SYNOPSIS by ert554898


Headstrong Ayan, a refugee from Somalia, has big dreams. New to Canada, she’ll show anyone
she can provide for her family. Still, it’s difficult to keep it all together. On top of the soaring rent,
her daughters, 16-year-old Nasrah and 13-year-old Leila, need braces. And even working two
jobs as a cleaner, it’s tough to find enough money to send to her anxious husband and two sons
still stuck in East Africa.

Ayan’s confidence is shaken when she is unexpectedly evicted for late payment of rent. It is the
beginning of the summer break from school, and the city faces a severe housing shortage. Ayan
and her daughters are exiled to the city’s tattered hinterland among other homeless families,
hookers and unsettled souls.

Ayan knows all too well the grief that comes with losing a home. A true survivor, she tries to
rebuild from within her lonely motel room. But what Ayan cannot tolerate is Nasrah’s increasing
estrangement, especially during her mother’s greatest time of need.

During the long days of summer, while Ayan is at work, Nasrah grudgingly does chores and looks
after her doting sister. A handsome young motel neighbour, Rudy, surfaces offering Nasrah
friendship and understanding. But he is not what he seems, and an innocuous cell phone
sparks a new crisis. Ayan comes close to losing all she holds most dear.

A vibrant and contemporary feature drama fired by a trio of remarkable debut performances,
Family Motel charts one eventful summer in the lives of Ayan and her girls as they confront life
on the edge.

Directed by Helene Klodawsky and produced by Ina Fichman of Instinct Films and Ravida Din of
the National Film Board of Canada, Family Motel employs an unusual improvisational approach
to cinematic storytelling. Created in collaboration with Hodan Shafici Mohamed, the film
introduces Nargis and her real-life daughters Asha and Sagal Jibril, who headline a lively cast of
first-time performers.

Drawing upon a vivid palette of atmospheres and emotions, Klodawsky and cinematographer
Germán Gutiérrez craft a richly detailed urban drama. Somali-Canadian rap artist K’naan and
composer Bertrand Chenier contribute a score rich in colour and rhythm.

Finding inspiration in the alternative dramas pioneered at the National Film Board of Canada as

well as community-based storytelling, Klodawsky and her collaborators deftly fashion a fresh
and authentic tale of falling through the cracks in a land of plenty and a stirring portrait of
dignity under fire.
Family Motel : An Alternative Drama                    history to be written, directed, produced and
                                                       performed by an Inuit crew and cast, winning the
Early in the production's history, the creative        Caméra d'Or at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival.
team behind Family Motel decided to develop the
film as an alternative drama. "It was the subject      Founded in 1939, the NFB has in fact played a
matter − the widespread phenomenon of                  central role in developing Canadian cinema since
homeless families being housed in suburban             its inception. As early as the 1940s, the NFB was
motels − that dictated this choice," says director     blurring the line between drama and documentary
Helene Klodawsky. "A fictional approach allowed        with Stanley Jackson's Shyness, paving the way for
us to explore all the issues relating to               the docu-dramas of the 1960s and 1970s. In 1963
homelessness in a fresh manner through an              the NFB produced its first dramatic feature
original narrative of one woman and her struggle       Drylanders, followed closely by Le chat dans le sac
to protect her family."                                and Nobody Waved Goodbye. In 1971 the NFB
                                                       release Mon oncle Antoine placed Canadian
In adopting this approach, Family Motel is part of a   feature films squarely on the international map, and
worldwide revival of alternative drama. From           the subsequent years would see the emergence of
Belgium to Iran, directors are looking to a genre      new approach to making feature-length fiction film.
pioneered twenty years ago at the National Film
Board of Canada with a view to adapting it to
current realities. Michael Winterbottom and the
Dardenne brothers are just some of the filmmakers
who are adapting the model to address critical
social issues within modest-budget dramatic

"Helene and I were both impressed by Michael
Winterbottom's film In This World," says Ina
Fichman, producer for Instinct Films. "We had a
fruitful meeting with his team while we were in
London. Working with novice actors and getting
them to tell a story that reflected a reality that
was familiar to them, Winterbottom succeeded
in crafting a drama about the hot-button issue of
asylum seekers in the UK. There were some
obvious parallels with our own project, and the
encounter provided invaluable food for thought."

The development of Family Motel coincided with         Working within the unique creative environment of
the National Film Board's return to producing          the NFB, filmmakers like John Smith, Giles Walker,
fiction, following a 10-year period during which the   Cynthia Scott and David Wilson forged a new genre
agency had focused primarily on documentary and        based on improvisation and the use of non-
educational material. In 2001 Jacques Bensimon,        professional actors. Their collective body of work
newly appointed as Government Film Commissioner        includes such titles as Train of Dreams, Sitting in
and Chairperson of the NFB, announced his wish to      Limbo and The Company of Strangers - films that
see the NFB resume production of fiction film, and     would define the new alternative drama genre.
later that same year the NFB release Atanarjuat-       In 2004 many of these same filmmakers answered
The Fast Runner became the first feature film in
the call when Tom Perlmutter, Director General of        broadens our understanding of a critical social
the NFB's English Program, convened a group of           issue. Canada's public film producer has a
film professionals at the NFB's Montreal                 mandate to support this type of work, and the NFB
headquarters. At a time when the NFB was                 is proud to be a partner in the project."
resuming production of dramatic features, the
prospect of reviving alternative drama was under
discussion. How could the model be adapted to a          Family Motel is directed by Helene Klodawsky and
new time and a new set of circumstances? Ina             co-produced by Instinct Films (Ina Fichman,
Fichman was among the participants in that event.        producer) and the National Film Board of Canada
                                                         (Ravida Din, producer).
"Tom Perlmutter had recently arrived at the NFB and
was keen to distinguish the NFB from the commercial
sector," says Fichman. "The workshop brought all
of this collective knowledge and experience into
one room, and Helene and I seized the opportunity
to meet John Smith, Cynthia Scott and David
Wilson, all key figures in those early important NFB
dramas. They were all interested in Family Motel
and had great advice on working with non-
professional actors and how to get them to tell
a stor y that, although it's not their own
necessarily, resonates with a reality they know."

Family Motel is one of several titles that signals
the NFB's return to feature films and its renewed
interest in alternative drama. Director Joshua
Dorsay successfully updated the genre in his 2006
release The Point, which featured a group of young
people from Point St. Charles, a multicultural
working-class district of Montreal, performing a
script based on their own experiences and stories.
In a similar vein, Toronto-based filmmaker Deepa
Mehta is working with community-based partners to
develop a drama on the complex question of
domestic abuse.

"It can be difficult for such experimental projects to
secure funding through conventional channels,"
says Ravida Din, "and that's where the NFB has an
important role to play. Family Motel is an ambitious
project. It employs an innovative narrative
approach, one that seeks to engage a wide
audience, to explore the complex interplay between
poverty and housing. It marries a dedication to film
craft − a desire to devise new ways of telling stories
with film − with relevant contemporary content that
                                                        sing anytime, she tells me, but she wants to
Inter view with Nargis                                  become a doctor. As her mother, I'm thrilled with
                                                        her decision. But when I told her about the movie,
Nargis, who is making her acting debut in Family        and that they were looking for families, she said,
Motel, works as a case coordinator with the City        "Great! Let's audition."
of Ottawa's Community and Protective Services.
In the course of working with her clients, she          And Sagal, the younger one, is a born drama queen!
responds to a range of needs relating to                She's acting all the time. So it was a natural thing
employment, housing, and financial relief. She          for her to just walk in and do it. They're having fun.
also works at an Ottawa Aboriginal shelter that         They can go back to school and say, "Guess what I
offers services to abuse victims. In the past she       did this summer? I made a movie!"
has worked with the city-run system of family
shelters and has been active in women's
organizations and the Canadian social justice
movement. She and her daughters, Asha Jibril and
Sagal Jibril, have been cast in the central roles of
Ayan and her children - an immigrant family that
has been temporarily housed in a suburban motel.

