Luk'Luk'I: Opportunistic and prejudiced, or bold and empathic?
How Wayne Wapeemuka collaborated with the people of Main and Hastings for "the stories we don't tell"
Is my film exploitative or a must-see progressive art-house film based on true injustice? Is it opportunistic and prejudiced, or bold and empathic? Am I the right person to make a movie about Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and its residents, or am I insidiously appropriating their stories for my personal gain? And where are we one year after TIFF Artistic Director Cameron Bailey published his Globe and Mail editorial, “Dear Canadian Filmmakers: it’s not about you, it’s about us”?
As a kid growing up in the suburbs around Vancouver, I’d always heard stories about Main and Hastings. But that was the point: they were merely stories. It reminded me of what it was like to live in Vancouver in 2010 at the time of the Olympics. I noticed a Manichean polarity between what I saw on TV and what I saw on the streets. While the Games projected harmonious images of a sovereign country at peace, my city turned into a police state. I watched as friends of mine were arrested and abused, low-income residents were ejected by greedy slumlords, and activists were violently quelled by the pigs.
"If you’re making a movie about a sex worker, why don’t you cast me?” It was 2013 and I was just beginning my research into the Downtown Eastside by having a beer with Angel at the Grand Union, off Hastings Street. “Sex work is basically acting.” Since our initial meeting, Angel and I have collaborated on three short films and one feature together. One of our works (Balmoral Hotel, 2014) earned her a nomination for Best Actress at the 2016 Leo Awards.
“If our social reality itself is sustained by a symbolic fiction or fantasy, then the ultimate achievement of film art is not to recreate reality within the narrative fiction, to seduce us into (mis)taking a fiction for reality, but, on the contrary to make us discern the fictional aspects of reality itself, to experience reality itself as a fiction.” — Slavoj Žižek, The Fright of Real Tears
My first feature, Luk’Luk’l (playing at Canada's Top Ten Film Festival), is a hybrid documentary about five residents from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, set on February 28, 2010: the day of the Men’s Hockey Gold Medal game. For me, the 2010 Winter Olympics were a fantasy that deliberately obfuscated fundamental contradictions about Vancouver. It’s a place where the “World’s Most Liveable City” can be situated around “Canada’s Poorest Postal Code.”
“In Canada,” Bailey remarks in his Globe piece, “our films live in separate worlds. Our documentaries tackle climate change, Indigenous rights, urban poverty and other pressing, current social issues. Our fiction films, on the other hand, tend to the personal: coming of age, family tensions, falling in and out of love.” With Luk’Luk’l, I wanted to make a film that was entirely fictional — i.e., scripted — but felt like a documentary about these current social issues. Yet there was an ethical question concerning how I, as a privileged filmmaker, could truthfully portray a lived experience that wasn’t my own. I knew that I couldn’t, but maybe Angel, and others who live these realities, could. It turned out that casting real people to interpret the reality of their own daily lives presented itself as possibly the one truly exploitative decision I could make as a director.
Gone are the days when one can simply make a film, screen it, and then walk away. Questions of accountability surround and perforate our work. At the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival, Luk’Luk’I was met with wildly conflicting criticism. Charges of exploitation and contrivance went hand in hand with public decoration and commendation. (We won Best Canadian First Feature Film.)
This polarity has really fucked me up. Did I fuck something up, or did I do what was right? (I think the answer is: a bit of both.)
Though he isn’t from the Downtown Eastside, Ken Harrower was also cast for a lead role in Luk’Luk’I. His character is, like Ken in real life, a gay man with a disability looking for love. I met Ken at TIFF in 2014. After seeing his virtuosic performance in Martin Edralin’s short film Hole, I intended to ask him out for a drink but he beat me to the punch. At the Gabby’s across the street from TIFF Bell Lightbox, he ordered a hamburger and removed the bun. (He’s gluten-free.) He asked me if we could work together. I promised him that when I had the right project I would give him a lead part. So I did.
Like the other actors, Ken frequently collaborated with me on the script. Many of his scenes are taken directly from his life, relying on his memories and the emotions he felt at the time. Sometime between the start and end of the shoot, we both lost sight of the difference between Luk’Luk’I Ken and the real Ken. When my co-producer Matt Drake went to drop off his cheque, he found Ken on a date with his love interest from the film. Coincidentally enough, they were being served by John Gillich, who plays the asshole scalper who rips Ken off and steals his cash in the film.
