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Heart to heartbeat 

Andrea Dorfman’s Heartbeat, this year’s Atlantic Gala screening at the Atlantic Film Festival, is a love letter to the north end and nurturing creativity, spiked with animation.

Halifax musician Tanya Davis as Heartbeat’s stage-scared would-be musician Justine. - STEPHANIE WEBER BIRON
  • Halifax musician Tanya Davis as Heartbeat’s stage-scared would-be musician Justine.
  • Stephanie Weber Biron

A few years ago, it looked like Andrea Dorfman might never make another feature film.

She had plenty to keep her busy. She made a documentary called Sluts, Emmy-nominated animations (Flawed) and collaborated with her friend, poet and musician Tanya Davis. Their video How To Be Alone from 2010—now approaching seven million views on YouTube—is a viral phenomenon, spawning a HarperCollins book of Dorfman's watercolour images to accompany Davis's ode to self-sufficiency.

"But I never stopped wanting to make a feature," says Dorfman. On an August afternoon in her south end home, she reminisces as Pippa, a tortoiseshell cat, loiters on the kitchen table.

Dorfman's calling card first feature, Parsley Days, arrived in 2000. That was followed by Love That Boy in 2003, but a third project—variously called Crème de la Crème and Harmony—never made it to camera.

"It had producers and it had Telefilm development funding," she says, exasperation turned to resignation with a decade passed. "It was a really fun script, but we just lost the joy of it. You have to be totally confident about a feature film, because you're trying to get people to give you money—over and over again you're pitching the idea. If you can't look someone in the eye and say, 'This is going to be the most fucking amazing movie, you should get behind it,' you're not going to get to make it."

It may not be entirely unrelated that in her new movie, Heartbeat, Dorfman's lead character is someone who at the beginning has lost confidence in her art, but manages to regain it by pushing forward and finding inspiration in the people around her.

Davis plays Justine, a woman who dreams of a music career but is paralyzed by fear of performing in front of people. Instead she holds down an office job she hates while hanging on to a relationship that just isn't working. It's her personal connection to other creative folks that helps lift her inhibitions.

The film is also a love letter to the community in north end Halifax, a live action tale spiked with animated accents and filigree. The colour scheme is dynamic—bold blues and reds overlaying the more subtle shades of fall trees and sky. The film was shot around this time last year.

For Dorfman, the wait since her last feature made her appreciate the filmmaking process more that she did with her first two movies. She ladles out kudos to production designer Kevin Lewis, to cinematographer Stéphanie Biron, and to focus-puller Andrew Stretch—he came up with the idea of a shot where the camera peers through the strings of a guitar. And she has plenty of love for her cast, too, especially Davis, in her first lead acting role.

"When I made Parsley Days I was probably flailing, and with Love That Boy I took a little bit for granted, not realizing it would be so difficult to make more feature films," says Dorfman. "So this time I felt lucky. And if the talented people who made this film feel proud of the work they contributed, it will be a complete success. Everything else is gravy."

The gravy then includes Heartbeat getting into the Toronto International Film Festival, distributed by Mongrel Media across Canada, and being the Atlantic Gala at this year's Atlantic Film Festival. In 1998, Dorfman won an award for most promising new director at the AFF. Heartbeat feels like a fulfillment of that initial vote of confidence.

"In a funny way, this is a full circle," she says as Pippa curls happily onto her lap. "I never thought I would be here, but I'm so happy to be a part of this community."

Park Lane Cinemas
Friday, September 12 at 7pm

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