How did you get cast?

I was first contacted by Hodan Mohamed, who had
been hired by the production as an independent
consultant. She was casting the Somali characters
in the script. When she first proposed that I act in
a film, I thought it was a joke. "Who's pulling this
prank?" I thought.

But then she gave me the history of the production
and put me in touch with the director, Helene
Klodawsky. And I thought, “Well, why not?” Family
Motel is a movie that could bring some attention to
a very serious social problem. I'm not an actress,      Could you describe your working relationship with
but because of the subject of this movie, I decided     the director?
to do it.
                                                        Helene is awesome. She is a socially conscious
We knew that the character of Ayan had kids, so we      person − and that was a big factor for me in
actually auditioned as a family. It went really well,   deciding to do something I've never done in my life.
and Helene and Ina told us later that they knew         I saw her aura of calm and her care for the issues
immediately that we were the right family.              − not just the issues addressed in this movie but a
                                                        whole range of questions relating to social justice.

My oldest daughter, Asha, went to Canterbury High
School, which specializes in the arts, and she did      When we first met, I told her, "You don't want me for
the vocal arts program. More recently she realized      this role, Helene! I'm not an actress." But she said,
that she wanted to be a pediatrician and has            "Don't worry. I will guide you." And she has. She
transferred to a more academic school. She can          truly guides me on a daily basis, showing me how
to get where she wants me to be, how to portray         had my input.
Ayan's emotions. She has a way of calming people        What kind of input have you had?
and I'm having a great time working with her. And
my children love her. She's an awesome human            When we left the audition, my daughter asked, "Did
being and great director. I'm glad to have met her,     they say it was going to be improvisation? That we'd
and I'm certainly going to keep in touch.               be working without a script? How are we going to
                                                        work like that?"
What has been your experience of the film shoot?
                                                        We don't get a script to learn and to recite. Helene
The whole thing has been new to me. I had to learn      puts the general outline of the scene in our hands
what a grip does, what an assistant director does,      − and then tells us what's happening at any given
and so on. I only recently found out the difference     moment in the script. She'll tell me, for example,
between a producer and a director. I love movies,       that Ayan is visiting the immigration office where,
but I never really knew what all the credits meant at   after a long wait, she tries to tell the immigration
the end of the film, so it's been an education.         officer how badly she needs to reunite her family.
                                                        And then Helene lets us go from there. So I help to
As for the location, well, this is one of most          create Ayan's emotions and think of what exactly
disgusting motels in the city of Ottawa. When I used    she would say.
to work with the city's system of shelters, I'm sad
to say that we did occasionally place families here     I also give Helene cultural details and offer
when nothing else was available. Sometimes              suggestions from my own cultural point of view. I
there's little choice, but it does bother me to know    can proudly say I put my wardrobe together,
we actually put children and families in this kind of   because I think the wardrobe people would find it
situation.                                              difficult to come up with Somali costumes. I've
                                                        helped them with that. So I've been a consultant
One day during the shoot two of my clients saw me       and creative contributor in a number of ways, and
sitting in front of a motel room, dressed in my         I'm very proud of that. It gives me confidence that
costume for the part. They were aghast. "What's         one day I could write something or pursue a
happened, Samsam? Are you living here now?"             creative project.
They wanted to help me, but when I explained the
situation, we all laughed.                              I'm grateful to Helene for allowing me to be able to
                                                        contribute in this way, for asking me for advice and
On another day, we did this scene where the             feedback. Even if we sometimes agree to disagree,
children teach me how to do a hip-hop dance, and        I love the exchange. We recently heard that her last
that was pretty hilarious. There are lots of            film is being nominated for a Gemini award, so I'm
characters at this motel, and we see all kinds of       working with a director of that calibre. And I'm not
things going on during our breaks.                      even an actress, so it's a huge compliment.
Working with this crew has been great. It's so          What are the challenges of working in this
interesting to work with such creative people. I'm      improvisational way?
used to a more structured work environment. Here
it's different. You sometimes have to do things over    It's hard. You have to really dig in. Don't forget,

and over again, but we can still laugh. I joke around   I'm not an actress − I have never been in front
a lot. I just hope they don't catch it on camera! And   of a camera. It's very demanding − not be
the first few days, I was thinking, "How many coffees   conscious of the camera, with all the people
have they all had!" It's a very quick pace. But I've
around me, and to follow direction and provide
what I'm supposed to deliver. But then Helene            And homelessness does not affect immigrants
and the others will say, "That's it! You've got it       alone. Many Canadian families, from a whole
right!" And that's rewarding.                            range of backgrounds, will find themselves in
                                                         shelters at some point in their lives.
At first I did not understand this idea of alternative
drama. I kept asking how you work if you're not          How does it feel to be playing this particular role?
giving the actors a script. I hounded the director,
and then she explained to me that the National Film      I've been working for many years with people
Board did this kind of film in the 1970s and 1980s.      who've been displaced in different ways, and my
So I've done little bit of research, and now I feel      current job brings me into contact with homeless
more comfortable. You really have to be able to          families from many different backgrounds. And I
focus on the moment and go into your character.          also work specifically with the Aboriginal
                                                         community, helping to find shelter for homeless
How true to life is Ayan's story?                        women and children. So I've been working with
                                                         people in transition for a long time. In the 1980s,
I think that Family Motel presents a very accurate       before coming to Canada, I worked for a while in
picture of many women's lives, not just from             refugee camps in Somalia, as one of CARE USA's
Somalia, but from all over the world. With wars          local employees.
happening all over the globe, displacing entire
populations, large numbers are seeking refuge in         Plus, I myself have had to migrate, to relocate and
Canada from many different places.                       to find a place in the world that I could call home
                                                         and settle down. I finally did that here in Canada.
It's common to see families who have been                So going through those periods of dramatic
separated by war and conflict in their country of        transition myself has given me an understanding of
origin. It takes a long time for either the husband or   Ayan's story. That's largely why I chose to take part
wife − whoever gets to Canada first − to tackle all      in the project.
the necessary paperwork and bureaucracy to get
the remaining family members into the country. It        Does the depiction in the script of the
takes finances, it takes courage, and it takes           mother/daughter relationship ring true?
sacrifice. In my opinion, the laws that regulate
family reunification need to be simplified. Many         Well, working in shelters for many years, I've
families suffer long periods of separation before        witnessed first-hand how homelessness can be
they are eventually reunited.                            hard on teenagers, how it can cause them real
                                                         agony and pain. It's very embarrassing for a
When you're in a refugee camp, fleeing violence,         teenager to be classified as homeless and to have
you have to draw upon all your resources to make         to live in a shelter or motel. It's a crushing blow to
it to a safe country. And sometimes you have to          their pride and self-esteem. They're already at a
choose. Can I take all my family? Or can I take          delicate stage of their life, going through many
just one or two members and come back later for          changes, and then on top of everything else, they
the rest? It's an excruciating decision to have to       become homeless. Some of them can cope and
make, but many mothers and father have no

