Canadian indie filmmaker Ingrid Veninger is all about authenticity, serendipity and leaping into the unknown. He Hated Pigeons, the latest offering from the award-winning director, producer, writer, actress and founder of the pUNK Films Inc. production company, is a road trip through Chile that delves into loss, love, impermanence and faith. Accompanied at every screening by a unique live score, the film (Veninger’s fifth directorial feature) stars Pedro Fontaine.
Veninger met Fontaine in 2014, she explains, when he was her translator at Femcine, a women’s film festival she attended in Santiago, Chile that showed a retrospective of her films. “He mentioned he was an actor. So I tucked that away and when I left Santiago, I couldn’t stop thinking about him. When I landed, I had an impulse to Skype with him and spontaneously felt we would make something good together. I proposed that I would like to write a lead role for him in my next feature and would he think about it, and he said he didn’t have to think about it and we committed on the spot. So I essentially made a promise we would be shooting in Chile inside a year.”
Born in Bratislava, Slovakia, Veninger credits her parents – who “left their families and everything familiar behind” to start a new life in Canada – with teaching her the courage to leap into the unknown. “Trusting my impulses and meeting a person I feel curious about, or drawn to or a place I feel connected with that inspires a story, it’s how I want to live my life,” she says. “You see a person at an event that you’re drawn to, and as opposed to avoiding them you step up and start talking to them and that leads to something you would otherwise have never experienced. I love living my life that way, so I think that translates into how I make my films and certainly how they’re born.”
Over the years, Veninger has worked in most aspects of filmmaking, all while illustrating her indie values and passion to get films made – even on tight budgets. “In our industry we’re constantly reminded that it’s show ‘business,’ and ultimately, success is often measured by money, box office success, profit,” she says. “That’s not my value system. It wasn’t my parents’ value system; we always lived simply and modestly, and I make films in keeping with that.”
Next up is a script she wrote in the pUNK Films Femmes Lab, an initiative she started in 2014 with four other Canadian women. “We all wrote a feature film narrative in six months, and Melissa Leo (who won an Academy Award for The Fighter) was the godmother of the initiative; she gave us $6,000 for a first look at these scripts.”
Considering the uncertainties involved in indie filmmaking, He Hated Pigeons is, in a sense, a case of form mirroring content. Enhanced by its visual language (Veninger worked with cinematographer Dylan Macleod), the story deals with themes of uncertainty and impermanence. Elias must grieve the unexpected loss of his lover, “carry with him the uncertainty of not knowing exactly what happened,” she says, and find a reason, and a way, to move on.
From the start, “I knew it was going to deal with loss,” says Veninger, who also playa a hitchhiker in the film. “Not only losing a person, but self-loss and loss of faith, [and then] embarking on a journey where there would be a little bit more hope, and some sort of struggle to navigate how to live.”
The character’s uncertainty, as well as those involved in making the film – writing a loose narrative “for an actor whose work I’d never seen,” shooting in not only English but also Spanish in Chile’s “amazingly varied landscape” and “traveling from the North to South with a small crew“– is mirrored in the way the film is experienced: Different local musicians perform a live improvised score at every screening, which affects the flavour of each screening, depending on their musical interpretations.
“I wanted uncertainty and impermanence to be brought to every presentation,” Veninger says. “I knew that from the first page of writing the script. I knew the process of the film was going to be reflected in the presentation so every time it screened, a different local artist improvised the score and there’s no set music.”
Everyone, she explains, including the audience and herself (who doesn’t know in advance what the musician will be doing), must bring their own leap of faith to the film. “It’s never recorded and it’s never repeated so for that experience you have to show up.”
Ultimately, perhaps it’s the unknown that keeps it real.
Certainly, a quest for authenticity is constant in Veninger's life and art. “The search for something real, a real experience,” she says. “This whole idea of going bigger and stronger and faster, I so much more gravitate towards smaller and truthful and simpler. It’s a life practice as much as it is filmmaking.” Perhaps it comes down to values, and asking such questions as, “How do we want to live and what do we want to do with our lives?”
“It’s a question I have as a filmmaker – what am I doing, why am I doing it, where am I going, who am I doing it for. And also inside the film, the character has to decide [the same things]. The film starts out with there being a loss, and a lead character asking, ‘What am I supposed to do now?’ When the person he loves the most is gone. It’s a portrait of a man very specifically, but it’s a portrait of any human being on the planet – who they are, what they want to do with their lives and how they want to live. That, to me, is directly tied to faith; what we believe in, and what encourages, supports and helps us get through every single day. When that is gone and we feel absolutely no support and we feel alienated and isolated, that is a really, really hard place to be. And that’s where our character starts.
“So the question becomes, ‘Where from there? What are the things that renew or help us build our faith in ourselves, fundamentally?’” For Veninger, a mother of two, the answer has been other people. “It’s been the connection to other people, and in some respects, the connection to nature. The scale and perspective of how small we are in relation to the natural world.”
Photo credit: pUNK Films Inc.
He Hated Pigeons screens May 17 and Artifice Palace will be performing the score for the screening live.