Noam Gonick’s new film, Stryker (2004), arrives with an immodest agenda. It wants to revise assumptions about indigenous people, and perhaps even change the way they view themselves.
The son of a committed Marxist, Gonick was born and raised in Winnipeg, Manitoba, the city which remains his muse. After attending film school in Toronto and Vancouver, Gonick spent a summer in New York City as a retainer of sorts to the House of Aviance, while also making his first short film, 1919 (1997), an experimental fusion of prairie socialism and bathhouse homoeroticism. Claiming fellow Canadians Bruce La Bruce and especially Winnipeg confrère Guy Maddin as his cinematic masters, Gonick produced documentary shorts about both of them before making his début feature, Hey, Happy! (2001), which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. A riotous concatenation about a comely, zonked-out DJ who tries to have sex with 2,000 guys in order to trigger an annihilating biblical deluge, Hey, Happy! was one of the brighter spots of the Bush regime’s first apocalyptic year. After its respectable performance, Gonick could have sensibly followed the well-worn path and traded up to an expensive, star-laden project. Instead, he returns with an arguably more radical film, Stryker. It was the sole Canadian entry selected for last year’s Venice Film Festival, a distinction all the more noteworthy for the film’s resolute iconoclasm – it begins with a church arson and ends with a probable police homicide – and audacious formal impurity.
Set in Winnipeg, home to Canada’s fastest-growing aboriginal population, Stryker envisions the city’s impoverished North End as a desiccated exurbia in a state of perpetual siege. A racial gang war is boiling over between the Asian Bomb Squad (ABS), a cadre of preening, over-muscled Filipinos captained by the neurotic, mixed-blood Omar (smoothly played by Ryan Black, the only cast member with extensive professional experience; he also doubled as co-producer). The ABS’s grip on the North End is challenged by the formerly-dominant Indian Posse (IP), fronted by the volcanic Mama Ceece (indelibly personified by Deena Fontaine in her début). A stone gangsta and swaggering dyke Casanova, Mama Ceece has just gotten back from prison and is hell-bent on retaking her share of the narcotics and sex trade forfeited to Omar in her absence. Adding further flava is the soulful teen prostitute Ruby (Nancy Sanderson), sister of IP thug Jessie (Dylan Mowatt) and a sexual pawn traded between Mama Ceece and Omar. Ruby is formidably ambidextrous – capable of dispensing a handjob and wielding a razor blade at the same time – and the character in whom the social stakes are perhaps most deeply felt. Told to leave Winnipeg at one point, she avers, “I got nowhere else to go … This is where I’m from.” Taken together, Mama Ceece and Ruby make for an unusually complex representation of young Indian womanhood.
Into this richly lurid scenario stumbles a 14-year-old Indian boy known only as Stryker (Kyle Henry), Canadian argot for a wannabe gangbanger. More of a lactescent presence than a functioning actor, the first-timer Henry tries ill-advisedly to mask his unease by exaggerating it, playing mute and relying on puppyish mugging to scrape through. To indigenous viewers, however, Stryker’s behaviour may appear more complexly motivated as symptomatic of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.
The film opens on the Brokenhead Ojibway Reserve in northern Manitoba, with the boy fleeing an abandoned wooden church he’s just set ablaze – his favourite habit is pyromania. In an extraordinary shot noted by Canadian critic Robert Enright in the journal Border Crossings, Stryker runs from the burning church, between a herd of watchful, ice-flecked buffalo and under a highway overpass to hop on a passing freight train that carries him to Winnipeg. As Enright observes, Gonick condenses into one gesture “all the components of a symbolic history – the church, nature, and the technologies of transport – that marked the passing of one way of life and the imposition of another”. (1)
The reigning way of life in Stryker is Thug Life. As imagined by Gonick, it is a ghetto-fabulous fantasy of lawless Indian youth, elevated by an original hiphop score by the indigenous MC HellNBack (né Karmen Omeosoo). HellNBack’s savoury music is one of the film’s most enjoyable dimensions, smartly counter-pointing the narrative and lending necessary propulsion. As the newly arrived Stryker wanders the North End’s boarded-up avenues, the phat beats and insinuating keyboard licks musically articulate parallels between the historic dispossession of Africans and Native Americans in the “new world”. In a recent lament for hiphop on the occasion of its 30th anniversary, Village Voice critic Greg Tate argued, “Hiphop’s ubiquity has created a common ground and a common vernacular for black folk from 18 to 50 worldwide. This is why mainstream hiphop as a capitalist tool … isn’t easily discounted: The dialogue it has already set in motion between Long Beach and Cape Town is a crucial one, whether Long Beach acknowledges it or not.” (2) Recognising that Indians occupy the same structural underclass position in Canadian society that blacks do in the US, Stryker’s key innovation is to situate native youth as authentic subjects of, and shareholders in, this transnational hiphop culture.
