Any long-time Vancouverite with a heart will have a hard time sitting through On the Farm.
Chilling in its familiarity—from the panoramic shots of downtown Vancouver to the close-ups in East Side alleyways—the film, directed by Rachel Talalay, takes the narrative from one centred on disturbed serial killer Robert William Pickton to one that speaks to the resilience, intelligence, and bravery of the women who were forced by poverty and addiction to silence the fear that they might be next.
For Talalay, an American director and film professor at UBC who moved to Vancouver from Baltimore in 2002, the movie, based on a book by Stevie Cameron with the same name, needed to speak for the side so few knew.
“I was fairly new to Vancouver, but I realized quickly that everyone was a maximum of two to three degrees of separation from the story,” Talalay tells the Straight by phone from England.
Locals will find it hard to forget front pages plastered with the faces of disappeared women, the negligence of the VPD and the RCMP, and the drawn-out time line of events that eventually led to Pickton’s arrest in 2002 and conviction of six counts of second-degree murder in 2007. (He later admitted to an officer that he killed 49 women.)
“The greatest concern that everyone had before becoming involved with the film, from the casting director to the lead actor, was ‘Can we take on this story in a respectful fashion, and not be the exploitive serial-killer story?’
“It’s not an easy picture to watch,” Talalay admits, “but it’s not a movie about Pickton.”
That’s no exaggeration: the actor who plays him, credited simply as “The Farmer”, doesn’t have a single line in the film.
The lead character, Nikki Taylor, played by Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers, is a feisty indigenous woman working on the streets of the Downtown Eastside. Drug-addicted and living in poverty, Taylor and her peers are a tight-knit group of women bound closely by their shared struggles as sex workers. (The characters in the film are fictionalized, but Taylor is largely based on a stabbing victim who testified against Pickton in 2003.)
For Talalay, the unpredictability of a life lived on the DTES required a lead actress who could confidently stray from the script’s formalities.
“I was looking for actors who could improv, that would really embody the characters and not feel like they were acting,” Talalay says.
Tailfeathers, an indigenous actress, filmmaker, and producer, was the last to audition. Although admittedly terrified that the movie wouldn’t be created with respect for families, Tailfeathers showed an investment in the role that few others did.
“She brought an energy and a bravery that was incredible,” Talalay says.
Describing the scene in which Taylor is lured to a false clinic for treatment and undergoes an excruciating unsupervised detox, she adds, “That’s not something a director directs the details of. I just put her in that environment, and watched her create the scene, which I think is so painful to watch.”
Calling the production “more intense than anything I’ve ever done”, Talalay says the film required a sensitivity to certain protocols that she hadn’t experienced before. The film’s First Nations guide and liaison, Doreen Manual, brought something to the set that Talalay says helped cast and crew sift through the ugliness of the story’s truths.
“[Manual] was this force for good and sanity, because the intensity of the story and working on it every day required someone to bring a spiritual nature to it,” she says. “I’ve never been on a show where the locations needed to be smudged to free the negative spirits. She brought something that I didn’t know I needed.”
For anyone with knowledge of the real-life botched investigation, rage is a normal reaction. Talalay is no different, and says she often became frustrated when preparing for the film.
“The biggest take-away is that it hasn’t stopped in Canada,” she says, referring to the 1,200 missing and murdered indigenous women across the country. “There’s a version of this story where the police are paying no attention, or where women are being exploited in numerous ways, all over the world.”
Thoroughly heart-wrenching and downright haunting, On the Farm tells of struggles often shrouded in silence. Talalay says that that alone has propelled people who see her film to ask questions and seek answers.
“I want people to take away righteous anger. Whatever the issue—addictions, housing, false clinics, women’s issues—I want people to leave feeling activated.”
On the Farm plays at the VIFF Vancity Theatre as part of the Women in Film Festival next Thursday (March 9) at 6 p.m.