Exclusive interview : SWEET KARMA's Shera Bechard and Andrew Hunt

July 11th, 2009 12:26:00

SWEET KARMA is an anomaly in Canadian independent cinema - itís a womanís revenge film that is brutal and topical (inspired by the real stories of Toronto sex-trafficking rings that have been routinely infiltrated and shut down over the past few years) and it is unapologetically Canadian (in the lighter moments, even hockey references abound). The setting is very clearly Toronto, and itís commendable that writers Hunt and Fler sought to combat the stereotype that Canada is the cleaner cousin to our southern neighbours.

Director/co-writer Andrew Hunt, co-writer/producer James Fler and star Shera Bechard will be presenting the film in person on Saturday July 11 at midnight (in the Salle JA de Seve), and again on Monday July 13 at 2:30pm (in the Hall Theatre). They were kind enough to speak with us a bit about this difficult genre and SWEET KARMA's place in it.

More details, description, trailer etc at the SWEET KARMA film page HERE.



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Did you watch any other rape revenge films in preparation for this film, and if so, what were the films that made the strongest impression on you?

Shera: Yeah, with Andrew I watched Ms. 45 & They Call Her One Eye, of course. We also watched films such as The Limey, Mute Witness, and even Woody Allen's Sweet & Lowdown because of the mute character in that film. All of them made some sort of impression on me, both of what to do and what not to do, but I'd say Ms. 45 definitely made the strongest.

Andrew: Well one of my favourite films of all time is Soderbergh's The Limey, so that was the one that had the biggest impact on me, even though it's not at all a rape-revenge movie. Ms. 45 was a favourite of mine back in the day, but in all honesty the decision to make Karma mute wasn't based on that film at all. It was only after we created the character of Karma that I remembered the film, and revisited it. Once I did, my goal then became to make a movie that fit somewhere between those two films.

Whose decision was it for the character to be mute? Shera, did you participate at all in creating the character?

Shera: It was Andrew's decision for her to be mute. Karma and I are very similar in many ways, so I guess you could say I helped in the creation of her by bringing as much of myself to her as possible.

Andrew: Shera & I live in a slightly sketchy area of Toronto. There's one particularly crappy block that's separates us from the downtown core. One summer Shera had bad experience after bad experience. She couldn't go a day without some man verbally abusing her. She knew we were wanting to make a revenge film with a female lead, so one day she came home and, slightly jokingly, asked if I could make it a film where she got to beat up some sexually abusive men. So that's how the character of Karma originated.

Since Shera herself is a very quiet and shy person, I thought it would be neat to take that to the extreme and make her character completely mute. Also because Shera has a background in modeling she was use to expressing herself on camera without speaking, so to have her act in her very first film without the need to speak made perfect sense.

Once we had the basic idea for the character James and I started to explore various plot ideas. I saw a documentary on TV about the sex trade in Canada and knew immediately that that was the world in which our film should take place. So once that all came together it was really quite easy for Shera to put herself in Karma's shoes. Shera has dealt with a lot of loss and feelings of loneliness within her own life, so she really drew from those experiences in order to play Karma.

Shera, can you tell me about training for all your fighting scenes?

Shera: About a year before we started filming I took some basic martial arts lessons - learning how to kick, punch, and use simple weapons like knives and sticks. Then once filming got closer I went to a firing range to shoot guns, and went through some combat moves with an ex-Russian army guy, just to make Karma a little more authentic.

Considering you had never acted before, and have claimed not to be interested in acting again in the future, what was it about this story that made you want to participate as an actress?

Shera: I don't know if I'll never act again. It's certainly not something I'll whole-heartedly pursue, but if another interesting role came up that I was right for, who knows...I think there are too many films nowadays that glorify violence against women, so the fact that this film had a strong female character that stood up against this violence was really what made me want to do it.

What was the most difficult or unpleasant part of performing in the film?

Shera: The toughest part was having to be angry most of the time. Although she's a sweet & innocent character, because of the mission she's on, she always has rage bubbling underneath the surface. So it was tough having to do that 5 days a week for a whole month.

I thought it was interesting that many of the antagonists were also women - women who were willing to sell other women into a life of slavery. Why do you think any woman would do that to another?

Shera: It all comes down to money. It's a simple as that. Money will make most people do almost anything. While writing the script Andrew read a non-fiction book called The Natashas, and it was shocking to read about the women who were willing and able to treat other women like cattle in order to make money.

Andrew, can you tell me about the process of financing the film? What kinds of responses did you get when approaching people about trying to get financing for the film?

Andrew: To be honest we didn't approach a lot of people about financing the film. We were pretty much unknown commodities - I've directed a handful of commercials and some music videos prior to this, and this was the first full-length script James & I have ever written - so we knew people weren't going to line up to give us money and that Telefilm was out of the question. One producer in the States we spoke to liked the script but wanted some B-name actors in it before he would invest. I feel that sometimes having B-movie actors can be detrimental to a film, so we decided to do it all ourselves in order to have complete creative control. Once that decision was made James cashed in some RSPs and I put a second mortgage on my house and we started making the film.

Why do you think there are less of these types of films (meaning:challenging genre films) made in Canada than in other countries?

Andrew: Well I've always felt that the government should have no role in financing films. With this system you end up with films having to meet certain social, moral, and political obligations. There also seems to be a desire within this system to make films different than the typical Hollywood film in order to be "culturally distinct". So that's really the main reason why very few genre films are made in Canada. Hopefully I'm not being overly optimistic in saying this, or biting the hand that may one day feed me, but I hope I never have to rely on government funding in order to make a film. I certainly don't ever want to make creative concessions in order to get their approval.

What do you hope to do with SWEET KARMA in terms of distribution/dissemination?

Andrew: We set up very realistic expectations for ourselves going in to this endeavor. We know it will never be a summer blockbuster, but certainly we hope we can get it out to as many territories as possible on DVD and TV. A limited theatrical release would be great too, but who knows if that will happen. Ultimately you make a film to be seen and enjoyed by as many people as possible, so we're going to do our best to make that happen.

Rape-revenge is one of the hardest genres to champion; in the publicís eye, it has an inherent leaning towards exploitation. And yet when done well, rape-revenge is a strongly feminist genre. Between exploitation and feminism, where do you feel SWEET KARMA fits in?

Andrew: My goal was to make a film that sat perfectly between art-house and grindhouse, and I think I achieved it. For starters, I made sure that the film wasn't overly exploitative. Nothing in the film was done solely for the sake of doing it, the nudity for example. It wasn't like; "Oh we need some boobs here, so let's throw in a topless girl". Both the nudity and the violence in the film feel natural to me - you don't see more than you need to. It certainly would have been hypocritical of us to do a film that speaks out against the sex trade while trying to get as much skin in there as possible.

As for it being a feminist film, I think on one hand it is, and in another it isn't. At its core it's about human nature. Sure this particular story deals with the loss of Karma's sister, but I think Karma would have done the same thing had it been the loss of her brother, and whether the criminals were involved in the sex trade or not. And if Karma were a man, that desire for revenge would have been the same. But the fact that we made a conscious decision to have a strong female character in a genre so often dominated by men, plus the fact that it deals with the sex trade of women, takes the film into feminist territory, and I'm proud of that.

Ultimately we wanted to avoid jumping on a soapbox to make a big moral statement; first and foremost our goal was to make an entertaining film. But if this film makes a few men think about the harsh realities of the sex industry, then we've done our job.

-Kier-La Janisse


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