For his new film, Swiss writer/director Nino Jacusso moved to B.C.'s Lower Nicola Valley for six months, learning the traditions of the Scw'exmx First Nation, the People of the Creeks, and assembling his cast of "real actors" from the Lower Nicola Indian Band. A particularly exciting find is Sunshine O'Donovan, now 13, who landed the title role.
Shana: The Wolf's Music is based on a Swiss children's book by Federica de Cesco, about a 15-year-old First Nations girl in Canada.
In the film, Shana is 12 and mourning the death of her mother. She has stopped attending school and plays her beloved violin with less frequency. Her father (Marcel Shackely) is drinking again. But when a new teacher (Delilah Dick) comes to town, she sees Shana's pain and potential.
The Swiss-Canadian co-production has its Canadian premiere April 6 at Vancouver's Reel to Real International Film Festival for Youth.
Mr. Jacusso spoke with The Globe and Mail from his home outside Bern, Switzerland.
What can you tell me about this book, and how you came to adapt it?
The writer is very well known here in Switzerland; she wrote about 80 or 100 books, mostly for children. I made a documentary about reading and writing books, and she was one of the main characters, and then I thought it would be nice to take one of her novels and make a film. With 100 novels, what should I take? So I asked my daughter, who was 10 at the time, and she said, 'Oh I love Shana, the Wolf Girl' – that's the title in German. And I read the book and I thought this is interesting, but I have to go and make the First Nation culture my own.
How did you choose the Lower Nicola Indian Band for the project?
I went to Canada [three times] until we found the Nicola Valley. And I felt, okay, I think it's the right place. I don't know why. Sometimes I think it's like somebody's calling you and then you have to go there.
We started to present the project to the People of the Creeks, then we talked to the elders. And I remember the first question was: Where are your stars? They said when film people are coming, white persons, they are coming with their stars, with makeup and costumes, they make them to be First Nations people, and we have the chance to get in the background. And then we go to the movie and we see, 'Ah, that is our culture; interesting.' But nothing is true.
I said, 'No, no, no, no, I don't want to do it like this. I would like to do it in a completely different way. When I make the film, I want to work with you first and change the script until it is a mirror of your culture. And then I would like that you, People of the Creeks, play the roles.' An old woman stood up from the elders and said I think you are going to build a bridge between the white people and the First Nations people. Because you are from the other side of the ocean, I think we have to build this bridge a little bigger, but I think it's important. Let's do that film. And we started to build that bridge. And now every time we present the film in Europe, I have always that sensation that people are going on this bridge and they meet each other on the movie screen.
Can you explain the casting process?
One of the pioneers of early cinema was a Russian movie maker, Sergei Eisenstein. He said when I have an actor from Moscow and he plays a farmer, then he plays very well. But when I make a close-up of his eyes, I see he's an actor, not a farmer. So he took a real farmer and put him in front of the camera. Now the eyes are perfect but his [acting] is not so good. So he started to work with the real farmer, and he developed a technique called real acting. He has to train this farmer with the real eyes of a farmer to act like an actor.
If I see on the screen Shana, I see a girl from the People of the Creeks, and that girl is true. It's not an artificial role made by a white person in Europe. It's true because we worked together, and she's just herself. And it's the same with Delilah. Delilah was a teacher, now she's a social worker, but she plays herself. And even the father, who plays an alcoholic, he has experience with alcohol.
How did you find Sunshine?
We had cast every role, but we didn't have Shana– the main character, so as the director, you get a little nervous. I started looking at another band, made the focus larger. Then a shaman came to me and said, 'Listen, you can't find your main character this way; we have to do a ceremony.' She said I know you are a white person; you don't believe it, but just come with me, trust me. The next morning at 4, she came to me and we went on a mountain. She said we have to do this and this, and then you have to saywhat you want. Don't say I would like to have a good Shana. You have to say: I want today my Shana, please send Shana to me. The sun was rising, we did the ceremony, then we went down. It was a horrible day, because we had meetings and meetings, and I forgot about the ceremony. Then, 4 p.m., there was knocking at the door of the casting office, the door is opening, and Sunshine O'Donovan was there and said, 'I heard you're looking for a girl with a violin and I'm here.' I looked at her and I knew it. She is it. Then I went to the Shaman and said, 'We have found her, it worked.' And she said, 'Yes, white person, you don't believe, but it worked.'
Have they seen the film?
Last fall the producer and I went to Merritt and showed the film just to the People of the Creeks who worked with us. And the elders stood up, came to us and said, 'Now your film is a part of our culture.'
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Shana: The Wolf's Music is at the R2R Film Festival at the Vancity Theatre in Vancouver Sunday at 1 p.m. and will be screened at the Nicola Valley Institute of Technology in Merritt April 10-12. A theatrical release is planned for other Canadian cities.