                                                         some can't. Some rebel. Some may just withdraw.
choice. I've seen that situation time and again in       It can drive a teenager into a dark place. Others will
my work with newcomers. And coming from a                act out in strange ways. It's not always easy for
wartorn country myself, I know it for a fact.            parents to understand.
Also often there's a cultural aspect. For children       I also hope that Family Motel bridges the gap
who've grown up here, who have not known war and         between the mainstream Canadians and
displacement and all that − they're used to having       newcomers. Immigrant and refugee communities
a home here. And then all of a sudden they lose          are often portrayed negatively in local and national
their home and their neighbourhood and their             media, so I hope Family Motel puts a real human
school. It's a huge thing − their life as they know it   face to who we are. I hope it can communicate the
has just come to an end. For their mother, it's          simple but essential message − "Look, we're just
different. She has experienced relocation before.        like everyone else. We're just trying to survive, to
Yes it's hard but she can take it in stride. And         raise our kids as best we can, and to get by. But
sometimes children will blame the parents. They          we've got obstacles to get over." That's what I'm
will think it's their mother's fault.                    hoping.

In the scenes where Ayan and her daughter are            And on a personal note, it's been wonderful to
having difficulties, it's not just teenage rebellion,    share this experience with my daughters. They have
it's also that cultural difference. Ayan's daughter      helped me in my life to be a strong woman. They've
has grown up in Canada and has become a                  have been at my side over the years in different
teenager in Canada, but Ayan is still connected to       marches and gatherings, whether it's protesting
the old world. She's only been in Canada for five        against poverty or celebrating International
years and is more traditional. That cultural             Women's Day. I try hard to educate them so that
difference between mothers and daughters exists          they become conscious adults, ready to contribute
in many different communities.                           to resolving the world's problems. They know that
                                                         their mother does justice work, that she has worked
What particular obstacles does Ayan confront as          in a shelter, that she does shift work with people
a member of a visible minority?                          who are in poverty. They know that their mother was
                                                         herself once living in poverty and transition. Taking
Ayan is not just dealing with homelessness and           part in Family Motel allows them to understand
being a single parent, she is facing other barriers.     homelessness in a new way, from another point of
She's a person of colour, with a different religion.     view.
She looks different, she dresses different and
speaks a different language. She is not only
battling poverty and single parenthood, she is
facing all kinds of systemic racism − all kinds of
other obstacles. This compounds the problem of
homelessness and the challenge of finding
affordable housing.

What is your hope for a film like Family Motel?

My hope is that it's seen not as just a movie about
an immigrant woman, but as a film with a broader

message about homelessness and poverty, the
lack of affordable housing and decent-paying jobs. I
hope those issues come to the forefront.
against homelessness and poverty.                       compares to 20% of two-parent families.
Women, Poverty and Homelessness:
Some Facts on the Canadian                              Canadian women as a whole are poorer in 2006
                                                        than they have been in two decades. About 19% of
Situation                                               all women in Canada - approximately 1.5 million −
                                                        were living in poverty in 2003.
There is a critical shortage of affordable housing in
Canada. This is the result in large part of Federal     Single-parent families headed by women have the
policy: between 1993 and 2001 the Federal               lowest incomes of all family types. In 2003 they
government provided no funding for new affordable       earned less than 60% of the income of male-
housing except for on-reserve Aboriginal housing.       headed single-parent families.
During this period Quebec and British Columbia
were the only provinces to fund new affordable          About 35% of all women who immigrated to Canada
housing.                                                between 1991 and 2000 are living in poverty.
                                                        Thirty-seven percent of women from visible
Equal access to home ownership by lower-income          minorities and 36% of Aboriginal women live in
women and single mothers is compromised by the          poverty.
discriminatory policies of Canada Mortgage and
Housing Corporations and private financial              One in four people living on the street is a woman.
institutions.                                           Young women account for 41% of youth staying in
                                                        shelters. The death rate for homeless women is ten
Women are more likely than men to experience            times that for women who have housing.
housing insecurity. Women and children,
particularly women of colour and Aboriginal women,      Homelessness is expensive. The cost of providing
are the fastest growing group using shelters in         basic services to homeless people − shelters,
Canada.                                                 health care, policing and so on − is estimated to be
                                                        $1.4 billion a year, far more than the cost of
The chronically homeless - the people we see living     providing the homeless with access to housing.
on the street − represent less than 20% of the total
homeless population in Canada.                          The information on this sheet was provided by the
                                                        following agencies: the National Working Group on
Domestic abuse is an important contributing factor      Women and Housing: the National Anti-Poverty
to    women's     insecurity    of   tenure     and     Organization; the Federation of Canadian
homelessness. Due to the lack of affordable             Municipalities, and Raising the Roof.
housing, women using shelters to escape violence
are often compelled to return to abusive situations.

