When Reginald Harkema lived in Vancouver, he was best known as the editor of such indie efforts as Gary Burns’s Kitchen Party, Bruce McDonald’s Hard Core Logo, and Don McKellar’s Last Night. But the tall, tousle-haired fellow always wanted to make his own films. He dabbled with directing in A Girl Is a Girl, a title that betrays his obvious affection for the chopped-up, movie-tweaking films of Jean-Luc Godard. And in 2004, in the funky documentary Better Off in Bed, he followed two Vancouver bands, the New Pornographers and the Gay, as they toured Western Canada.
Now Harkema is coming on strong with Monkey Warfare. The breezy feature film, shot on the cheap in Toronto’s Parkdale district during two weeks last year, stars McKellar as a former radical, long on the run for unnamed troubles, whose current life off the grid is threatened when he and his diffident girlfriend (Tracy Wright) get involved with a young pot dealer (Nadia Litz) who is overly drawn to their militant past.
Just a few years ago, the veteran (but still young) East Sider was invited to work on a project at the Canadian Film Centre, and he has lived and worked in Toronto ever since. When Harkema talked to the Georgia Straight, he was bringing the movie to last fall’s Vancouver International Film Festival. Our main subject of discussion was the movie’s central relationship, by nature as political as it is personal.
“I always felt like they [McKellar and Wright’s characters] were kind of forced together,” he said, lounging in a hotel chair. “All the tensions you’d already have there are amplified by living underground. You know, the toothpaste cap and all that. They become kind of utilitarian to each other, like someone who can help you move a large piece of furniture when you need to. And there’s a kind of detachment and a general wariness about what’s around the corner.”
Intriguingly, these on-the-lam characters are also incredible pack rats—gathering collectibles at yard sales and selling them on eBay. The notion of free-thinking progressives as closet conservatives appeals to Harkema, who understands such dichotomies.
“I grew up in a deeply Christian household. My father was a cop. The problem is that you are inculcated and indoctrinated to believe that there’s a certain way the world works. When you get out of the nest and into the world, you’re struck with the fact that it doesn’t actually work that way. And you may be stuck with a certain sense of resignation. But there’s also this idealistic need to make it work the way it’s supposed to work.”
Still, you’re not supposed to think too much about the crime that’s revealed at the end of the film.
“That’s more or less just a device to see what happens to two people who are under the boot of a system that more or less subsumes them. So the whole thing about collecting objects is not all that different from the suburban couple with the two-car garage; it’s just on another level. Their radicalism has simply turned into middle-class ennui.”
Harkema originally started the project as a look at two young rebels. “Their actions escalate until one gets run over by a Coke truck,” he recalled, “and the girl, in despondency, decides to suicide-bomb the Indy 500.” That version was due to be pitched to distributors and funders at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 11, 2001.
“If someone had got behind it, the whole thing would have been ready in time to be dropped at Cannes a year-and-a-half later, around the time of the whole Fahrenheit 9/11 thing, and it might have been the right moment for it. But instead it got kind of killed.”
When he saw McKellar and Wright play a couple in Childstar, which he edited, the nascent director was inspired to create a new script for them.
“My favourite movie in the world is Jean Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore, so the vehicle came naturally to me. It was just a question of finding the right elements to update it and add drama to that.”
Harkema also put together the film’s alternative-minded soundtrack, using the nom de turntable DJ Hans Lucas. Obviously, making his own movies allows a lot more of his rangy creativity to run free. Still, he’s not entirely ready to give up his day job. He recently did the scissor-snipping on Vic Sarin’s upcoming tale of 1948 India, Partition, and he will doubtless spend more time getting a Final Cut Pro tan.
In fact, later the same day we chatted, when Harkema was doing another interview in the hotel’s hospitality suite, he spotted fellow Vancouver transplant Sook-Yin Lee, in town to talk about her acting job in Shortbus.
“Hey, Sook-Yin,” he fairly shouted across the almost empty room. “Are you working on your own film? And if so, do you need an editor?”