Stryker is soon befriended by the mixed-blood trannie hooker, Daisy (Joseph Mesiano), another Brokenhead refugee. The lad shuffles along just as Daisy is getting slapped all over the sidewalk in broad daylight by her pimp, Omar; Gonick uses the moment to hurl an ironic dart, as a paramedic van glides indifferently past the tussle. We meet Daisy up close from Stryker’s point of view – supine and heavy-lidded on the grimy snow, brunette mane splayed against thrift-store fur jacket, tender nipples bared to the cold, an unlit fag held aloft between two long fingers, in need of a light – a vision of ravishment, and one of the film’s most iconic images. So charged is this image for Gonick that he repeats it twice: once with Stryker in Daisy’s place, swaddled with fur pelts, then again with Daisy herself, felled a second time by the hysterical Omar. Daisy brings the waif back home, which turns out to be a slum oasis of Almodóvarian kitsch: a lime-green-and-mauve henhouse of queens who exchange affable bitchery while doting over the confused newbie.
For reasons unknown, Stryker goes looking for Mama Ceece. He and some Indian Posse brothers get busted by the cops, and down at Juvie Hall they run into rival thugs from the Deuce Crew. In the ensuing brawl, Mama Ceece appears at the rec-yard fence, at once excoriating and rallying them in her swashbuckling style: “While we been fightin’ each other, that half-breed cocksucker Omar and his Flip faggots squeezed up the middle and boosted our hook-up. We gotta come together to beat that rat shit back into the ground. We join in one war … and we can rule the North End together”.
Presently Stryker is released into the custody of Talia (Dominique Rémy-Root), a predatory serial foster mother specialising in native boys, and the only prominent white character in the script. Pushing middle age and vaguely mittel-European, Talia has eked out a niche by running an illicit halfway house, supplying shelter, pierogies and hard loving to wayward youth. As Stryker walks through Talia’s rooms, taking in his new lodgings, his eyes fall upon a collage of snapshots of other Indian boys arranged on her refrigerator door, their shy, smiling faces forming a casually chilling album of rupture, loss and alienation. Meanwhile, Mama Ceece’s bid to consolidate the Deuce and IP works, and the tide turns against Omar.
Stryker is a deeply serious film but a huge part of its charm is how easily Gonick’s didactic intentions succumb to the pleasure principle. Whereas the subject of indigenous gangs has been treated, albeit infrequently, in Canadian cinema before, we need only compare the earnest realism of Randy Redroad’s short, Moccasin Flats (2002), for example, to appreciate how deftly Gonick marshals the affective and sensuous resources of the cinema to rally the viewer to his queer agenda. Stryker keeps defaulting to a boisterous house-party mode – scene transitions are typically cued to HellNBack’s thunderous beats – and if its generic outline suggests The Warriors (Walter Hill, 1979), the tone is often closer to Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle (Danny Leiner, 2004). Crucially, many of its sharpest political moments are wrapped in sly humour, and there are priceless comic bits, such as Gloria, the towering, one-eyed Indian woman, stalking the North End while swinging a carved wooden staff. Gloria ambushes whites – sneaking up on a trio of oblivious grannies, hollering, “Get the fuck off of native land! Taking it back, you white bitches!” – and randomly exhorts Indian passers-by to reclaim traditional ways (to which Mama Ceece tersely replies, “Not likely.”).
It is a measure of Gonick’s ambition that not all the ideas he pours into the film come across equally. Among the less fully articulated conceits, Gonick fancifully imagines the vacant Stryker as a sort of avenging angel, purging urban Indians of the white man’s diseases – poverty, crime, addiction – with his cleansing arson outbursts; he attaches symbolic significance to the specific targets of Stryker’s flames. Gonick has also said that he didn’t want any Indians to die in this film, yet the boy apparently comes to grief. At the end, Stryker rather abruptly gets picked up again by the law, but this time by a rogue cop who takes him on a “starlight tour”. This covert police practice – of driving undesirable vagrants to remote urban outskirts on sub-zero nights and leaving them, drunken or beaten unconscious, to freeze to death – has long been known in native communities but only recently breached the Canadian media, and is a gathering scandal in the provinces of Saskatchewan and Manitoba.
In a concluding montage mirroring the opening church arson sequence, a close-up of Stryker’s face dissolves to him surmounting a snow-covered hillside to gaze upon Winnipeg’s high-rise metropolitan centre, bathed in tawny sunlight as clouds billow behind his inscrutable expression. This coda might be seen as a reproach against indigenous people’s exclusion from Canadian society, or as a tentatively promising image of regeneration; Gonick invests the moment with the right measure of ambiguity.
