Perfume War is a compelling rags-to-riches success story

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      A documentary by Mike Melski. Rated PG

      It’s fitting that self-made Canadian entrepreneur Barb Stegemann should bring the same DIY attitude that’s helped her build a socially minded fragrance empire to a film about her own life.

      The 7 Virtues maven and her husband, Mike Velemirovich, have formed a new movie company, and its first breezily inspiring documentary is about, well, Stegemann. It’s directed by an old King’s College friend, Mike Melski.

      That means the film is as earnestly passionate about the world causes its brand supports as it is about her genuinely motivating rags-to-riches story. But it also gives the film an inescapable promotional scent.

      Stegemann’s own story of overcoming unbelievable odds gives Perfume War its heart, tracing her life from poverty and bullying as a child in Nova Scotia through university to single motherhood.

      From the outset, the movie weaves her story tightly together with that of her best friend, Trevor Greene, the Canadian soldier who was attacked with an axe in Afghanistan and is still fighting to recover from the brain injury. It’s an admittedly odd alignment—the wounded soldier and the perfume dealer—but Greene was the one who inspired Stegemann to turn toward Afghanistan and try to spark peace there through business. Stegemann found an Afghan activist who was organizing farmers to grow orange blossoms and roses as an alternative to the poppy trade fuelling unrest and terror in the region. With no financial backing or experience in the industry, she launched the first two 7 Virtues scents using their oils.

      From there, we watch her “crazy journey”—including pitching on Dragons’ Den (and surviving an epic ripping from a skeptical Kevin O’Leary), winning over corporate giants like Hudson’s Bay, defying the sexual branding of perfumes, and developing a career as a speaker. The film is full of the motivational talk that peppers Stegemann’s engagements and her best-selling book 7 Virtues of a Philosopher Queen, including countless intertitles quoting Roman philosopher-king and Stoic Marcus Aurelius. What we don’t see or hear enough from are the farmers in Afghanistan, though cameras do join Stegemann on a trip to Rwanda, where she sources patchouli oil.

      Stegemann’s triumphs are huge, and her role-modelling for women important. She’s honest and likable, a whirlwind of energy, and a passionate subject who can hold the screen. Interestingly, she doesn’t believe in charity; socially conscious venture capitalism is the driving force here. Perfume War is a compelling success story; still, you’re left wondering what a more arm’s-length documentary team might have sniffed out of all this.