechanism for character development in a short amount of time, with the husband character’s painfully tender and specific internal monologue imposed on visions pulled from his imagined worst-case scenarios. “If the admission of an affair is like an atomic bomb,” he says, "the subsequent discussions and mini-revelations are the fallout. The inevitable questions, the need to know specific details, became amplified in the ensuing days. Even if I could get over the physical act of cheating, I found it was the minor details that stung the most: the secret text messages, the phone calls, the coffee dates. What songs reminded her of him? What inside jokes did they share?”
The directors balanced the interpretive licence they were granted with preservation of the writers’ original work.
While Jeyapalan’s approach was quite poignant, Wong, too, used comedy to bring her First Person adaptations to the screen. “To get people to listen to what you’re saying, it’s really important to make it accessible. Life is kind of weird, right? Life is strange. But life is funny … Sometimes you need to put these situations in a different light to expose how ridiculous everything is.”
“I think I stayed true to the amazing earnestness of how he portrayed his story,” says Wong of First Person contributor Dave Jorgensen, whose 2014 essay about fitness culture generously winds into a critique of toxic masculinity. (“We need the gym to disguise our bodies and create the illusion of ruggedness,” Jorgensen wrote. “The combination of insecurity and boosted testosterone brings out the worst behaviour in the male gender.”) “The story never reflects badly on the protagonist himself.”
In Wong’s representation of contributor Steven Gottlieb, whose self-described “hubris” came back to haunt him after the buyer of the home he sold couldn’t close the deal and he wound up owning two houses, Wong again followed the tone of the original piece. The result is a cheerfully didactic cautionary tale.
“Making a short is challenging, because you have to be very economical with the information you dole out to a viewer,” Jeyapalan says. “You only have so much time. But shorts are also a great way to experiment.” (Each film in the First Person series runs between six and eight minutes in length.)
“What I love about First Person is that it’s everyday Canadians writing about their personal stories,” Jeyapalan continues. “There’s something special about that, something real … I kind of pitched it as ‘the new Canadian Heritage Minute.'"
I Tried to Cash In on My Toronto Home and Got Burned
“In April, 2017, my hubris soared along with the price of the Toronto housing market at the peak of its mania. But you know how these plotlines go. Like the ancient Greek Icarus whose ambitions got the better of him, I flew too high and my wings melted. Greed is an old story.”
Based on a story by Steven Gottlieb, first published Sept. 12, 2018.
My Wife’s Affair? It’s Kind of a Funny Story
“Six months ago, my wife of six (mostly happy) years confessed to me that she had had an affair. I remember the exact moment she told me, though my memories of the event have taken on the texture of a vivid dream: vibrant and intense, yet somehow distant.”
Based on a story by Sean Curran, first published Nov. 3, 2014.
My Father’s Dignity
“Early fall, a month before my father dies, we sit on a bench by Lake Ontario and watch a sailboat disappear below a pink and orange sunset. Dad is in the middle with Mom and I on either side, trying to anchor him to life a little longer. A brain tumour, a weed in his frontal cortex, troubles him deeply and Parkinson’s shadows his days. ‘If I were 23, this would be a living hell. At 92, it just sucks,’ my father says.”
Based on a story by Robyn Sheppard, first published Nov. 26, 2018.
“I’ve been a regular at my local gym for more than a decade. I’ve done thousands of pull-ups and logged enough kilometres on the treadmill to get from B.C. to Nova Scotia. And at no point in my life have I ever had to pull my body weight with my arms or run more than half a block to catch a bus. The practical value of fitness may be obsolete, but that doesn’t mean that fitness has no value.”
Based on a story by Dave Jorgensen, first published Oct. 16, 2014.
“When you least expect it, an extraordinary encounter in the park can change your outlook on life – forever.”
Based on a story by Barbara Wackerle Baker, first published Nov. 22, 2017.
“My brain tells me this cannot possibly be true but I have to look at the facts: 1) The principal has announced a Code Red school lockdown. 2) Principals don’t joke about Code Reds. This is real.”
Based on a story by Diana Sarkis, first published Jan. 6, 2014.
First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.