One of the film’s cardinal virtues is Ed Lachman’s cinematography, which greatly helps unify its diverse elements. Among the most pre-eminent cinematographers at work today, Lachman is renowned for lensing the enamelled period surfaces of Far From Heaven (Todd Haynes, 2002) and the gossamer textures of The Virgin Suicides (Sophia Coppola, 1999). Yet it was the humid hi-jinks of Ken Park (Lachman and Larry Clark, 2002), which Lachman co-directed as well as shot, that proved decisive for his collaboration with Gonick.
In Stryker, Lachman reaches back to some of the pictorial effects of the unsung new-wave classic, Union City (Marcus Reichert, 1980); in a lively party scene, Daisy even appears in a get-up swiped from Pat Benatar’s wardrobe of that period: crimson and black diagonal-striped bodice over tattered black hose.
Stryker features memorable tableaux washed in an even midnight blue, pierced with highlights of neon pink or orange, and achieves at times a striking calligraphic impression of inky figures against flat, snow-whitened backdrops.
In March, Gonick visited New York with a contingent of Stryker’s cast and crew for its US premiere in the Museum of Modern Art’s “Canadian Front” series, the second edition of a new annual survey underwritten by Telefilm Canada and programmed by Larry Kardish, MoMA’s senior film curator and an Ottawa native himself. During that week, groundwork was laid for the film’s acquisition by Strand Releasing, who forecast a US theatrical opening this fall prior to its Sundance Channel telecast in January 2006. The day before his departure (and by chance, the day after his birthday), Gonick spoke with Senses of Cinema at the Manhattan home of two friends, who have joined what he calls the “brain drain” of Canadian talent into the US. As the late-winter sun retreated over a view of the Flatiron district, Gonick candidly reflected on his unorthodox new film. (3)
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Ioannis Mookas: After previewing Stryker on cassette, at the MoMA screening I was struck by the lushness and saturation of Ed Lachman’s cinematography.
Noam Gonick: The script specified a palette of raw plywood and slush. And Ed always referred back to the script. We would plan every scene in detail, and Ed would annotate in his script what shots, what angles, what filters and what film stocks he was going to use. We’d spend hours doing this every week during the shoot so we could plan the week ahead.
You know, when you get a cinematographer like Ed, you’re going to leave a lot up to them, let them see the locations, feel the script and the story, meet the cast and then sort of shoot on their own. So I can’t really take any credit for the palette.
Also, I’m colour-blind, which got us in a lot of trouble. All those crazy colours in Hey, Happy? I chose those thinking they were “normal”. Then we got into trouble on Stryker because Ed was already onto his next project, and I was supervising some of the CGI shots and didn’t see some of the colour shifts. In the colour timing it presented huge problems, and Ed had to come in with his timer in L.A., Lee Wimer, and fix it all.
Shooting a Canadian winter landscape-y film like Stryker, I was hoping that with Ed we could push that sort of clichéd, horrible Canadian flatness so far that it would become artful. It’s such a Canadian cliché as it is: the native child coming from the north.
IM: At the MoMA screening you mentioned that Lachman was a relatively late addition to the crew. Why was that, and how did your collaboration transpire?
NG: Well, you know how it is. You write these films and you want to make them but you don’t know if you’re going to get the money. Then suddenly you do, and suddenly it’s gotta be this winter and it’s happening next month.
It was on Christmas eve, actually, that I was sitting at my producer’s house and we were talking about all our options in Winnipeg for camera people. I didn’t really feel good about any of them, and Juliette [Hagopian] said, “Well, who would be your dream DP?” And immediately I thought, “Ed Lachman. Why don’t we just try him?” So I called Guy [Maddin], and said, “Do you think we could get Ed Lachman?” He said, “Yeah, it’s a great idea.”
I’d met Ed in Rotterdam, and I just did a web search, and found his New York number, and he was home. Guy talked with him, and we sent him the script and Hey, Happy! We didn’t hear back for about 10 days. He was up on his farm in Utah, reading and watching the film. We assumed the worst and were ready to go forward with someone else. Then he got in touch and said, “Yeah, I’ll be there.” 30 days later, he arrived and we shot the film.
It was totally last-minute. He had an opening, and was drawn by the script, and there he was.
In the weeks leading up, he was in São Paulo and Paris, and constantly calling in about the look of the film, and how he imagined shooting what he kept calling “City of God in the Snow”. When he was in Brazil, he met with the crew of City of God [Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund, 2002], and in Paris he armed himself with a big swath of photography books. When he finally came to Winnipeg, we pored over the books. He travels with a foot locker of DVDs as well, so we watched a lot of film and tried to put together a palette.