Rollergirl is the only celebrity that I worship. After showing her a cut of the movie I asked: “What do you think? Is there anything that bothers you? Anything that you’d like to me to change or cut out?”
“Well… it could be better,” she said.
“Just better. More bloody.”
Another rule I set for Luk’Luk’I was to place my actor/collaborators in authorial control as much as possible. This meant collaborating on the script and, at times, placing the camera in their hands so they controlled the frame. There’s a quote by Stanley Cavell1 that always spoke to me: “The camera is outside its subject as I am outside my language, the abyss of ready insincerity is fixed but that is what makes truthfulness possible and virtuous.”
For Luk’Luk’I, Rollergirl and I wanted to recreate her 2015 arrest, but I was worried that the restaging of such a traumatic event would be emotional for her. To work around this concern, Rollergirl and I decided to film it from her perspective by giving her the camera. This decision replaced her past powerlessness with agency, so that she could take control of the moment and work through it. This was a technique I also employed with Ken. By affixing the camera to his wheelchair, I intended the spectator to see the world from his vantage point, instead of the full frame imposed by the director. The frame, much like Rollergirl’s, was in his control, not mine.
“I don’t really care about him. It’s been so long. He’s not really my dad.” I was meeting Eric Buurman’s biological son Justin at an Earl’s somewhere in Surrey. (I’ve known Eric since 2013. I met him as a volunteer housing advocate.) That summer I was shooting a documentary on fantasies and asked Justin if he was willing to participate. He hadn’t spoken to Eric in 15 years or so. I wanted to recreate a fantasy Eric had told me about: them together at a playland rekindling their lost relationship. Listening to Justin felt like listening to myself talk about my own dad. I smoked a whole pack of Belmonts on a stupidly reckless drive home.
Justin agreed to participate in the documentary. A year later, he offered to come back and film the same scene for Luk’Luk’I. Eric’s story in the film revolves around him finding his long lost son on Facebook. (A true story, I actually helped him write his initial Facebook message to Justin years ago.) They finally meet at the climactic Men’s Hockey final on February 28, 2010, just before Team Canada beats the United States 3–2. However, this long-awaited encounter goes tragically awry as Eric succumbs to his heroin addiction. Not only is Eric’s son in the film his real kin, but their interaction in the film is also entirely real. You could say it’s “written” by Eric and Justin since I directly transcribed the scene from their original unrehearsed meeting, as filmed in my documentary one year prior. I saw my own relationship with my father in Eric and Justin’s encounter. Instead of making the kind of coming-of-age drama Bailey had lambasted in his Globe op-ed, I found myself living in one.
In the summer of 2015, I was driving Mark home over the Lions Gate Bridge. He was Eric’s best friend, with a deep treble voice almost designed for podcasts. “What the fuck’s that?,” he asked. I looked out the window and saw nothing. Mark was observing a UFO hovering over downtown, he saw them frequently. When I dropped him off, he turned to me and said, “Wayne, this will probably be the last time we see each other.” It was the last time I saw Mark before he passed away.
Mark was always intended to be a collaborator on Luk’Luk’I, but, after he passed away, I had an important decision to make. Do I attempt to “force” a new relationship with someone else, or do I cast an actor to play Mark? Luckily I saw Hello Destroyer around this time and was floored by Joe Buffalo’s performance. Director Kevan Funk was nice enough to put us in touch, and the rest is history. When Joe came on board, he made it clear that he wasn’t just participating as an actor playing Mark, but as an individual who had longtime connections to the Downtown Eastside — most importantly, its skate scene.
In his vital non-fiction work Custer Died for Your Sins, author Vine Deloria Jr. devotes a chapter to “Indian Humour.” There, he discusses a comic where two Indigenous guys sit on a hill looking up at a UFO. One turns to his friend and says: “Oh no. Not again.”2 Joe’s casting as Mark helped me to explore the objective reality of colonialism. The UFO became a metaphor as well as the subjective truth of Mark having seen them. The last time we see Joe as Mark in Luk’Luk’I, he’s looking up at interstellar colonists in Crab Park. It’s the very site that the City of Vancouver and its capitalist ilk are now intending to expropriate.
My journey in making Luk’Luk’I began with Angel, and the film ends with her. The ending of my film is what I have received the most criticism for.
