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AFF newcomer spotlight: Laura Dawe 

Talk about defying the odds: With no experience and little money, Dawe's first feature Light is the Day premieres at AFF.

Light is the Day
Friday, September 24, Park Lane 7, 9:25pm

If the apocalypse hits and do-it-yourself film production turns out to be a critical survival skill, Laura Dawe will make out fine. Having put herself through an unorthodox filmmaking boot camp, the 27-year-old Halifax artist and filmmaker knows about working with minimal resources.

Dawe's experience making her debut feature, Light is the Day (see review page 19), mirrors that of her characters. Shot for roughly $15,000, the film concerns a young woman and two young men who head to a rural farmhouse and attempt to survive the collapse of the modern world. Self-sufficient, off-the-grid living is a romantic concept for Painter (Erika Ellsworth), Michael (Corey Hinchey) and Charlie (Tim Mitchell), but reality shatters their illusions.

When she began the project, Dawe also had some blissfully ignorant expectations.

"I thought I was going to shoot it myself," Dawe says. "I'm going to make a movie, so of course I'm going to do everything myself."

 With no prior film experience---she hadn't even read a screenplay---Dawe was prepared to take DIY filmmaking to its most literal extreme. Fortunately for her, she was surrounded by knowledgeable people who gently explained the intricacies of proper movie production.

 One of those people was music video director Jason Levangie, who served as producer and helped Dawe efficiently focus her creative talents over three separate blocks of filming totalling 26 days. Another was cinematographer Ted McInnes (Trailer Park Boys: Countdown to Liquor Day), who brought professionalism, patience and a sharp eye to the set.

 "Halfway through the second shoot, my DP was like, 'Laura, do you know the difference between a pan and a tilt?'" Dawe laughs. "Imagine directing without the simple vocabulary.

 "It's humiliating to admit those things, but everybody has to learn."

 That Dawe is a quick study is easy to infer from a conversation at a north end coffee shop. She hardly touches her coffee, but she clearly doesn't need caffeine to boost her energy level, and her words reveal the mixture of confidence, intelligence and humility required for on-the-job learning.

 "This was like my film school," says Dawe. "It probably cost the same as film school, and before it I didn't know anything. Now I know a little bit."

 Dawe's new knowledge base includes not only basic camera terms but also the less creative aspects of getting a movie made. As a Dalhousie student with no filmography, Dawe couldn't get, and didn't seek, financial assistance from Telefilm or other funding agencies. Instead, she financed the film by selling her own paintings and holding themed fundraising events such as the "Apoca-party," the Western-themed "Bestern" party and the "Day of the Dead" party.

 Dawe's contacts in Halifax's music scene proved invaluable in raising money. Bands such as the Ruby Jean and the Thoughtful Bees and Cousins performed at her parties, and at one point, after a major financial backer pulled out of the project, Jenn Grant organized a concert to make up for the shortfall.

 In addition to talented friends and collaborators, Dawe's recipe for making Light is the Day also included the casting of amateur actors and the use of a single location. The film was shot at a Pictou County house owned by another of Dawe's friends, and before she and her crew set up shop there she had intimate knowledge of her shooting environment.

 "I wrote the script based on this location. I knew what it looked like. I knew what was at my disposal," says Dawe. "Probably that's the trick I would recommend: write for a spot that you can use."

 Using the house meant sleeping on the floor, sharing cooking and cleaning duties and often going without basic conveniences such as running water. While making a movie about survival, Dawe and her cast and crew were also struggling just to get by, an experience the director says knitted the production together.

 "We're bonded. We went through craziness together. We fought a war," she says."There were many times when it seemed like it couldn't work, where you're crying on the kitchen floor and you know why people don't try and do stuff like this.

 "But we did it, and that's amazing."

 Levangie was amazed, if not entirely surprised, by Dawe's resolve.

 "There were a lot of moments along the way where a lot of people would have quit," says Levangie.

 The producer also praises Dawe's commitment to her vision while under pressure. "She was very good at making decisions for a first-time filmmaker."

 Hinchey says Dawe's decision-making was particularly strong when it came to the cast.

 "She was great at explaining the feeling of the scene, which we joked was either 'oh shit' or 'fuckin sweet,'" says Hinchey in an email.

 Sweeter still, Dawe's inaugural effort made it into this year's Atlantic Film Festival. Proud of what she's already accomplished, Dawe says her festival experience will be more about celebrating than networking.

 "Me and everyone that I worked with all deserve this party," she says. "This is the best thing I've done with my life, and if I don't get a producer who wants to produce my next movie I can't feel like I didn't succeed." If Dawe's right about the inspiration for her movie, she might as well savour the parties while she can. Light is the Day stems from Dawe's dark perspective on humanity's future.

 "We are barrelling towards the end," says Dawe. "We're the luckiest people in the world. We're on top of the wave. We didn't do anything to get up there, we're not even good surfers, we just hit it exactly right in the trajectory of history. But we're going to crash onto the shore. There's no way we're not going to. The movie tries to subtly tap into what we all must subconsciously know."

 Dawe already knows how to make a movie in near-apocalyptic conditions. If and when the real crash happens, her career may well survive the impact.

-Matt Semansky

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