Ed kept saying that this is the way films were meant to be shot, which meant, we’d go in with a game plan, but then we’d find the découpage, how you’re going to shoot it, right there in the scene, on location. When things weren’t working, we would throw ideas out and be very fluid with it, there in the moment. On set, this made a lot of people nervous, but he said he felt really free.
IM: Lachman also operated the camera himself.
NG: Yeah, so that meant climbing ladders, running around in snowbanks, hanging off of cars. It was a very physically exhausting shoot, most of it outdoors in very cold weather, with his feet freezing. But he never complained once and we had a really great time.
You know, the reason I felt Ed was the cameraman I needed wasn’t because of Far From Heaven, which I loved the look of, or The Virgin Suicides. It was from seeing Ken Park in Rotterdam. That’s when Guy met him. There was a retrospective of Guy’s films, including my film about him. Ken Park was all these teenage non-professional actors, which I knew I was going to use, and Ed was co-director, so I thought, “Okay, here’s someone with experience dealing with non-actors. I’ve got a cast of 50 mostly first-time teen actors.” And he really did help a lot with that.
IM: Did shooting on the North End present any challenges? Did you have any run-ins with the real Indian Posse (IP)?
NG: We allowed the real North End really close into frame. In some scenes you can see kids playing around and stuff. You have to imagine that behind the camera there were ten times as many kids, and we let them right up to the barrel of the lens.
In some scenes, for example in that housing project scene, we’d have a bunch kids sitting on my chair, on my lap, all around me, and I guess you’d say it was very unprofessional, the way we let them right there, sitting next to Ed. I just wouldn’t let the location people shoo the kids away or say, “You can’t come past this area.” I thought it’d be fun for them, something they could remember, if they could come right up close to it all. I tried to use more of those moments when kids would run across the frame, but a lot of times it didn’t work in the editing.
There was a real IP clubhouse right across the street from the location we chose for the clubhouse in the film. We were on that main drag quite a few days and it became apparent that they were right there, hanging out the windows, sort of intimidating the young actors who were playing the IP. So there was a little bit of spooking going on. But from what I heard, the IP got excited that there was gonna be a film they would be featured in, that finally gave them the respect they were due. And that was one of the big motivations for the film: to give the IP that representation.
The film still hasn’t been seen by a lot of native people. It premiered in Winnipeg last week at this film festival [the National Screen Institute FilmExchange Canadian Film Festival] at $15 a ticket, with a very complex ticketing system. It wasn’t like a walk-up-and-slap-your-money-down type of affair. And it was a predominantly white audience, which was pretty sad, because a lot of the humour is directed toward a native audience. I’ve never had a better reaction than when I tested the rough cut for a group of 25 or 30 native youth, who got every joke.
With this film, I’ve become a real believer in regional cinema. It would be really nice if the film could get distributed to other continents, but at the same time my biggest hope is that it will play in the region it was made in, that it can play in that 99¢ cinema in the North End, because it’s for those people to see themselves represented.
IM: How did you decide on Kyle Henry to play Stryker?
NG: We only read three kids. It was a weird audition, because there was no dialogue. When I saw Kyle I knew right away. I loved his pube ’stache, not quite ready to shave yet. I thought that could help sell the film. And there’s a slight asymmetry in his eyes; one of his eyes is slightly crossed. That’s what sold me.
At age 14, Kyle had skipped school and taken the bus downtown to find this audition in a basement at the university all on his own, and I thought that showed a lot of initiative. He really wanted it. He wasn’t brought in by his mother, or anything like that. I explained to him that it was gonna be really boring, a lot of waiting around, and that he was going to have to miss some school. He was just completely vacant and Strykeresque in his responses to me.
The casting director got very concerned that it might be impossible to work with Kyle because he might be too close to the character, but I took the risk.
Also, Kyle drew a really strong resemblance to Jeremie Yuen, who played Sabu in my first feature. So I saw a bit of continuity there.
In the script, it’s elaborated much more that the character is a child of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome [FAS]. I know that in the final film that’s not really driven home very hard. But I was looking for an actor who could bring that into it, who was believable as an FAS child. FAS is a huge problem – well, generations of FAS is what’s really going on in the aboriginal community.
IM: The cast was largely non-professional. How did you bring the first-timers up to speed for the camera?
NG: Weeks of rehearsals. It was the same on Hey, Happy! When you’re doing this low-budget, non-union thing, it affords you the opportunity to spend a long time in rehearsal hashing out the scenes. I felt it was my responsibility to get to a certain point beforehand so that when we’re shooting we could cover it in the given amount of days. So I set up three or four weeks of solid rehearsals, different scenes every night. There were also fight rehearsals; it was all very professional. And that’s when the kids wrote the rapping scenes in the film together, creating community out of this group of young actors.
