Babz Chula played Ben Ratner’s mother, his drug dealer and his mother-in-law. Now Ratner has written and directed a film inspired by Chula called Down River, which will screen as the gala film for the Spotlight on B.C., Oct. 5, as part of the Vancouver International Film Festival, which runs Sept. 26 to Oct. 11.
“Babz wasn’t a saint and she wasn’t a martyr,” Ratner said of the beloved local actress who died in 2010. “She was just very authentic and that’s what drew me to her initially and drew other people to her. She she told it like it was, she treated everybody the same, she cared about what she did.”
Down River is a stirring story of three young women teetering between creative breakthrough and personal breakdowns and their connection with the older woman they rely on for guidance, support and inspiration, the Chula-like character Pearl.
Helen Shaver (The Colour of Money, Desert Hearts) plays Pearl, who eventually leaves the three younger women to face the future on her own.
Ratner said Shaver built the character of Pearl from the ground up, that she’s too wise to impersonate Chula, who she’d met before.
But scenes of the women gathering around Pearl’s table for soup and support are true to life.
“Babz would dispense advice or a much-needed joint, occasionally, or a place to stay,” Ratner said. “She was no Mother Teresa, she liked the company. She needed someone to listen to her because she never stopped talking.”
Gabrielle Miller (Corner Gas, Call Me Fitz, Moving Day) plays an in-demand but insecure actress. Colleen Rennison (Da Vinci’s City Hall and lead singer of the band No Sinner) plays a gifted but self-destructive rock singer and Ratner’s real-life wife, Jennifer Spence (Continuum, Stargate Universe, The Killing) plays an abstract artist who questions her talent.
The actors wore Chula’s clothes, which stilled smelled of her rose oil, slipped on her bracelets and gathered around her kitchen table while Chula’s husband Larry Lynn shot the scenes.
Although Chula mentored Ratner, he chose a coven of women to be Pearl’s protégés. As an acting teacher of 18 years, he sees how much harder it is for women in the field.
“They’re very truly drawn characters in terms of what it’s like to be not just an artist, but to be a woman who’s passionate about something and has ambition, but hasn’t got it all figured out,” he said.
Ratner says this is no “chick flick.”
Chula’s old friends Jay Brazeau and Tom McBeath appear alongside Brian Markinson, who’s appeared in Mad Men.
“Hopefully you can empathize with the male characters and they’re not all villains, but they’re definitely another obstacle for the women to overcome,” Ratner said.
Chula is also the subject of a documentary called Chi that explores the art of dying and screens at VIFF.
Ratner says Down River is ultimately about making the most of your life.
“And about keeping on the sunny side of the street, and not in a way of to deny how dark life can be and how complex life can be, but to make the choice to find ways to do what you want to do, to do what you love to do, and to know that you just don’t have all the time in the world.”
More info at viff.org.