"RAW*" is a movie of firsts: it's the first feature-length film ever shot on Salt Spring; it's the first lead role for young Vancouver actor Jesse Platt; and it's the first feature film credit for writer-director David I. Strasser, who bypassed the typical director's career track — endless short film festivals, low-budget horror schlock, Ramen noodles — and leapfrogged directly to the front of the debut feature line.
And you know what? "RAW*," which screened for one night only at The Fritz in early Summer, is not bad — which, as any film festival enthusiast can attest, is usually not the case for most first-time director's films. And there's a couple of good reasons for that. The first is the engaging cinematography of Latvian-born Raivo Kruze, who expertly captured the essence of the island's unique natural beauty. And secondly is Strasser's inspiration to make the film (a personal tragedy), which infused the entire project with a powerful dose of heart and passion.
The film tells the story of Jakob Levin, a reckless young drug-addled Vancouverite, whose Jack Nicholson/Macaulay Culkin why-don't-you-go-fuck-yourself attitude lands him in front of a sober magistrate, with his mom in tow (how embarrassing). The sentencing is perhaps a little more lenient and creative than it is in real life: Jakob is shipped off to Salt Spring with a fashionable ankle bracelet so that he might build some character working on his Uncle Joe's farm — which just so happens to be the center of an illegal raw milk distribution racket.
The intertwining plot points are simple enough. There's a blossoming love story with farmhand Laura (played with great charm by newcomer Katie Hayashida) which mirror's Jakob's character arc, and a hefty conflict between Jakob and Laura's father, who serves as a stand-in for Strasser's own Libertarian ideals about government interference. There's also a subplot re: Jakob's drug friends from the city, who try to strong-arm him into moving their product to the island, which serves to drive the climax of the film. (The interactions between Jakob and his uncle had the most realism and depth; the film probably could have focused more around the dynamics of this relationship.)
But what matters most here for Strasser is Jakob's transformation from self-centeredness to communal connection — even if the ethics of those around him, supposedly designed to inspire his rehabilitation, are not particularly more noble than his own.
In a casual conversation behind the theatre before the screening, Strasser explained how the lead character of "RAW*" was written as a tribute to his nephew, Lukas Strasser-Hird, who was just eighteen years old when he was brutally murdered outside a Calgary bar in 2013. The story dominated the Calgary headlines for several years, and the trial was excruciatingly painful for the family to endure. Strasser wanted to shape a coming of age story about a troubled character who finds redemption through connection with community, which was something his nephew achieved near the end of his own short life.
With the exception of a few bookended establishing shots of a busy downtown Vancouver street, the bulk of the film was shot at Bon Acres Farm, just off Lepage Road near Walker's Hook, in May 2015. It's interesting how outsiders perceive the island and its inhabitants. (Strasser had visited the island only once before writing the script.) A few things stuck out in this regard: in a story about farm hand woofers, where's all the gumboots? And (not to give anyone any ideas), but if you're going to smuggle weed or raw milk contraband to the mainland, the Long Harbour to Tsawwassen ferry is a far easier gambit than conspicuously pulling up to the Fernwood dock in the middle of the night in anything bigger than an inflatable dingy.
But these are potatoes far too small for serious complaint. Kruze and Strasser visually captured the unique essence of Salt Spring; the film looks and feels exactly how Salt Spring looks and feels.
At least one first-time visitor to the 108-seat Fritz, a.k.a. The Salt Spring Cinema, which was built in 1898, was excited to sprinkle yeast on their popcorn, as many locals have fervidly suggested was an absolute must. Although the young girl behind the snack counter said yeast sprinkling is a polarizing island topic, like incorporation or not (not, duh) or who has the best espresso drinks, TJ Beans or Cafe Talia (tie), the yeast seasoning was found to be "just okay." The half dozen other selections — garlic, maple, cinnamon — did, admittedly, appear more appealing.
Watching the film, it's almost impossible to fathom how Strasser etal shot a 90-minute movie in just thirteen days for $55K. The logistics simply don't add up for a film with this much scenic and character variety. In this regard the film is a heroic achievement. The key was in the "etal" part of the equation. The crew was mostly comprised of Strasser's cohorts from the Vancouver Film School, who were all brand spanking new to the feature making process and perhaps too green to know the impossibility of the task they had set for themselves. But what they lacked in years of experience they more than made up for in dedication and hard work. In the Q&A after the screening, tales of serious sleep deprivation were common, and Strasser referred to everyone on the team as a "filmmaker," regardless of their role, which was an interesting and inspiring Trotsky-esque distinction, the filmmaker's version of the Three Bricklayer's parable.
Platt's work in the lead role of Jakob displayed great potential for the craft. Like a newborn giraffe, his legs might have been a little bit wobbly when it came to the slower, more nuanced aspects of his character, but when it came time to deliver the big scenes, Platt was all in. It was a gigantic role, in all respects (he is in almost every scene), and Platt should be proud of his work. His youthful good looks and heart on the sleeve vulnerability will serve him well as his career progresses.
Like the filmmakers and films he admires and has been influenced by (Oliver Stone's "Natural Born Killers," Darren Aronofsky's "Requiem for a Dream" and "The Wrestler"), Strasser set out to create a visceral and emotionally powerful film with a strong ideological message. Big shoes to walk in, no doubt; creating empathy for complex, morally ambiguous characters can be a delicate balancing act. Comparatively speaking, though, "RAW*" was a modest endeavor, not too overly ambitious, and well within Strasser's grasp; he just needed to hit it back over the net, and he did so with professional aplomb. For what the film is and what the director set out to do, it works. In the final analysis, "RAW*" has several very good scenes and no real turds, as per Howard Hawk's filmmakers' dictum, which in itself is a major accomplishment whether you're a rookie or veteran.
Kudos must be extended to the Vancouver Film School for stepping up to the plate with Strasser and putting their support behind a burgeoning filmmaker with heart and promise. B.C. incubated and sponsored films are about as rare as finding a sidewalk trash can in Ganges. It’s a disgrace that a city the size of Vancouver, which kisses Hollywood’s ass every which way to Thursday, hasn’t produced a bevy of homegrown talent of international distinction. Warehouses stuffed with Hollywood camera packages and lighting, as well as the crews that operate them, are mothballed every winter during the off-season and could be put into service for local filmmakers. (Telefilm's micro-budget program, now in its fifth year, is one small step in the right direction.) It would be nice to have a leader at Cambie and Broadway with greater vision beyond his own haircut, whose ideas about the cultivation of culture in a metropolis extend beyond the building of tumbleweeded bike lanes and empty glass condos.
Strasser confessed to having discovered a whole new aspect of himself and his creative anima here during the course of his Salt Spring shoot; indeed, he could be a poster child for the Salt Spring Chamber of Commerce's oft-heard motto, "Don't Change Salt Spring, Let It Change You." Strasser is acutely aware of the rare gift he's been given, the first feature, and he's determined to create an even more robust and magical sophomore effort. Hopefully he'll return to Salt Spring for a future project. We’ve got magic to burn here. And plenty of gumboots.
The Salt Spring Island COUGAR is open to art, literary works, poetry, creative non-fiction, photography, and other submissions from local residents.