Many of the kids are in the gangs depicted in the film, or have family, parents or brothers and sisters, who are involved in the criminal life. But I just said, “When you’re here you’re actors and we’re going to make a movie.” There was a lot of gang activity going on in the room, but I didn’t want to know about it – like on Hey, Happy!, when there was a lot of drugs going on among the actors. I didn’t want to know about that either. I thought, “I’ll be too annoyed if I know how high they are right now.” It was the same thing with the gangs.
For a film dealing with racism, one of the most interesting things was to see the Filipino gang and the native gang getting along so well off-camera, and the friendships that have endured since then. For me this film is all about border crossings. As a gay Jewish filmmaker, I’m not supposed to be on that side of the tracks, and trannies aren’t supposed to hang out with thugs, but the reality is that all these people do hang out together. I mean, I have cousins who are fully Jewish, who are very native gang-affiliated. Winnipeg is such a small place, you can’t really have those borders if you want to have an interesting life.
IM: What type of direction did you give Deena Fontaine? How did her character develop?
NG: It was a very intense rehearsing process, just me and her, night after night going through the script line by line. She’s a really careful study, and queen of the highlighter and Post-It note. We’d discuss every word. She has a sister who’s a real in-the-life type of party girl, nasty girl. We’d talk about her a lot: “How would she say that?”
Deena actually came to the audition with a lot of Mama Ceece already built in her mind. She used her kids for coaching. She has a ten-year-old son and a six-year-old daughter, and they helped her conceive Mama Ceece initially and did a really good job. I think her son could be an amazing director.
Mama Ceece has some of the funnier moments in the film, and it was hard to get that. She was good at playing the psychotic, but getting to the humour was a stretch. For the audition she came in and did that huge monologue by the fence, and she already had it there.
Deena was great. In many ways, I felt like I had to make the film for Deena to star in. That wasn’t the initial reason, of course. But right before Ed came to town, I was having pre-film jitters and thinking about bedrock issues. And at that point I decided I had to make this film so that Deena Fontaine – this unknown actor from Winnipeg, single mother of two in a housing project who wants to be in film – could play Mama Ceece. She has seen everything in the film before; she’s said as much.
By coincidence, the murder that broke the record for the highest number of homicides in Winnipeg per year, which was just last year, was of Deena’s stepfather.
IM: What informed your decision not to identify the various Indian characters by nation or mark?
NG: Well, you’ve got to be careful, because the Cree and Ojibway, the two tribes in Manitoba, don’t really like each other. And then a lot of the cast members were mixed-race, or métis.
When we tried to get some aboriginal funding for the film, we had to find out which native nations all these kids were from. A lot of them were adopted into white families and didn’t even know. And when Gloria speaks, that’s “Oji-Cree”, a hybrid language. Brokenhead is an Ojibway nation, not Cree, but Mama Ceece says to Stryker when they first meet, “New lil’ swampy Cree boy, straight from the res, looks like.” So she gets it wrong herself, right off. I thought going any further would have gotten us into trouble, so I decided to pull back and stay a bit more general.
Kyle comes from a reservation south of the city, the Roseau Reserve. Its chief is one of the most radically outspoken in all of Manitoba, in an Indian-power kind of way.
IM: The only figures of traditional Indian authority in the film, the roundtable in the community centre, are marginal, ineffectual and good only for a free lunch. How much of this is your own view?
NG: Well, one-eyed Gloria is around that table, and I think she is effectual in her way, with her two-by-four [by force].
The whole native bureaucracy is pretty hairy in Winnipeg. There’s actually a national native broadcaster based in Winnipeg, the Aboriginal People’s Television Network, and for the past five years millions of dollars have been pumped through our community, yet no native-produced features have gotten made for some reason. That’s what I’d call ineffectual. Why is Stryker the first feature film about the native gang issue? Why aren’t native people being given the cameras and money to do it? There’s a lot of corruption and backstabbing and infighting in native bureaucracies, while Indians on the North End and elsewhere are sniffing gasoline and stumbling through traffic.
Yeah, that scene is really the crux of it all. Intentions don’t always come through, but I was trying to show the social workers were talking about the native gang issue and other problems facing the native community – and the gangs are actually right there, in front of them, but they push the kids away, saying, “Take it outside.” As soon as they’re pushed outside, the police grab them, and then the social workers come running, screaming, “Brutality” and “Stop victimising our youth.”
Also, you know how they’re playing pool in the community centre? When they come outside afterward, the camera’s way up high, and the police cars come into the frame almost like pool cues, and the people come spilling out of the building like coloured balls.
