Women may still have a hard time breaking into the directorial ranks in Hollywood, but things appear easier in Canada. The most striking recent debut is by 29-year-old Patricia Rozema, whose first feature film, “I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing,” won the Prix de Jeunesse at the Cannes Film Festival’s Director’s Fortnight in May, and also was the opening-night selection Sept. 10 at the prestigious Toronto Festival of Festivals.
Written, directed and co-produced by Rozema, the film is playing at selected theaters in the Los Angeles area. “I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing” is the comic but sympathetic portrayal of Polly (Sheila McCarthy), a vulnerable amateur photographer who works as a temporary secretary in a chic Toronto art gallery. She becomes fascinated by her curator boss Gabrielle (Paule Baillargeon), who is beautiful and sophisticated, and Gabrielle’s lover, Mary (Ann-Marie McDonald).
Like a female Walter Mitty, shy Polly has a vivid fantasy life, which “I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing” presents in black-and-white sequences. And as if the alternation between her real and dream worlds weren’t complex enough, the entire film is punctuated by Polly’s narration directly into a video camera.
During a recent visit to New York, Rozema said: “There are fewer women directors than men directors in Canada, but several women have come to the fore, like Sandy Wilson with ‘My American Cousin,’ Anne Wheeler with ‘Loyalties,’ Lea Pool with ‘Anne Trister.’ . . . They’ve won awards as well as praise in and outside of Canada.”
Currently, out of a total of 1,463, there are 447 female members listed at the Directors Guild of Canada, according to membership secretary Paula Arndt.
According to Rozema, Canada also has “a tradition of strong women writers.”
“When film is considered an art form, it’s OK for women to be involved,” she said. “When it’s merely business, then you find a predominance of men. I never had trouble as a female--maintaining control on the set, or whatever--with a mostly male crew. My way is to never doubt that I have it. Being aggressive or overemphatic is a sign of weakness, of doubting it.”
Rozema even suggests that being a woman director can be beneficial because “anything that sets you apart from the herd helps. You’re expected to know less technically as a woman: When I do know what I’m talking about, it’s sort of admired, whereas it would be assumed with a man--which is a form of patronizing, I suppose,” she adds.
Rozema studied philosophy and English literature at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich. She then worked as an intern at television stations in Toronto and New York before accepting a position in 1983 as a third assistant director on David Cronenberg’s film “The Fly.”
In 1985, after taking a five-week night course on film technology, Rozema, with financial backing from the arts councils of Canada and Ontario, wrote and directed her first film, the short, “Passion: A Letter in 16mm.” Winner of a prize at the Chicago International Film Festival, it was about a woman’s conflict between her passion for excellence and passion for her lover.
Rozema calls it “a half-hour film about the complexities of being a successful career woman,” and elaborates that “Mermaids” began with the opposite concept: “I would like to understand ambition from the other side. I’ve always known people like Polly. I’ve been accused of being earnest, and to talk through a character who is earnestness personified was a delight. Especially in the film business, we hear from the people who do the criticizing more than from those who are criticized. I wanted to show the potential devastation of someone who has a simple relationship with her art.”
To this end, the Toronto-based director used three different film stocks to convey the range of Polly’s world--"to deal with internal states visually,” in her words, “to make the invisible visible. I like emotion in film--to be moved. I like goosebumps,” she says.
These ideas became a physical reality when auditions yielded Sheila McCarthy, a redheaded stage actress whose screen presence has a magical innocence. “I went through fairly extensive auditions--200 actresses--because the whole thing rests so completely on Polly’s shoulders,” the film maker recalls.
“As soon as Sheila came into the room, I said to myself, ‘Please, please be able to act.’ Her comedic touch really added a lot. One of my biggest problems during the shooting was laughing too much. I had intended an odd and quietly humorous film: Sheila amplified it, without making it ‘shticky.’ We worked on finding the right volume.”