Based on the calculation that people spending over
30% of their income on rent are not living in
affordable housing, Statistics Canada reports that
42% of single mothers living in rented accommodation
in 2003 were not living in affordable housing. This
     I immediately sensed that a conventional
   documentary would not do full justice to this
   complex subject. The creative challenge with
     Family Motel is to bring my documentary
      experience to a fictional film, to employ
       dramatic devices to explore the impact
              of homelessness on the
                lives of real people.                      a 2002 documentary featuring love stories of
                          − Helene Klodawsky               Holocaust survivors. The film won the 2003 Gemini
                                                           Award for Best Television History Documentary, as
Klodawsky is a Montreal-based filmmaker who is             well as prizes at the Jerusalem and Columbus
motivated by a desire to shed light on the experience      International Film Festivals.
of people and subjects that mainstream
entertainment overlooks. A graduate of the Nova            Among her other credits, Motherland (1994), a wry
Scotia College of Art, she has been writing and            assessment of post-war North American
directing social, political and arts documentaries         motherhood, won top honours on the festival
for 20 years. The alternative drama Family Motel is        circuit, as have a trio of titles highlighting various
her first feature-length fiction film.                     aspects of women's lives: Painted Landscapes of
                                                           the Times (1986), No Time to Stop (1991) and
Klodawsky's films have been screened and televised         What If (1999).
around the world and have received more than 25
awards, including honours from the Chicago                 Klodawsky has experience working in conflict
International Film Festival, the San Francisco             zones. In 1988, immediately prior to the first
International Film Festival, the Mannheim                  intifada, she spent time in Israel and the Occupied
International Film Festival, Hot Docs and the Academy      Territories, filming Shoot and Cry, an exploration of
of Canadian Cinema.                                        the Palestinian/Israeli conflict as seen through the
                                                           eyes of two young men an Israeli conscript and a
Her most recent credit is No More Tears Sister:            Palestinian worker. Following its premiere on
Anatomy of Hope and Betrayal, an award-winning             Channel Four in the UK, it was televised around the
feature documentary about Dr. Rajani Thiranagama,          world.
the courageous human rights activist who was
assassinated in her native Sri Lanka. The film             In developing Family Motel, Klodawsky worked
circulated widely in the international festival circuit,   closely with housing activists and representatives
from London's Human Rights Watch Film Festival             of Ottawa's Somali community. The feature-length
and the Jerusalem International Film Festival to Hot       alternative drama follows Ayan, a refugee from
Docs, and opened PBS's signature documentary               Somalia, and her two children after they are evicted
series POV in 2006.                                        from their Ottawa apartment and end up in a motel
                                                           for homeless families. There they are confronted
Family Motel reunites her with producer Ina                with people and situations that will change their
Fichman, who produced Klodawsky's Undying Love,            lives forever.
INTERVIEW WITH DIRECTOR                                  Where did you take it from there?
                                                         Ina and I took to project to Sally Bochner and Adam
How was this project conceived?                          Symansky at the National Film Board, and they gave
                                                         us some funding to research whether the same
The idea was born in 2002 while I was working on         phenomenon was happening in Canada. The NFB
A Score for Women's Voices, Sophie Bissonnette's         has been supportive throughout the whole process,
documentary about the World March of Women. I            and not only in a material sense. Ravida Din, who
was one of several filmmakers working on that            has since taken on the project, has been a great
project, which involved sending crews to different       collaborator - very attentive and supportive.
countries to look at issues relating to poverty and
violence. I was given the assignment of the USA,         Ina and I did this initial research in and around
and while in Boston I met an interesting group of        Toronto, where there had been a great influx of
anti-poverty activists called Survival Inc. Through      refugees and immigrants at a time when rents were
them I met one particular woman who had been             skyrocketing and social services, particularly
placed in a motel, having had to flee domestic           welfare allotments, were being cut. There was a
violence. The people with Survival Inc told me that      critical shortage of affordable housing, and
this had become common − that more and more              homelessness was on the rise. I found this area,
homeless people, mostly women with children,             along Kingston Road in Scarborough, where about
were being placed in these suburban motels. So we        22 motels were being called upon to house families
visited this woman - it was a motel a lot like the one   in this way.
where we shot in Ottawa − and we discovered a            At the same time, Ina and I were consulting with
situation where families had been placed in this         some of the directors who had helped pioneer
impoverished environment, alongside prostitutes          alternative drama at the National Film Board −
and petty criminals. It was strange to see this in       David Wilson, Cynthia Scott, John Smith and others.
one of the world's richest countries − twenty-one        We also met with Pat Dillon, who starred in Sitting
families, some of them refugees, living like this on     in Limbo. I had always admired this work − films
the edge of the city.                                    like Train of Dreams and The Company of
                                                         Strangers, all made at a special moment in the
At the same time Ina Fichman gave me a copy of           NFB's history. They all spoke so passionately about
Nickel and Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich's book about        alternative drama − a process that on one hand
being working class in the U.S. − living in trailers     was complete insanity, and on the other was one of
and motels, getting stuck in minimum wage jobs,          the most exciting film adventures they had all had.
and so on. Ina and I had worked together on              And they were all very encouraging of this project.
Undying Love, and we were looking for another
project to do together. So the idea was planted to       What are the advantages of alternative drama?
make a film about homeless families living in a
motel. But we knew from the start that it would not      With Family Motel, I really feel it was the subject
make a good documentary. There's so much fear            that dictated our choice to go with alternative
and shame on the part of homeless people in going        drama. In using fictional devices we're able to
public with their stories. So we thought about the       explore a social reality in a fresh and engaging way.
alternative dramas that had been made at the             It's challenging − on one hand you have more
National Film Board of Canada in the 1980s. And I        control than in a documentary, but you need to be
thought, why not?                                        flexible and open to different directions as you go
                                                         along. And this might sound unscientific, but you
                                                         need a kind of faith that everyone will come together.
                                                          I was looking for a community that would have input
The idea of alternative drama seemed to make              into film, a social reality that we could mirror on
sense to everybody. Housing workers would say to          film, but because homeless people are so often
us, "Thank God, it's not a documentary. We're so          isolated, I had trouble finding that community.
tired of having to supply ready-made eloquent
homeless people for documentary projects."                When Ina and I were first developing the idea, we
Alternative drama allows us to create composite           were thinking of featuring a regular Canadian family
characters, informed by lots of different stories. I      − working class or lower-middle class − that had
wrote the script with input from many people and          fallen on hard times. But the first scripts were not
communities, and in the end, it was the Somali            convincing, and readers were not responding well.
community that really brought it all to life. To get to   The sympathy wasn't there in the main character,
that point, after several years of writing and            and readers weren't prepared to embark on a
research, was a difficult but fruitful process.           journey with her. I worked for three of four years on
                                                          the project. It was difficult, but Ina was supportive
There is a range of different approaches to making        and encouraging all along.
alternative drama and I drew upon a number of
influences. I was able to refer back to all the NFB       Finally I discussed my frustration with my sister
films that I admired - Sitting in Limbo, Train of         Fran, an activist and social scientist who teaches at
Dreams, The Company of Strangers are three that           Carleton University and has done extensive
I particularly like. And there are some great Iranian     research on housing issues. She suggested that I
films that used similar devices − non-professional        contact the Somali community in Ottawa. Immigrant
actors, simple but elegant plot lines informed by         women with kids are one of the fastest growing
current social reality. The work of Michael               homeless populations in Canada, and Fran said
Winterbottom and the Dardenne brothers has also           that Ottawa's Somali community had particularly
inspired me.                                              valuable insights, and that there were some great
                                                          activists working within the community. The
While shooting Family Motel I scripted scenes             community would provide an essential spark.
carefully in terms of how they moved the story
forward. I would draw out the scenes storyboard           Hamdi Mohamed was our first contact in the
style before the shoot, planning the camera               community. She's a brilliant woman and her
positions and moves. But I also left the process          contribution has been vital. Hamdi posed a number
open in some ways. You have to be willing to let          of key questions. Who owns this story? she wanted
scenes evolve in new directions, while staying            to know. And I really appreciated that discussion. It
aware of how one scene relates to one another. So         helped to focus the story. She also insisted that our
the working script established what happened in a         protagonist not be presented as victim, that she be
scene without fixing final dialogue. It required a        a resilient and resourceful character.
certain amount of discipline − maintaining an
overall integrity to the story, being as prepared as      Although Family Motel is not a film about Somali
possible while leaving room for spontaneity and           refugees per se − families from a whole range of
evolution.                                                backgrounds end up in motels - the Somali
                                                          community has really helped to focus and shape
How did you finally decide on the scenario of a           the project. Once we had decided on the scenario
homeless immigrant family in Ottawa?                      of a homeless immigrant woman in Ottawa,
                                                          everything came together very quickly. I wrote and
It was a really long process, and I have filing           researched the current script in May and June. Ina
cabinets full of scripts and ideas that did not work.     convinced the NFB to move into production, and we
were filming in August.
What themes do you want to explore with this              How did you proceed with casting?
                                                          We hired Hodan Mohamed to act as a creative
On one hand, I would like to draw attention to the        consultant on the project, and she took care of
critical shortage of affordable housing and the way       casting the Somali characters. Her contribution has
it affects vulnerable communities. Ottawa is a            also been invaluable. She warned us that it would
wealthy city, but the gap between rich and poor has       be difficult. Somali immigrants have been so
been widening. As high-tech industry moves into           misrepresented in the mainstream media, and they
the city, poor people and families with low incomes       have little experience working in film, little sense of
are forced out. And as poverty moves to the               owning the medium. But she was positive and took
periphery of the city, homelessness becomes a             her time looking around, and her hard work really
hidden issue. I'd like to shed light on that situation.   paid off.

