On Aug. 29, the National Film Board of Canada released more than 60 films that now can be viewed free of charge on nfb.ca. Among the new releases is Chi by Anne Wheeler (2013). The documentary follows Canadian actress Babz Chula (seen in the background of the photo) to Kerala, India, where she is to undergo treatment by an Ayurvedic healer in an effort to manage her six-year battle with cancer. The bare-bones Indian clinic at first disappoints, but Chula is uplifted, as her condition seemingly shows signs of improvement following treatment and introspection. Returning home, however, it is revealed that her cancer has advanced. Amazingly, the actress invites Wheeler to continue bearing witness to her journey into the unknown. Chula died on May 7, 2010.
Ben Ratner is a man of many talents with an impressive resumé – boxer, musician, artist, stand-up comedian, actor, writer, producer and director – a Jewish Renaissance man, but more importantly, he’s down-to-earth mensch. On a rainy Saturday afternoon, Ratner sat down with the Independent in his shabby chic east side Haven Studio to talk about his current film and theatre projects.
Hot off his success with his award-winning film Down River, which he wrote, produced and directed, he is presently at the helm of the Canadian première of Tommy Smith’s White Hot, which opened May 8 and runs until May 17 at the Shop Theatre at 125 East 2nd Ave.
Down River is a tribute to his late friend and mentor Babz Chula, a local actor who succumbed to cancer in 2010 at the age of 64. “Babz was ageless, she could bridge the gap between a kid in a sandbox and a wise old lady wrapped up in her shawl. She was this petite little thing, but so full of life and energy. In 2003, she played my mother in the first feature film I wrote and directed, Moving Malcolm. We were very close,” said Ratner.
The film is a poignant mix of humor and drama and locally shot. It tells the story of four women, who all live in the same West End apartment building, three 20-/30-somethings (Gabrielle Miller, Colleen Rennison and Jennifer Spence, Ratner’s real-life wife) and a middle-aged divorcée (Helen Shaver), each struggling with a personal crisis; the younger ones searching for their identities and life purpose and Pearl, the older character, providing guidance in the midst of battling with pancreatic cancer. The film has been described as “eschewing cliché in a thoughtful, well-acted look at several generations of women at a crossroads in their lives.”
As to the Jewish aspect of the film, Ratner pointed out, “We never actually say that Pearl is Jewish in the film, but the hints are there, the menorah in the window in her apartment and the memorial service, which we shot inside the Or Shalom Synagogue.”
Chula’s presence is felt more than just as inspiration for the subject matter of the film. Pearl wears some of Chula’s clothes in various scenes, items from her apartment are used as props, the three young women each wear one of her signature bracelets, and Spence wears her “Coke-bottle glasses.” The letter read at Pearl’s memorial service is an abridged version of what Ratner shared with attendees at Chula’s celebration of life. Ratner’s own large-scale abstract canvases are used as the art gallery props. The addition of these personal touches makes the film intimate and engaging.
Down River has garnered more accolades than Ratner imagined it would. “We had 99-percent positive reviews and a warm response from audiences, and I saw how my film could affect people. They come out of the theatre smiling but blowing their noses. This story is not about dying, it is about living without fear.” Audiences voted Down River Most Popular Canadian Film at the 2013 Vancouver International Film Festival and critics named it the Best B.C. Film of 2013. It has been nominated for 13 Leos and is presently making the rounds of the North American film festival circuit.
While Ratner is basking in the glow of the success of his cinematic opus, he is focusing his directing talents on the intimate world of black-box theatre with White Hot. The press release describes it as “a darkly comedic psycho-drama crammed into a love triangle between a troubled woman, her opportunistic husband and her trashed sister.” Ratner explained, “I am doing this play with my colleague, Loretta Walsh, who teaches with me in my acting studio. Her character is a great part for her terrific acting skills and brings the message that one should remain hopeful and strong and dignified no matter how brutal the circumstances. It is a dark play, unapologetically harsh, violent and sexually explicit. It is a risk for us to do the play. Not everyone is going to like it. But that is not going to stop us from going there.”
Ratner quoted playwright John Patrick Shandley (Doubt) in making his point: “Theatre is a safe place to do unsafe things that need to be done.” He continued, “ We could have done a crowd pleaser, but that is not what we are all about; this play will offend. However, I do not do theatre in order to aim for the middle. I need to do something to wake up this town and challenge the actors on a level that is not just about playing a part but finding some real humanity to it. There is no resolution at the end of this play, no answer, just an acceptance by the characters of the way things are.”
Not content with only personal success, Ratner is teaching future generations of actors in his studio. “Being a teacher is the most satisfying thing I have ever done. It enables me to have a purpose beyond my own gain. It allows me to give and not just take.”
And, there are plans for the future. “Long term, I will be teaching for the rest of my life. Short term, I want to make another film and reach bigger audiences. Down River was all about women. I am now working on another film that will be about men working through their mid-life crises.” In response to whether that topic is autobiographical (Ratner is 49), he laughed, “There’s always a bit of you in everything you write.”