IM: That high-angle shot of the community centre rhymes with the shot of Talia’s house as it burns near the end.
NG: Right, those are the moments that, for me, go back to the opening photomontage, where we’re looking at the history of natives and whites clashing in Manitoba. When we move up high, it’s with the notion that this is an impossible historical situation repeating itself over and over again since the white man’s arrival.
With Talia’s house it even gets very brown at that moment, in a palette that’s mostly cool, in a way that mirrors the sepia photography and woodcarvings from the credits. Suddenly it’s all still there.
IM: By contrast with the IP, the Asian Bomb Squad members signify more as middle-class than lumpen. Why do these Filipino boys need to form a gang in the first place?
NG: These Filipino gangsters have a lot more familial support in their real lives. I think everybody gets involved with gangs for a sense of family, brotherhood, communion of some kind.
My idea of the Asian Bomb Squad is that, after the allure of the fast cars and fast girls wears off, they will, like many recent Filipino arrivals in Winnipeg, quickly ascend to the middle class and leave the ghettos behind. But these Indian kids are ten generations in, and few of them can ascend that way. So I did want to highlight the differences there.
IM: Conventional family relations scarcely exist in the film. We see Ruby’s tense relationship with Jesse, and memorably the scene of ABS thug Orville denied refuge by his own mother.
NG: There’s this quote, I’m not sure if it’s from the surrealists, that I keep on the bulletin board over my computer: “Everything remains to be done, every means must be worth trying, in order to lay waste to the ideas of family, country, religion”. (4) I don’t really want to give airtime to those notions in my work. There’s enough support for “the family” out there already. I’m interested in new notions of family, chosen families and others, but not the ones we’ve been born with.
It’s funny to say that and then think of how nice it was for my sisters to come to my birthday screening at the MoMA, or how important the family that I was born into is to what I do in film. All my siblings have brain-drained into America: Pennsylvania, California; my brother’s in Ohio.
But I like the imagination these gangs require to create their own little families – Mama Ceece and her little family up above that abandoned building, and the glamour of Omar’s little Bat-cave and his little family. It’s great: new ideas, new possibilities.
IM: It’s also striking that the three mother figures – Orville’s mom, Talia and Mama Ceece – are inversions of the maternal, either derelict or threatening.
NG: Like cats that eat their own kittens. A lot of it is about sheer survival under capitalism, at a very fundamental level. All three mothers are just trying to survive. Talia’s an abusive foster mother, scamming the system, that’s what she has to do to get by. Orville’s mother has to push her son away because she has to keep her job as a maid. And as lovable as I think Mama Ceece is, she’s on the wrong track. She’s a crack dealer, but it’s what she has to do to survive.
IM: During the big scene in the strip bar, there’s an erotic current running between Mama Ceece and Omar, instigated by her appraising look at his disrobing, and culminating with his mysterious lick on her forehead.
NG: In creating the relationship between Ryan and Deena during rehearsals, we built a lot of backstory into there that you never see. We sort of decided there was probably a time when they were allies, maybe even lovers, before she was a lesbian – or maybe she was involved in a lot of abusive relationships with men – and she tried to kill him. That’s why she was in gaol and that’s what the scar on his neck was from. That’s why, when she’s about to kill him again at the end of the film, he says, “Get it right this time.” I know it’s not one of the easiest lines to understand, but it’s a kind of cycle-and-repeat. So yeah, there’s sexual tension there.
And there’s weird sexual tension throughout the whole movie. Someone came away from a screening the other day saying they got they sense everybody just wanted to fuck everybody else. That’s one of the greatest comments I’ve heard so far.
IM: The IP falls in behind Mama Ceece as an aggressively ‘out’ lesbian, yet we observe no loving bonds among the thugs, and infer that male homosexuality would be severely punished. What do you make of this contradiction?
NG: I imagine myself following in the footsteps of someone like Jean Genet who eroticises the criminal. This gang is real, and ever since its emergence I’ve found it incredibly charged. The main way the IP speaks out to the community at large in Winnipeg is through arson and pyromania. What could be more sexual?
I’m the IP’s biggest fan and I want to be their chronicler, their fabler. I hope that my own fervour for the gang comes through in the film. Out of respect to these young actors, who do live in very homophobic worlds, and probably will never get out of them, I wanted to make a film where everyone was really comfortable with how they were going to be represented on the screen.