But going beyond the material aspects, I am               Lois Siegel, who's a filmmaker in her own right, did
fascinated by the concept of home. My own mother          all the non-Somali casting, and she did a
came to Canada as a refugee, and I'm interested in        tremendous job, putting the word out in a wide
questions relating to migration and rupture, what it      range of communities in the city, from food banks
means to experience loss and to have to start             to professional organizations.
again in a new country, what it means to create a
sense of home from scratch. So there are echoes           We had some intense days during the casting
of my own life in Ayan's story.                           process, where Lois would bring in countless
                                                          people from different walks of life − social workers,
What did your DOP Germán Gutiérrez bring to the           housing activists, landlords and public servants.
project?                                                  We were looking for people who could draw upon
                                                          their real life experience. And Lois also put out a
Germán was perfect for this film. Not only is he very     general call for people interested in a film about a
talented, but he's also quick and spontaneous and         homeless family. We videotaped lots of people.
flexible. He has shot all around the world, in all        Lois had a great sense of who would be right for
kinds of conditions, and he knows how to pull a           each role, and we were usually on the same page.
scene together with scarce resources.
                                                          How did you decide on Nargis and her daughters
At the same time, we share a common aesthetic             for the key roles?
language. I wanted to make a film that people will
enjoy watching − a beautiful film. Not aesthetic in       Hodan had heard of Nargis's kids through her
the Hollywood sense, but in a way that frames the         contacts in the Somali community, that they were
natural beauty of the actors. Germán understood           interested in performing. She later realized that
that.                                                     she'd already met Nargis through community work.

And he helped create a great chemistry on set. He         One of the things that Cynthia Scott and David
loved Nargis and her kids and helped to create an         Wilson talk about, with regards to alternative
environment where we felt free to play and                drama, is inviting mystery and destiny to happen.
experiment. Resources may have been scarce, but           And that's what happened with Nargis and her
it costs nothing to be kind and respectful of each        daughters. They were the first people we auditioned
other.                                                    for the main roles − and Ina and I immediately
                                                          agreed that they were right for the parts.
                                                         and documentary. My last two documentaries,
Nargis is a very different person from Ayan in many      Undying Love and No More Tears Sister, both
ways, but as a single mother, she has an                 incorporated fictional elements to evoke memory
understanding of what it means to fight for your         and emotion − aspects of reality that are hard to
kids. And in her professional life, as Case              document.
Coordinator with the City of Ottawa's Community
and Protective Services, she's familiar with the         In Family Motel I've reversed the weight of things,
housing shortage in the city and how people are          but it is an extension of this earlier work.
placed in motels. Some years back, she herself has       I've let the subject dictate the form of the film, and
had to place clients in motels. And she has this         that's something I would like to do with future
remarkable personal charisma. The whole family is        projects. My next project, which is also with Instinct
so talented − we started calling them the                Films, is called Til We Drop and is about the history
Redgraves on set!                                        and evolution of shopping malls. That one will be a
                                                         documentary, but I'd definitely like to direct more
How has your working relationship with her               fiction of different types. It's like painting with your
evolved?                                                 brain.

I've come to adore Nargis and respect her                All my films are political in some way, in that they
enormously. She's so insightful and knows so             show how personal stories are shaped by social
much about the lives of immigrant and refugee            realities. My focus with Family Motel has always
families. She has informed the film every step of        been to make the best film I can with what the fates
the way, and I'm astounded by her abilities as an        have given me − to tell the story of one woman and
actress. I knew from the start that her natural force    the journey she takes. I'm hoping that it will be
would be an asset, but had no idea of how well           appreciated by both general audiences and specific
she'd relate to the camera. Her face is very             constituencies, that people will be stimulated and
expressive and she quickly understood how to work        entertained. And I hope that the film contributes to
with a camera, how to be understated, making use         a fuller understanding of how people struggle
of silences and paring down dialogue.

Our growth has been parallel. Just as I've been
learning as I go, so have Nargis and the girls. It's a
very instinctual process but at the same time it
requires lots of preparation.

In many ways, I know little about Nargis's actual
life, but I've come to know her through the
character of Ayan. And at same time we've
benefited from her expertise as someone who's
worked with immigrant and homeless people. It's
been a really curious process, but the right
constellation of factors has fallen into place.

How do you situate Family Motel in the context of
your other work?

I'm very interested in the borderland between fiction
                                                          an NGO in Lima, Peru. Prior to joining the NFB, she
                                                          worked with several national organizations,
                                                          including the Canadian Council for Multicultural and
                                                          Intercultural Education and the National
                                                          Organization for Immigrant and Visible Minority
   Family Motel adopts a fresh and innovative             Women.
   narrative approach to exploring the complex
     interplay between poverty, housing and               In her new position as the NFB's Quebec Executive
    immigration, revisiting classic themes in             Producer, her mandate is to envision and manage a
        a vivid and contemporary manner.                  varied program of documentaries, children's films,
                            – Ravida Din                  interactive projects and community-based initiatives
                                                          in line with the NFB's mission to reflect the diverse
Ravida Din comes to Family Motel with 15 years'           and ever-evolving nature of Canadian society.
experience at the National Film Board of Canada,
along with a background in community-based
activism and an ongoing commitment to social
justice and feminism.

Since joining the National Film Board in 1991, Din
has worked in a range of capacities relating to both
production and marketing. As the National
Marketing Coordinator for the Women's
Development Group and later in other marketing
positions, she helped develop the NFB's unique
approach to social marketing and coordinated Reel
Diversity and other initiatives designed to promote
cultural diversity in production and distribution.

As associate producer with the Quebec Production
Centre, her credits include 645 Wellington, a comic
study of urban gentrification; and The Tree That
Remembers, an award-winning and powerful
reflection on the betrayal of the 1979 Iranian

More recently she played a central role in the position
of assistant director general for the English
Program, where her managerial skills and intellectual
rigour were instrumental to the production of close
to 100 films.

She also has a long history of community-based
activism; social justice and feminism have always
been integral to her work. In 1995, she worked as
a community economic management educator with
Interview with Ravida Din,                             How does Family Motel fit with the NFB's
Producer for the National Film Board                   mandate?

