There’s a moment in Danishka Esterhazy’s new feature H&G—a modern-day updating of “Hansel and Gretel” screening as part of VIFF’s Canadian Images Series—in which her young child actors follow a trail in the forest to a ranch. With the first shot of the barn, you hear a pig squeal. If you’re anything like this writer, the first place your mind will go to is the Pickton farm.
Esterhazy, on the phone to the Straight from Winnipeg, seems delighted to hear this. “Wow, right from that first shot! Well, you know, the Pickton crimes are so present in our popular imagination, I think especially in Western Canada. We’re all so aware of that story,” she says. “When I was writing H&G, along with my cowriter Rebecca Gibson, we talked about ‘Who are the witches in modern society?’ In fairy tales, the villains are always these witches, these difficult, independent old women who lived alone in the woods. In the Middle Ages, people were afraid of these women and, of course, burned them at the stake. But those aren’t the boogeymen we have today. The people we’re afraid of today are people like pedophiles and serial killers. People like Robert Pickton. H&G is not a film about Robert Pickton, but the imagery from his crimes definitely inspired the writing.”
H&G’s nonprofessional child actors, Annika Elyse Irving (as Harley) and Breazy Diduck-Wilson (as Gemma), were quite innocent of the realities of the Pickton case, being six and eight years old at the time of the shoot. Esterhazy took pains to protect them from the full implications of the film they were acting in. “They loved visiting the pig farm,” she says with a laugh. “The pigs were adorable!”
She explains that much of the shoot was “treated like play”, with no pressure on the children to memorize lines. “I would tell them what the scene was about, and they would just improvise, and when I wanted lines of dialogue, I would throw it at them from off camera…. But it was a very sort of free experience where we discovered scenes together.”
In one scene, Gemma finds a scrapbook hidden away by the childlike farmer Brendon, which shows images of boys in their underwear. This immediately “sets off alarms” in the minds of adult viewers but, Esterhazy explains, “children might see it in a totally different way…. I tried to give the kids the knowledge their characters would have in the story, which is limited, because they’re children. So, for example, I said, ‘You’re exploring Brendon’s room, and you find this strange scrapbook, and it doesn’t really make sense to you.’ That’s all she was going on. I didn’t give her any background that it might be hinting at molestation or anything.”
Despite its moments of “suspense and dread and fear”, Esterhazy says she doesn’t consider H&G a horror film, because it wasn’t motivated by a wish to scare people. Rather, it’s “a desire to explore childhood, to make a film about the dichotomy of childhood experience—that on one hand, when you’re growing up, there are these moments of great joy and innocence, especially through play, but on the other side, being a child means that you’re vulnerable and powerless.”
Some of this reflects Esterhazy’s own background, she explains. “I was raised by a young single mother on welfare, and we lived in a government housing complex,” the director says. “That was my reality growing up, and I thought that understanding—my side of that experience—would make the ‘Hansel and Gretel’ story come to life in a contemporary setting.”
H&G screens at International Village on Saturday and Tuesday (September 28 and October 1).