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Real people roles 

For his new film Snow, Rohan Fernando hired mostly non-actors, including musician Ria Mae: “It seemed very natural for her to be able to play this part.”

The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which left over a million people displaced and a quarter of a million dead, created some unanswered questions for Halifax filmmaker Rohan Fernando. For his 2007 NFB documentary, Blood and Water, Fernando followed his uncle Anton to Sri Lanka a year after he lost his wife and daughter in the disaster. But Fernando held back from seeking answers for ethical reasons, "to avoid shoving a camera in someone's face when they were crying." So he sought another way.

"I felt that a drama would be a more appropriate way of exploring those emotions and questions," Fernando says of Snow, which he wrote, directed and finished shooting last weekend. The film is about Parvati, a Sri Lankan woman who immigrates to Nova Scotia after she loses her family in the tsunami. Once in Canada, she meets troubled street musician Emily, and strikes up a turbulent yet invigourating friendship.

"The idea was to explore someone who not only loses their family and home, but also their identity and any sense of meaning," says Fernando. The friendship between the two women "clarifies things for both of them and is kind of mutually a dangerous and beneficial relationship."

For Snow, Fernando trusted mostly non-actors for parts large and small, an experience akin to working with subjects in a documentary. "They're not used to the camera and don't have a bunch of approaches to their craft already. It created a very open collaboration," he says.

Parvati is played by Toronto-based Kalista Zackhariyas, who has some stage experience, but also boasts a mixed bag of talent, including dance, martial arts and TV presenting. Ria Mae MacNutt, a local singer-songwriter (with an EP release, Between the Bad, slated for November 10 at The Company House) and first-time actor, surprised herself with the depth of feeling she drew out as Emily, a victim of a dysfunctional family and her own drug addiction. From answering an open casting call, to her audition process (which she worried might actually be a Candid Camera-type reality show, with all the expressly dramatic scenes she was required to read), to her "deer-in-the-headlights" feeling on set, Snow has been an eye-opening experience for MacNutt.

"There are things that I had to go through, but I didn't know that I did," she says. "Maybe not the heroin addiction! There's just me being able to release emotions that I wouldn't normally be able to release."

"With Ria it was a total fluke that she even heard about the audition and showed up," Fernando says, "but she was obviously a very emotive person and had access to her emotions, and had a real integrity that came out of that. It seemed very natural for her to be able to play this part."

MacNutt found that her new acting job has benefited from her songwriting skills. "It's the songwriting that helped me get into other people's lives," she says. "All my songs are written from the point-of-view of other people. 'Waiting' is about my best friend, who went through a huge break-up. I've always, since I was a young kid, loved getting into someone else's head.

"I'm loving it right now, I don't want it to end. I want to explore other parts and get the chance to do another one very soon."

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