How did the NFB get involved?                          As a publicly supported film producer, one of the
                                                       NFB's key mandates is to address contemporary
Helene first brought the proposal to the National      social issues that concern Canadians − to reflect
Film Board over four years ago, at a time when         Canada to Canadians and the world, as we say. The
there was renewed interest at the Board in             challenge always is how to be as inclusive and
producing fiction. Sally Bochner, who was the          creative as possible - how to use the resources at
executive producer at the Quebec Centre at the         our disposal at any given moment to make films that
time, had been involved in a number of the NFB's       speak to as many Canadians as possible in a
seminal alternative dramas − Train of Dreams and       thought-provoking and original way. Who are we
The Company of Strangers. Sally and Adam               talking to? How are we addressing them? What kind
Symansky were intrigued by Helene's proposal − to      of stories are we telling? And how can we devise new
create a drama about homeless families housed in       ways of telling stories on film?
a motel - and provided support for research and
development.                                           The NFB's commitment to making films in the public
                                                       interest goes back a long way, so it's important to
In the interim Helene took on a separate job here      see Family Motel in this historic context. Challenge
at the NFB, directing No More Tears Sister, a          For Change, for example, was an initiative that
documentary about the assassination of the Sri         emerged from the specific circumstances and spirit
Lankan human rights activist Dr. Rajani                of the sixties, soliciting community participation in
Thiranagama. But she and Ina Fichman kept              the whole process of filmmaking. Later the NFB
working on Family Motel, developing the concept        created Studio D as a way of formally dedicating
and conducting in-depth research in various            resources to women filmmakers telling women's
communities that were dealing with the critical        stories, and we have ongoing programs that support
shortage of affordable housing. When Sally retired,    production within First Nations and other
I assumed the task of producing the project. I have    communities that historically have been either under-
a background in community work myself, along with      represented or misrepresented in the world of film
a longstanding interest in feminist concerns, so the   production. As a public producer, we have
project had immediate appeal.                          responsibility to tell the stories that otherwise would
                                                       not get told − to respond to a wide range of
It was a long process, and in the end it was           communities and concerns.
Helene's contacts in Ottawa − and in particular with
Hamdi Mohamed, the executive director of Ottawa's      With Family Motel, Helene is pursuing a unique
Community Immigrant Services − that brought the        approach to a critical current social issue − one that
story to life. Hamdi put them in touch with people     is off the radar for most Canadians. Homelessness
in Ottawa's Somali community, one of the many          strikes people from many different communities right
groups affected by homelessness, and the project       across the country, yet it remains somehow invisible.
took off from there.                                   It's a story that needs telling. By inviting input from a
                                                       community where homelessness is part of daily life,
                                                       Helene can bring the issue into fresh relief, talk
                                                       about it within an original and lively narrative
                                                       structure. It fulfils our mandate on several levels, and
                                                       the NFB is happy to help bring the film to fruition.
What are the advantages of alternative drama?                How would you situate Family Motel within
                                                             current NFB production?
Alternative drama allows you to address
documentary-type content within a fictional format           Family Motel is part of a new body of work at the
− and to do so within a modest budget. It's a genre          NFB, one that's informed by a new spirit of
that was pioneered in large part here at the NFB,            experimentation - whether it involves redefining old
and it's being revisited by filmmakers here and              genres or working with interactive technologies.
around the world.
                                                             Helene is one of several directors who's been re-
With Family Motel, alternative drama provides                visiting alternative drama with interesting results. In
Helene with a useful working model. She can look             The Point, a recent co-production with Silo Films,
at the complex interplay between housing, poverty            Joshua Dorsey solicited the participation of a group
and immigration within the context of an innovative          of young people from Point St. Charles, a
narrative. The genre provides her with the means to          multicultural working-class district of Montreal, to
revisit classic themes relating to dislocation,              create a fictional film based on their experience,
poverty and family dynamics in a fresh way. The              their stories. It's another case of film professionals
NFB's early work in this area provides her with a            working within communities to create narratives
frame of reference, and from there she can                   that can resonate throughout the wider culture.
innovate to make her story meaningful for today's            Deepa Mehta is working in a similar vein,
audience.                                                    developing a feature drama on domestic abuse in
                                                             collaboration with community partners in Toronto.
Accountability is a key concept in alternative drama.        At the same time, Gary Burns, whose background is
Helene has worked hard to develop a relationship             primarily in fiction, blurs the lines between genres
of trust with the community in which she has set             in his latest release, Radiant City, a co-production
the story. She has taken direction from them, and            with the NFB that explores the question of
the final film will reflect that. This has paid off in all   suburban sprawl. So there's a new willingness to
kinds of ways. We're fortunate to have Nargis and            revisit and redefine established genres.
her daughters cast in the central roles of Ayan and
her family. Nargis brings a wealth of her own                On the documentary front, Brett Gaylor is in
professional and life experience to the role and a           production on Basement Tapes, which reflects on
new level of authenticity and specificity to the             the filmmaking process itself and how it's been
narrative.                                                   evolving in the Internet age. His subject is the
                                                             shifting power balance between musicians and the
The characters of Ayan and her daughters are not             recording industry, and he has conceived the
alone in experiencing homelessness, but their                project as an open-source film, one that invites
situation is compounded by issues of gender, race            collaboration from online contributors. It's a great
and class. In developing the film as she has, with           opportunity for the NFB to engage with interactive
collaboration from a specific immigrant community,           technology while exploring the contested notion of
Helene can rework a common scenario from a                   intellectual property.
specific point of view. She can shed light on the
nation-wide critical shortage of affordable housing          With other projects in development and
while telling a unique and richly detailed story.            production, we continue to do what we do best −
                                                             making in-depth social-issue docs − but with the
                                                             same drive to devise new ways of telling stories
                                                             and a similar sense of community accountability.
We're nearing completion right now on Yung               risks, and in the case of Family Motel, she's
Chang's feature-length doc Up the Yangtze − a            demonstrated remarkable perseverance in
good case in point. Yung has found a fascinating         pursuing a project that was long in coming to
point of entry into a film about the Three Gorges        fruition. And in the tradition of good creative
Dam and its impact on local communities: he's            partnerships, Ina and Helene grasp how true
examining the strange tourist industry that's            collaboration goes beyond sharing costs. There's
catering to travellers anxious to see a region           been a real sense of working with common
that's about to be altered forever. In contrast to       purpose.
the reality-TV style of documentaries, he's
invested serious time into building relationships        This whole project has been characterized by a
with local residents and has developed a                 spirit of collaboration. It could not have been made
considered perspective on the whole range of             if Helene and Ina had not taken the time to build a
issues related to construction of the dam.               relationship of trust with our community partners.
                                                         Helene had already demonstrated this capacity in
Other filmmakers are working within more classic         No More Tears Sister, a film that demanded a high
formats − exploring critical current issues from         level of sensitivity to the people whose lives were
their own unique perspectives. Tracey Deer, who          being represented in the film. She brings a similar
made a such powerful impression with her first film,     integrity to Family Motel, where her openness to
Mohawk Girls, is back to direct Club Native − a          taking direction from a community-based advisory
documentary on the contentious issue of Native           group has helped give the project its special
status as defined by the Indian Act and related          character.
laws. Over the decades the NFB has set out to build
a relationship with Canada's First Nations. We've        In a more general way, co-productions are part of a
provided a base for Alanis Obomsawin, for example,       broader NFB effort to build new working
and her lifelong project to document the complex         relationships, reach new audiences and make
position of Aboriginal Peoples within Canadian           things happen in the wider culture. Creative
society. She herself has just released a very            collaboration can take many forms − support for
special film, Waben-aki, in which she turns her gaze     special events and festivals, partnerships with
for the first time on her own culture and community.     community-based production initiatives. Recently,
As the NFB moves forwards and adapts to a new            for example, we joined forces with Film Pop, a small
environment, it's filmmakers like Alanis who keep        independent film festival in Montreal, to produce a
our work anchored in certain principles of               series of shorts about music called Making Music
filmmaking and accountability. And it's that same        with the National Film Board. It was a way of
broad set of values that guide Helene in Family          forging links between musicians and filmmakers
Motel.                                                   and connecting with a new audience − a youthful
                                                         demographic that may not be familiar with the NFB
What are the benefits of collaborating with              and its work.
Instinct Films?
                                                         So Family Motel has been a great collaboration,
Ina Fichman and Helene Klodawsky are a great             not only in terms of our relationship with Instinct
team. They're dynamic and creative, and together         Films, a dynamic independent production company
they bring an impressive set of skills to the project.   − but it has also engaged us in a unique community
Ina has experience in a wide range of formats, and       process that has resulted in a lively and thought-
she has never shied away from producing films on         provoking film that speaks to a wide range of
controversial social questions. She's willing to take    Canadians.
                                                       the International Documentary Association;
                                                       Longshots, winner of a Chris Award at the Columbus
                                                       International Film & Video Festival and the Best
                                                       Editing Award at Hot Docs; The Last Trip, winner of a
                                                       Hot Docs Certificate of Merit and a Chris Award and a
                                                       nominee for Gemini and Chalmers awards; and the
                                                       history series Towards a Promised Land, winner of a
                                                       Silver Award from New York Festivals and a nominee
                                                       at Hot Docs and the Banff TV Festival. Ina also co-
                                                       executive produced the docu-soap Firestation for
                                                       Discovery Canada.

