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Viewers are taken on an emotional ride in an alumna’s latest film.
Award-winning film studies graduate, Jana Stackhouse, premières her thesis film project, Away Home, this weekend at TIFF’s Top Ten Student Shorts Programme event. It will be one of several short films to debut alongside animations, documentaries and creations submitted from across the country.
Stackhouse spent a year writing and shooting Away Home for her 2017 final-year thesis film. Unbeknownst to Stackhouse and her producers, the Ryerson Image Arts faculty submitted the 20-minute short to TIFF shortly after its première at the Atlantic Film Festival in September. Stackhouse was surprised when she received an email from TIFF requesting more information.
Away Home is the story of Daniel (Billy MacLellan) and his siblings returning home to say goodbye to their mother, Evelyn (Lynne Deragon), who has terminal cancer. Wishing to have control over how she dies, Evelyn chooses to have a medically assisted suicide.
Upon completion of the first draft of Away Home in the summer of 2016, the federal government passed Bill C-14, legalizing euthanasia for terminally ill adults in Canada. The bill became an influential element in Stackhouse’s film, which she wrote and directed.
“That morphed my story,” said Stackhouse. “It became more of a part of it, and it became about this woman taking her mortality into her own hands, so to speak, and not allowing the opinions or judgments of others in her own family to sway her.”
In what Stackhouse describes as a ‘kismet moment’, her grandmother died from complications with dementia on the same weekend that she released the first cut of Away Home. Stackhouse dedicated the film to her grandmother to honour her memory.
“For me, I always thought, ‘God, what an interesting cog in the wheel it is to be given that decision’,” said Stackhouse. “For her, [my grandmother], that wasn’t a choice by the end because she had no ability to make a choice for herself. But I thought if she had been given the choice, what would have it been?”
Producing a movie that touches on the hot-button issue of assisted death, prompted the crew to research medical situations with sensitivity.
Stackhouse researched assisted death practices by speaking to physicians and reading patient testimonials. She incorporated similar passages from medical guides that doctors use to explain the final steps of assisted death into the film’s script.
Sarah Quan, co-producer and film studies graduate, has experience working on films that have emotional significance to the director. An avid fan of Stackhouse’s work, Quan was determined to see her director’s vision through.
“With Away Home, it was something that I treated with a lot of respect, patience and dedication to make it something that Jana could be proud of,” said Quan. “We wanted to do it right, and I think you’ll notice in the performances that Jana so brilliantly directed, that the body language, the pauses, the times where they stepped back versus the times where they fully went in emotionally, that it was so carefully thought out.”
Short films are less than 40 minutes in length, including credits. This can be a tight timeslot to condense a plot and many characters into. Aldo Mauro, a fellow co-producer who had a large role in post-production, found it especially challenging to edit Away Home down to its current length.
“The film was hard to get it down to the time we have it at now,” he said. “That’s where a lot of our time was spent. It’s such a dense film and everytime I removed something, I felt like I was taking an important piece away.”
While Away Home was one of the longest thesis films produced last year, Quan said the crew decided the extra time was necessary to develop the plot. Stackhouse is currently working on a feature version of the film to lend more screen time to the characters.
Alongside the seriousness of assisted death, Stackhouse hopes that viewers can see the joy in Away Home and the message of the importance of closure.
“I think the story is about the celebration of life and finding joy in being able to say goodbye,” said Stackhouse. “I really want them to see that it’s almost a gift to say goodbye and to tell people around you how much you appreciate them and you love them.”