In her groundbreaking work Thunder in My Soul: A Mohawk Woman Speaks3, Patricia Monture-Angus writes: “The Canadian state is the invisible male perpetrator who, unlike Aboriginal men, does not have a victim face.” In my film, Angel’s male assailant is also faceless; a stand-in for any male Canadian settler; the fungibility of Robert Pickton. My intention was to subvert a horrific scene of violence, which has been objectified so many times before, by pushing it off-screen. Panning to documentary footage of Hastings Street, I attempted to convey how Angel’s particular fate is in fact an omnipresent reality on Hastings, and, by extension, Canada. Admittedly, in spite of my best intentions, the closing scene which punctuates my first feature has done much harm to those closer to its monstrous realities than I. Instead of making a film that alleviates suffering, I unintentionally became its agent. But for others, especially and most importantly for Angel, the ending to Luk’Luk’I is the only ending, since it is indeed one of “the stories we don’t tell.”
Wayne Wapeemukwa is a filmmaker of Métis and settler heritage. He reads philosophy and psychoanalysis.
1 Cavell, Stanley. The World Viewed. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979. p. 127. Print.
2Deloria Jr., Vine. Custer Died For Your Sins. pg. 148. University of Oklahoma Press, 1988.
3Monture-Angus, Patricia. Thunder in My Soul. p175 Fernwood Publishing, Halifax: 1995.
THE FINAL WORD FROM ANGEL GATES
My name is Angel Gates. I was blessed to be a part of the film Luk'Luk'l by Wayne Wapeemukwa. It was a few years ago that I got a call from Wayne. I guess he was doing research for his short film when he stumbled upon a short documentary about me, and how I wanted to leave prostitution. I think I was meant to be more of a “consultant” for the lingo and realities of my work, but I said to him: “If you want a good actress, you should hire a real prostitute.” He said I could have the job. I won't lie: in the beginning, it was about hustling him. (Old habits and all.) Later, it became more about freeing myself and humanizing an industry that I did not enter into of my own free will. I met Wayne when I was barely a year out of an almost 30-year nightmare in the sex trade. I was still struggling with who I was — if there was life after crack cocaine and prostitution, if I was worthy of leaving… As we got to know one another, we started to trust each other. It wasn't easy for me at first. Wayne was the first man I trusted after I exited the trade. Through filming the movie together, I found a respect for myself that I never had before. It was for having survived a life on the street that most people (even today’s working girls) could not keep their sanity living through.
We finished our first short film, Luk’Luk’l: Mother, and worked on two other short films together, which I found healing as well. Working on this feature gave me a new passion for the beautiful, misunderstood Downtown East Side and my friends who are still working the streets. The drugs are stronger. The death toll is higher. And it seems, the men are meaner.
I got to release some of my deepest hurts and largest regrets by recreating them on film. It gave me the chance to forgive myself. Wayne hugged away a lot of my tears on set and I felt like I told my story. Mine! It was MY story to tell.
I know a lot of people are critical of the film. They talk about “exploitation.” But how many of those people ever risked their lives out on the corner, or felt a piece of their virtue get put in the pockets of strange men day in and day out? How many of the people who were critical of my story ever felt pure hate and disgust from almost everyone who passed by who wasn’t a horny old man? How many of them know what it’s like to let yourself be raped every day so that when you’re attacked by a crazy man and he breaks all of your fingers, what pisses you off the most is that you didn’t get paid? And how many of them stood beside the women who disappeared while no one did a thing? This is only a small portion of what I went through out there on Hastings Street.
Saying that Luk’Luk’l has exploited me is just another way of trying to silence me. Wayne and our cast and crew are the most courageous people I know, and I love them like they are my family. It takes balls to tell these stories, especially when it’s your own. If Wayne hadn’t cared enough to help us tell our stories, how would they ever be heard? There are people who are trying to gentrify the Downtown Eastsides of the world; people who believe we are disposable. Maybe this film is not a fluffy story with a climatic happy end. But if you're living it, it is still a story of victory. There is so much pain, but we love and laugh through it. There is a beauty in our struggles because no matter what the world thinks of us, we have survived and we struggle on.
I’ve dedicated my performance in the film to my sisters who are missing and murdered. I don't ever want them to be forgotten. They could very easily have been me. Whether you like it or hate it, I hope we made a film that gets people talking about the Downtown Eastside. Maybe they'll start helping us, instead of building over us.
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