                                                       Among her recent documentary credits, the three-part
                                                       series Black Coffee was seen by some 2 million
                                                       viewers in Canada and makes it U.S. television debut
                                                       in 2007 on National Geographic. In 2004-2005, she
                                                       produced three seasons of the Gémeaux Award-
                                                       winning youth-oriented series My Brand New Life/Je
                                                       Vis ta vie. Her fiction credits include the feature film
I'm interested in making a film that succeeds both     The Return of Tommy Tricker; the historical series
as a reflection on immigration and housing and as      Terre d'espoir; the teen series Vampire High; Mow la
  a lively entertainment. Developing the project as    Force de l'âge, and the short film Moise.
 an alternative drama fulfills both goals and allows
     us to work in both a "real" and "imagined"        She is currently in production on the family history
                       context.                        series La Quête; the documentary Short and Male for
                             − Ina Fichman             CTV; That's Poker, a Canada/France co-production
                                                       with CBC, Canal D and Arte; and Six Days in June, a
Ina Fichman comes to Family Motel with over 20         feature documentary co-produced with PDJ (France)
years' experience in film and television production.   and Alma Films (Israel). Projects in pre-production
Through her company, the Montreal-based Instinct       include the documentary Til We Drop: Shopping and
Films, she has worked with leading writers and         the Malling of Our Planet, co-produced with PDJ; It's a
directors from Canada and abroad. Ranging from         Boy!, with director Danae Elon; and Jews and Money:
feature films to documentary series, her award-        A History, a co-production with PDJ. Projects in
winning productions have been seen around the          development include two feature films - Two Worlds,
world.                                                 written by Gerald Wexler (Margaret's Museum) and
                                                       directed by Paolo Barzman, and Danny King of the
With the alternative feature drama Family Motel,       Basement, directed by Tim Southam.
Fichman resumes a fruitful partnership with director
Helene Klodawsky. In 2002, Fichman produced and        Fichman is past president of Montreal Women in Film,
Klodawsky directed Undying Love, a moving account      has served as chair for Women in Film and Television
of relationships between Holocaust survivors, which    International and has served on the boards of DOC
earned a Gemini Award for Best History Program.        and the Hot Docs Documentary Festival. She recently
                                                       founded the Devorah Foundation, which allocates
Her many accomplishments include The Okanada;          funding to emerging women in film communities
the feature documentary Being Dorothy, nominated by    worldwide.
Interview with Ina Fichman
Producer, Family Motel                                 It was a very long process. Helene discovered early
                                                       on that the Kingston Road area in Toronto was very
How did Family Motel get started?                      similar to what Ehrenreich described in her book.
                                                       There were all these motels in the area that were
Helene and I had collaborated successfully on          housing homeless families. And this was something
Undying Love, and we'd been looking for another        that was happening in cities across North America,
project to do together. She'd learned how homeless     where economic booms had generated tremendous
people were being housed in motels while working       affluence but has made life too expensive for many
on another project in the U.S. She was struck by       average people.
the whole situation and began to think of
addressing the issue on film.                          So we hired a researcher, Mara Ravens, to look into
                                                       the situation there. She spent six weeks in the area,
Helene is one of those directors who really            staying at one of the motels for a while, and she
understands the role of a producer, and she's open     introduced us to some motel residents. In the end we
to all kinds of suggestions − not just from the        didn't shoot there, but a lot of elements from that
producer but from everyone on the team. When we        initial research made it into the final film − the range
first started on Undying Love, I suggested that we     of characters who end up in these motels, the
integrate some fully fledged fiction into the film,    interaction in communal kitchens and the role of the
and Helene was very receptive and willing to go to     motel owner − a guy who's running a business but
another level with the material. Between the two of    who still has a compassionate side.
us, we decided that Family Motel wouldn't work as
a documentary − we'd never get access to the           At a certain point, we realized that shooting in Toronto
people most affected. We needed to take another        would be too costly, and we tried bringing the project
approach in order to do the story justice.             back to Montreal. But our research revealed that the
                                                       situation was not the same in Quebec. The social
At the same time I'd picked up a copy of Barbara       services were different, and homeless families were
Ehrenreich's book Nickel and Dimed and passed it       not being housed in motels.
on to Helene. It was good timing. Ehrenreich
                                                       In addition to all this, our attempts at producing a
examines how more and more ordinary people
                                                       script were proving difficult. There'd been a lot of
across the continent are falling into poverty and
                                                       back-and-forth with Sally Bochner at the NFB, and
how homelessness was becoming a bigger issue −
                                                       she's been very supportive, but after numerous draft
not limited to the stereotype of panhandlers on
                                                       scripts, we said to each other, "This is just not
street corners.
Sally Bochner at the National Film Board was
                                                       We came to the conclusion that certain films cannot
interested in our proposal and gave us some money
                                                       be made in the conventional way, where you present
to investigate whether the same phenomenon was
                                                       potential funders with a final script. This project
happening in Canada. Were Canadian families
                                                       demanded another, more experimental, approach. Its
falling through the cracks, losing their homes and
                                                       success relied on other factors − finding the right
ending up in these suburban motels? So I entered
                                                       situation, the right people − and establishing the
into a co-production with the NFB at that stage, and
                                                       conditions where the right cast in the right
we embarked on the initial research.
                                                       environment could bring an authentic story to life.