In my gayer work so far – Hey, Happy!, 1919 – a lot of times I’ve found myself asking people to do stuff that they didn’t want to be a part of. Stryker was the first time I’d had a cast that was really excited to be in the movie for what it really was, and not their own misconstrued idea of what it was. They read the script, they knew what they’d be doing and what everyone else was going to be doing, and they were comfortable with it. It was great to let the cast live out the fantasy of being in a gang-war movie, about a real gang they’re intimately familiar with. And we didn’t have to totally homoeroticise the whole affair, beyond what gangs already are. The gang-war genre is homoerotic enough on its own; it’s doesn’t require too much gilding.
There’s that great moment in the Remand Centre when the guard says, “Stryker’s gonna get his ass stretched tonight.” That whole exchange was written by Omar Van Den Berg, who plays the guard, and my relationship with him is a big part of the inspiration for the film. He showed up for that scene with a new page of dialogue, and Devon Kilmuray, who plays Mo, agreed to do it right off the bat. I think everybody had just smoked a huge joint. If you look at Devon’s face in that scene, he looks really high. But that’s probably the most homoerotic moment in the film [between men], and I had nothing to do with it, other than looking at Omar’s new dialogue, and saying “Great, let’s do it!”
IM: Daisy makes a great impression throughout, but near the end has an odd reversal, exiting in a trim black outfit, suddenly all butched up with no trace of the trannie. Why this instability?
NG: I wanted to get that shock that it was a boy the whole time. Joseph’s so beautiful as both a man and a woman, I thought we had to show him both ways.
We’re now seeing this urban resurgence of native people, and coincident with that is the return of this two-spirited, transgendered native identity that’s exploding in Winnipeg. As soon as I started going downtown, the first thing I noticed were these native trannie hookers, and I think they’re the most fundamentally unique thing about Winnipeg. They’ve been there since the moment I was old enough to sneak into a gay bar. For me, they reach back across time to that earlier pre-colonial era, when there were two-spirited shamanic people. But it’s something you’ll never know about Winnipeg unless you’ve lived there, or hung out in crack houses downtown and glimpsed that native trannie world. I think a lot of people back in Winnipeg are uncomfortable with the way I’ve folded the trannie reality in with the native street gangs, although I haven’t gotten any static from any IP. In real life they do exist side by side. There is overlap; I’ve observed it.
Just this past winter, a native trannie named Divas disappeared, and was found frozen to death outside the city. She was obviously the victim of a “starlight tour”. This is a community that’s beaten by their johns, abused by the police and they don’t really have a voice. I felt it was part of my responsibility to sort of celebrate and hail them with the film. That’s why Daisy is in there.
IM: Let’s talk about the music, used so effectively to drive the film. How did you come to collaborate with HellNBack?
NG: It’s not a collaboration I imagined myself getting into, but that’s the beauty of making movies. This group of people wasn’t part of my day-to-day reality, but thanks to the film suddenly there I am, in a studio in St Boniface in Winnipeg with a bunch of heavy-set native guys in baseball caps, rapping until all hours of the night. I’d be watching the rough-cut at their house with their kids running around, they’d be over at my place, worlds are colliding.
I was editing the film at the exact same time HellNBack was recording. I’d come in and listen, especially with that opening/closing song, there are a lot of negotiations [with the image track]. But a lot of it was like, “Okay, this’ll work there, that’ll work there.” There was a bit of friction. I think it was harsh for him to hear his rapping over a male stripper; I think that was difficult. But I had to stand my ground. I wasn’t gonna put Divine or the Village People on during that scene, because in reality male strippers do strip to rap in gay bars now.
IM: Then how did it work for HellNBack in character as one of the thug kingpins, in this hothouse gay milieu?
NG: He had no problem with that! I asked him, “Do you know any good Indian slang for fudge-packers, instead of pole riders, which we’ve heard before?” He said, “Yeah, ‘spider smasher’.” It was great. I guess he feels more of a sense of ownership with his music than with his persona, his public face. Acting is new to him; that was his first time.
My editor Bruce Little and I were listening to a lot of L.A. hiphop during the editing. Dr Dre was our favourite. And if you listen, that stuff is so gay – even the anti-gay stuff is really gay! There are times when you even hear it in HellNBack’s lyrics; he’s sort of singing about male rape at certain points in the film. And you don’t have to go too far into this world before a trannie pops up, like in Eazy-E’s song, “the chick had a dick” and all that. I think these worlds are sandwiched together pretty tight. It’s just unspoken and we don’t make movies about it.
IM: How conscious were you of making a hiphop film?
NG: Not during the writing at all. Those moments when the IP breaks out into rap happened in rehearsal; they weren’t scripted. It happened very organically and I just responded to it.
The way I understand it, hiphop is the folk music of the people’s experience among a racially defined underclass. In Winnipeg, we don’t have ghettos of black people; the ghettos are full of native people. And this generation of native kids has been drawn to black hiphop culture because it speaks to them, more than the country music their parents listened to.