For McCarthy, Polly was quite a departure from her usual image. “I tend to get cast in air-creature parts,” she says, “the Peter Pan roles--retarded prostitutes, the best (plain) girlfriend of the next-door beauty, the sidekick. It’s taken me a long time to think of myself as a leading lady.”
But a leading lady she is, especially now that she’s playing Sally Bowles in the Stratford Theatre Festival production of “Cabaret.” The singer-dancer-actress also starred in “A Nest of Singing Birds,” another Canadian film. “I do only films with esoteric titles,” she muses with an ironic shrug, and explains that that love story is based on a novel “about a philosophy professor at a university and her relationship with an older male professor.
“Film is a new world for me,” McCarthy continues. “I love the intensity: You exhaust a scene and then it’s done. I think my attention span is better suited to film than theater.”
When asked whether improvisation helped her achieve the breathtaking naturalness in “Mermaids,” she replies, “No, everything was in the script--every stammer or hesitation. From almost the first audition, nothing changed: That’s how well written it was.”
A tight screenplay is hardly typical for a film maker. Even more rare is Rozema’s editing skill. “Mermaids” represents the first feature she has edited. Of her efforts, Rozema says, “It just means I have to work that much harder and longer.”
The source of her work is personal rather than formulaic, and she admits that making a film “for me, is like writing a diary. The ideas I’ve had when reading books, or emotions I’ve had when hearing music, or stories I’ve seen around me, seem like enough education to make movies. It’s not about angels or dollies, but emotions--and characters like Polly. I’m so proud of Polly: If I die tomorrow, at least I gave the world Polly!”
Her influences have not necessarily been women--"I like films that show compassion in their characters, like Woody Allen’s and Jean Renoir’s,” she says--but feminism seems important to her vision. “I think there are as many definitions of feminism as there are sentences that use the word.
“If you go with the definition that women have been denied opportunities for education, power, ownership of land and self-determination--and that it’s unjust and must be rectified--then I’m very much a feminist,” she continues. “But if you start saying we’re a better race, or that there’s less evil in the hearts of women, then I think you’ve got a problem.
“There are stereotypes: If a man does something stupid, they say ‘What a stupid man.’ If a woman does something stupid, they say ‘Aren’t women stupid.’ I wanted to create three completely different women, and show them interreacting about something that is beyond their gender.”
Rozema has her own company, Vos Productions, together with partner Alexandra Raffe--whom she calls “the unsung hero in this. She has a stronger logistical, legal and business grasp than I do.” Their next project is “about a character named Zelda. It will be similar to ‘Mermaids’ and different,” the director reveals. “My main character will be much more intelligent and smart-assed--which is harder to portray.”
When asked if she has any desire to direct in the United States, Rozema replies, “It’s a difficult question because I feel a certain attachment to Canada. I was educated in the U.S., and while I was here I just assumed that Canada is a smaller U.S.
“When I went back to Canada, I found a completely different and more modest culture: The British influence is stronger; people are less likely to blow their own horns. My film is very Canadian. I find that a lot of American films tend to say, ‘Try hard enough and dammit, you’ll win.’ Maybe if my film had been done in Hollywood, there would have been pressure to have Polly get her own show or take over the gallery. For me, success is internally defined.”
Nevertheless, the success of “I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing” sounds almost like a typical Hollywood tale: “I’m a bit blown away by the reception,” Rozema admits, “because I deliberately tried not to think about who’s going to like the film. I assumed it’s a little film for a small audience: Keep the budget down so you don’t have this albatross around your neck. Do the film the way Polly takes her photographs--just because you want to see something beautiful. Don’t try to anticipate the taste of a world full of strangers.”
When she got to Cannes, where “Mermaids” was ultimately bought by 32 countries in seven days, her modest aims paid off: “To have a huge room with potentially the most critical audience cheering with tears in their eyes makes you feel like part of a bigger world,” she says.