How did you decide on the story of Ayan?
                                                       In the end, it was Helene's sister Fran, a university
professor in Ottawa, who helped us find the story.        at the NFB and was keen to distinguish the NFB from
Fran has extensive background in the whole issue of       the commercial sector. He organized a workshop on
affordable housing, and she suggested that we look        alternative drama, where about 20 of us got together
at what was happening in Ottawa. You've got an            to screen a number of key films, and to discuss how
affluent city, with a large civil service and a booming   low-budget drama could be updated for the current
high-tech sector, but you've also got a working-class     point in time. So Family Motel was part of that
population and an immigrant population. And not           initiative.
everyone is doing well. There's a real disparity there.
                                                          Helene and I took the time to meet with some of the
So Helene focused her research in Ottawa and made         key directors behind the important NFB dramas −
some great contacts in the Somali community in            John Smith, Cynthia Scott and David Wilson. They
particular. She came back very excited, saying that       were all interested in our project and had some great
she'd found a story in the Somali community. At this      advice on working with non-professional actors and
point, instead of trying to write another draft script,   how to get them to tell a story that, although it's not
we produced a detailed outline based on a woman           their own necessarily, resonates with a reality they
called Aryan and her family, that would serve as a        know. It's a very delicate process.
basis for the shoot.
                                                          How did you proceed with casting and assembling
So I spoke to Tom Perlmutter and Sally Bochner at         a crew?
the NFB and told them that I was willing to take the
risk and proceed with production. It was a risk, but I    It was vital to find the right community − where the
felt that we had the key elements in place. They took     story could come to life and feel real − and the
a leap of faith and gave their commitment to the          casting followed from there. We hired Hodan
project.                                                  Mohamed, an Ottawa-based researcher, to direct the
                                                          casting of the Somali roles, and she did a fabulous
Why alternative drama?                                    job. She didn't bring in lots of people, but she had a
                                                          real sense for who would be right for the role.
We started thinking about alternative drama early on.
We'd both been very impressed by Michael                  As soon as we met Nargis and her daughters, we
Winterbottom's In This World, a superb example of         knew they were right for the roles. Their natural
how alternative drama can offer a new take on a           presence and their depth of character shone through
current issue − in this case, the situation of asylum     on film. Nargis can bring so much knowledge and
seekers in the UK. Winterbottom had novice actors         professional experience to the role. She's smart and
work with a loosely structured script, and he             funny, and she's able to communicate emotion. And
succeeded in giving a fresh new twist to reality.         it's been a wonderful experience for her too, I think.

Of course, this was not new. The NFB had done this        Lois Siegel cast the other roles. I've known Lois for
20 years ago, and both Helene and I loved The             years, and all along I knew that she was the only
Company of Strangers, Trains of Dreams and the            person who does it. And in Germán Gutiérrez, we had
other NFB dramas. And the NFB was ready to re-            the perfect director of photography. He's not just a
embark on this type of work. We were seeing a             great technician; he's also socially conscious and
revival of the genre, with some daring and interesting    had the right sensibility for this project.
work emerging. Tom Perlmutter had recently arrived
                                                          As for the crew, we knew at the outset that this shoot
would not have worked with a full feature-style crew.      a position to expand on its tradition of excellence
Aside from the question of cost, it's a shoot that         and innovation and to take that tradition into new
demanded a level of intimacy on set. We found              directions. People at the NFB know they must take
experienced people in Ottawa, and they formed a            risks if the organization is to remain relevant. They're
great team. Although it's not a straightforward fiction    producing for different platforms, and they've shown
film, you still need to think about continuity, wardrobe   they're willing to take risks. The NFB's future is in
and art direction − all those things. So there was a       making work like Family Motel − films that
certain amount of doubling up in the crew's roles on       experiment with genre and content. There's a new
set, but they really rose to the occasion. In the end,     openness there right now, and it's one of the few
all the elements came together − the story, the            places, if not the only place, in Canada where it's
community, the casting, the locations, the crew. We        possible to make a film like Family Motel.
were really fortunate.
                                                           Ravida Din, who took over from Sally when she
How was it working with Helene on her first                retired, immediately grasped the intent of the film
dramatic feature drama?                                    and its importance. She got it right away − the
                                                           particular creative process and the nature of the
When we were doing Undying Love, I told her, "You've       content − and she has defended the project
really got to do fiction some day!" Not all                tirelessly. I could not ask for a better partner.
documentary directors can do fiction. It demands a
whole other level of teamwork, someone who can             Where does Family Motel fit with your other work?
engage with a crew. Helene has those skills. She's
got exceptional communication skills, she's                I've done a wide range of work in my career. I got my
collaborative, and she's extremely hard-working.           start producing dance films and low budget video
She's willing to set her ego aside and take input from     clips, and I went on to produce everything from
an art director, DOP and everyone else. And she's          special-issue drama and documentaries to kids'
able to translate her vision to the crew and cast.         films and comedy series like Vampire High. I like to
Most importantly, she has a deep respect for the           push the boundaries of genres, like we did in Undying
process and for her cast and crew. We've already got       Love, and I'm interested in taking real issues and
another film in the works − a documentary about the        taking them somewhere else. So Family Motel
culture of shopping malls called Til We Drop.              follows logically from my other work.

What are the benefits of co-producing with the             I consider myself a feminist, and the fact that Family
NFB?                                                       Motel featured a strong female character in the
                                                           pivotal role appealed to me. And beyond my personal
Unlike a lot of Montreal filmmakers, I did not get my      projects, I'm interested in supporting other women
start at the Board. I'd admired the work of Studio D       who work in film. I served for a period as the
and the NFB in general, but I got started at another       president of Montreal Women in Film, and I was one
time, working mostly with French-language films in the     of the founders of Women in Film and Television
independent sector. But when I brought them My             International (WIFTI) − organizations that encourage
Brand New Life a couple of years ago, they were            women to get involved in filmmaking and to produce
immediately supportive. It was a TV series in teen         women-centred films.
issues, and the NFB brought a wealth of experience in
educational production and distribution to the table. It
was clear that they were open to doing something
different, and they came on as co-producers.
The NFB is unique in the world, and right now it's in
More recently I created the Devorah Foundation,
which I named after my grandmother, an important
figure in my life. She embodied the spirit of
compassion. She was someone who got a lot out of
life and who gave a lot in return - a very generous
person. So after she died, I created the foundation
− it's still small but I'm hoping it will grow − as a
way of assisting emerging women filmmakers
around the world. We recently provided a grant to a
community of women filmmakers in Poland. So I
situate Family Motel within these broader interests
and goals.
                                                         Gutiérrez has worked on several television series,
                                                         including Technopolis (Pixcom, 2001), Surviving the
                                                         Wild (Pixcom/Marathon, 1999) and America 500,
Germán Gutiérrez comes to Family Motel with              winner of the Gémeaux for best documentary
extensive experience as cameraman and director,          series. He directed the series Insectia I and Insectia II,
as well as a commitment to documenting issues of         which won the Gémeaux for Best Documentary
social concern.                                          Series, a Gemini for Best Photography Direction, as
                                                         well as a Merit Award for Best Photography from the
He was born in Colombia, studied drama in Paris          International Wildlife Film Festival.
and has made his home in Montreal for almost 30
years. Following film studies in Ottawa, he worked
as a cameraman with Radio-Canada and later at the
National Film Board of Canada, as well as for various
private producers and foreign television networks.

His interest in social and political issues was key in
his move to directing his own films. His most recent
directorial effort, the 2005 release Who Shot My
Brother?, documented Gutiérrez's personal
investigation into the attempted assassination of
his brother Oscar, a left-wing member of Colombia's
parliament. The film has won widespread acclaim
on the international festival circuit, winning
numerous awards, including Radio-Canada People's
Choice Award at the Festival du Nouveau Cinéma de

In all, Gutiérrez has over 20 director credits,
including Martin's Inferno (Triplex, 2002), Societies
Under the Influence (NFB, 1997), Le système D
(Argus Films, 1989), Café (1984) and La familia
latina (NFB, 1986), which won a Golden Sheaf at
the Yorkton Short Film & Video Festival.

His work frequently takes him abroad, and he has
filmed in Cambodia, Sarajevo, South Africa, Rwanda
and El Salvador, as well as in remote areas of
Amazonia, Nepal, Venezuela and Canada's Far

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