I knew it was gonna be a thugged-out film, so I was watching stuff like 8 Mile [Curtis Hanson, 2002] leading up to production. But I didn’t really know what we’d do for the music.
In the first week of rehearsals, one of the cast members had a flyer for an event that Karmen [Omeosoo] was MCing. So we went, and I talked with him afterwards. He’d just moved to Winnipeg – he’s from Alberta originally. Someone else was going to produce a hiphop soundtrack, but then Karmen was cast and we realised he’s actually a superstar. So, “Why doesn’t he do the soundtrack?” And next thing you knew we were fitting him with SeanJohn costumes and whatnot.
The most exciting thing for me with Karmen was just being able to say, “Here’s some cash, you have a ton of studio time, fly anybody you want in from across the country, you’re the man, we support you.”
My father always advocated that Stryker should be a musical. He didn’t specify hiphop, but from the beginning he said it should be more like West Side Story [Robert Wise, 1961]. And I thought, I don’t have the talent to write music or rhymes. I mean, I can play the piano, but that’s about it. I’m good at choosing music for films, but I’m not that musically inclined. But then it almost did become a musical, the way HellNBack’s lyrics respond to what’s happening on-screen. This was a big part of our debate. The male stripping scene was minor compared to my wanting him to comment more directly on the imagery in the movie. I’d give him long lists of the topics and themes, or ask him if we could be a bit more harsh, because we were burning a church down in this film. And he was like, “No, we need to come at it more sideways, not so on the nose.” And that often proved to be the right choice.
IM: When Omar leaves the Shanghai Club right after his humiliation by the thug overlords, he skids on some ice and you cut in for a close-up as he kicks a Winnipeg Free Press box with a picture on it of someone named Alison Gillmor. Who is she and what did she do to deserve a kick in the face?
NG: Yeah, who is she? Exactly. She doesn’t deserve any frame time, but I guess both Ed and I were annoyed with Alison that day because she’d just reviewed Ken Park rather disparagingly. He brought the film to the [Winnipeg Film Group] Cinematheque and introduced it. And her review of Hey, Happy! was lacklustre. It wasn’t positive or negative, it just didn’t try hard enough to do anything. She was a friend of mine until then; her husband is a good friend of my brother’s.
I just thought, “Well, if we’re getting criticised, I want to criticise back. Let’s make it a two-way street here.” I was curious about what happens when you kick back at a critic in a film? Nobody does; we’re all just supposed to grin and bear it.
In Canada, when you make films like mine, you do come in for a lot of hazing at the hands of critics. I think the national and local critics have a lot invested in what they see as “our cinema”, and where our national cinema should go. In most cases, it’s not in my direction. So I just wanted to give myself a bit of a platform to bash back.
So what happens? We got a devastating two-page spread against Stryker in the Free Press the day of its Winnipeg premiere. So it’s not pretty. I saw Alison shortly before the premiere and tried to make amends, saying, “Alison, I do like to put all my friends in my films, you know”. She laughed, but the audience roared at that moment, so I did get the last laugh. I mean, she’s been immortalised on film – that’s one thing I think a lot of critics really want and never get. I hope that now our relationship can grow to the next plateau.
But there are more levels to the Winnipeg Free Press kick than that. It’s a moment when the mechanisms of this gang-war film are really starting to turn. You’ve just met the thugs who run the North End, and I’m trying to do the whole marionette thing with the plot, and kick it into gear. I’m taking all these aspirations, introducing important political issues – genocide, thug life, cultural appropriation, plus the humour, my own erotic desires – and trying to mix it all up and put it into a gang-war genre, and it might not necessarily be working. And I’m frustrated, and I want to kick it.
It says “movies” in really big letters next to her face, and it’s not really Alison Gillmor I’m kicking, it’s just this notion of movies. We try to imbue, to funnel, so much into the movies and the movies can’t hold it. I was accused at the Venice Film Festival of throwing a lot of meat on the fire and then walking away from the barbecue. That’s my bad translation of one of the reviews, but in a way it’s true. It’s so hard to get your point across in cinema and I was trying to make a reference to that.
- Robert Enright, “Stryking While the Fire Is Hot”, Border Crossings, Vol. 23, No. 4, November 2004, p. 14.
- Greg Tate, “Hiphop Turns 30: Whatcha Celebratin’ For?”, The Village Voice, 5 January 2005, p. 32.
- This introductory essay is expanded and revised from a review in Gay City News, Vol. 4, No. 11, 17 March 2005, p. 20.
- André Breton, Manifestoes of Surrealism, translated by Richard Seaver and Helen Lane (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1969), p. 128; emphasis as per the original.