You probably couldn’t squeeze more of Vancouver’s multicultural mashup into Carl Bessai’s Fathers & Sons if you tried. (Trust him—he tried.)
“It was in part because when I started on the project, I was working with the [National] Film Board [of Canada],” the prolific local director explains by phone, “and it was something when we started talking about it”¦[we were] wanting to kind of have that be a strong part of the narrative in the way in which in different cultures you might have different structures, in terms of the relationships between parents and their kids.”
Watch the trailer for Fathers & Sons.
Fathers & Sons (which won the Vancouver Film Critics Circle’s best B.C. film award and opens in Vancouver on Friday [January 21] ) is a follow-up to his improvised ensemble drama Mothers & Daughters. Not only is his comedic effort a far cry from his sombre offerings like Normal and Unnatural & Accidental, it also boasts his most inclusive story lines and cast.
“One of the organizing themes is cultural identity,” he says, “which, I think, is a point of departure for looking at the mechanics of this father-son relationship, because of course you could say that different cultures have different ways of dealing with one another.”
In the mix, there’s a man (Benjamin Ratner) who, at his mother’s funeral, unexpectedly meets the Russian Jewish father (Jay Brazeau) he never knew. Meanwhile, a rift develops between a South Asian accountant (Stephen Lobo) and his fiancée (Sonja Bennett) over his flamboyant choreographer father (Manoj Sood). Differences also surface between an African-Canadian broker (Viv Leacock) and his altruistic father (Blu Mankuma) over money matters. And the reunion of four Caucasian brothers (Vincent Gale, Tyler Labine, Hrothgar Matthews, Tom Scholte) for the reading of their father’s will triggers latent tensions.
(Speaking of siblings, Bessai is shooting the last installment in the trilogy, Sisters & Brothers, starring Repeaters’ Amanda Crew and Dustin Milligan, Glee’s Cory Monteith, and his “core improvising troupe”: Scholte, Ratner, Brazeau, and Gabrielle Rose.)
Bessai actually shot five stories. But when the content became “too unwieldy”, he cut an aboriginal story, starring Lorne Cardinal and Gordon Tootoosis, which, he says, was “one of those things you hate to do”.
A sixth, Chinese-Canadian story didn’t make it to camera, as he opted for a South Asian story line. “I just wanted to do something with Bollywood dancing.” Inspired by La Cage aux Folles and The Birdcage, he subverted the usual South Asian coming-out narrative of a closeted child in an arranged marriage. Instead, the conservative son resents his gay father. “You think he’s [the father] going to get all upset because the guy’s marrying a white girl,” he says. “But he [the father] could care less. He just wants to have a party.”
Yet no matter what ethnicity or orientation the characters are, some universal themes emerge. While Mothers & Daughters featured women smothered by their familial relationships, the men in Fathers & Sons attempt to reconcile independence with blood ties.
Bessai says any commonalities simply reflect the subject matter. He developed the stories independently of each other with the actors, using an approach developed by Toronto’s 1970s collective-theatre movement.
He opines that the multilayered structure makes the sum greater than its parts. “Separately, the interesting thing about this movie is that it’s way less powerful than it is as a whole,” he says. “And there’s something about leaving the story and going to another story that contributes, weirdly, to the story you just left. I think it’s because you’re sharing themes. And so as you develop an emotional understanding of what is important or powerful about the relationship between a man and his son, you’re getting that kind of theme reiterated over and over again but from different points of view. It builds emotionally in you as a viewer, I think.”