VIFF 2019: The Okanagan burns in Ash, the most incendiary film at this year's fest

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      When VIFF wraps on October 11, Ash is the film people will be talking about. Andrew Huculiak’s latest is both an astonishing technical feat and, thematically, a potentially explosive act of daring. It’s hard to know which was more dangerous.

      “It is crazy,” Huculiak tells the Georgia Straight. “But that’s the kind of movie I like to make: something that feels almost impossible. That’s where the exciting things happen.”

      Despite being advised against it “at every turn”, the Vancouver-based filmmaker and his partners at Amazing Factory Productions began their second feature by flying into the Okanagan and amassing an extraordinary library of footage from 2016’s raging-wildfire season. Next, actors Chelah Horsdal and Tim Guinee were shipped into Peachland while its hills still burned ferociously in the near distance. Guinee’s jittery, fully embodied performance as small-town reporter Stan Hurst was yet another gamble that turned into a miracle—he was hired 48 hours before shooting. Guinee told Huculiak: “I feel like it’s the kind of movie people are going to have arguments about, and that’s why I want to do it.”

      And how. Those arguments will revolve around what Huculiak calls “an exploration of the edges of empathy”, timed serendipitously to coincide with the era of “cancel culture” and its tendencies toward mob behaviour. To put it another way: platitudes about “empathy” are easy until we’re asked to consider a man charged with creating and disseminating child pornography. This is where Ash takes the viewer. To say more would rob the film of its power, in which our assumptions about Stan are tested and overturned more than once.

      The screenplay was inspired by a childhood friend whose family experiences were described in Dave Preston’s book Truth Be Told: A Journey From the Dark Side of OCD.

      “I understood why people would become so violently irate, but I saw the human side of Dave,” says Huculiak, who subsequently found himself pondering the relative hypocrisies of “normalized evil”. The sanctioned killings of war, the rabid pursuit of status and wealth—it all gets a pass, “and then you have this man who’s suffering a mental illness, who committed a crime where the victims were himself and his family, but that type of person is vilified, ostracized, excluded from the community.

      “I don’t know if people are ready to talk about these types of things with nuance,” continues the 29-year-old filmmaker. “But maybe in 10 years this movie will be looked back on as a worthwhile addition to the dialogue. ‘Why are people behaving in these ways?’ It extends to any wrongdoing. I think for us to understand where people are coming from is the best way to stop these things from happening.”