Witty Women: Interview with Hannah Cheesman and Marni Van Dyk


In the heart of Montmartre, Paris’ most famous waitress, Amélie Poulin, is on a mission to transform the lives of her neighbours in Amélie, screening August 5th at Christie Pits Film Festival. The film is paired with two Toronto-set short films that, like Amélie, portray women armed with wit and determination. Cheese is a comedy set in Kensington Market’s Global Cheese shop, where Jaime finds the courage to stand up for herself in a showdown against an old-guard cheesemaker. The lead in Molly McGlynn’s I Am Not a Weird Person also prepares for a showdown, though one that takes place entirely in her own head in the aftermath of an aggressive street encounter. This dark comedy, like Amélie, explores the power of imagination to deal with difficult reality. We talked to director of Cheese, Hannah Cheesman and writer/star of I Am Not A Weird Person Marni Van Dyk about telling female stories, their favourite cinematic cities, and what inspires them about Toronto.

Christie Pits Film Festival is the signature project of Toronto Outdoor Picture Show (TOPS), which presents its Cinematic Cities programme all summer long at parks across the city.

TOPS: This year's film programme is titled Cinematic Cities, a theme that draws bridges between vibrant and complex cities around the world while highlighting the people who make each of these cities unique. Do you have a favourite movie that captures the spirit of a city?

Hannah Cheesman (HC): Paris, je t'aime comes to mind, the anthology shorts-turned-feature film. It's got so many perspectives on a city that has so many sides to it. And ya, j'aime Paris, so this film is seductive and funny and strange and all the good things.

 Marni Van Dyk (MVD): Well, this question immediately makes you think of the big cinema cities like New York or Paris. There are so many great films that bring those cities alive— in Paris specifically, I’d say I love its depiction in Agnes Varda’s Cleo from 5 to 7 or Martin Provost’s biopic Violette about the author Violette Leduc. There is a scene in the latter I think of often where Violette marches angrily across the city holding a huge jittering bouquet of yellow flowers. But, I’ve always loved an underdog character, and I love films that highlight underdog cinema cities, so I’ll say Fargo in Fargo, Santiago in A Fantastic Woman, Coyacan and Mexico City in Frida, and Bucharest in Toni Erdmann.

TOPS: Such great picks! Is there a city that you dream of capturing on camera?

HC: Not pandering here: Toronto! I have a TV show I'm developing that is set in Toronto, and I so so think it's time for us to cast the city of Toronto as itself because we've got a vibrant and growing, cosmopolitan city here. By showcasing it, I really believe we'll help to develop Toronto into the “world class city” that it is really turning into.

MVD: Toronto is also a bit of an underdog city as it’s normally not itself, but a stand in for American cities or an “anywhere” city, so it’s what I’m aiming to capture on camera next. Molly and I portrayed the west end of the city in I Am Not Weird Person, opening on a very distinct tableau of Spadina and Dundas as a streetcar pulls through, while the apartment interiors and exteriors were set at Ossington and Dundas. I want to go deeper into the city now in the two feature projects I’m currently working on. They both portray sides of the city, and residents of the city, we haven't seen on screen really at all. Their neighbourhoods are both very personal- one is in the Don Valley East and Cabbagetown where I spent much of the last 10 years, while the other is set in the Toronto suburbs where I grew up.

TOPS: Marni, although it was made four years ago, your film about coping with harassment feels immediate and timely. What message did you want to address with I Am Not A Weird Person?

MVD: It’s interesting to rewatch a film as it ages. When I wrote it and we shot it, the emphasis was really on this character who was lonely and isolated and had trouble connecting with the world, though she had the desire. Really, what the film was about at its core is fear of failure and the anxiety of trying to connect. The altercation on the street was the trigger that sent her spiralling back into her reclusiveness, but the film itself was never about harassment specifically. But now, in 2018, the conversations we’re having publicly and privately can colour a viewing of the film, which I think is really interesting.

TOPS: Hannah, your film, like Amélie, is about a quirky protagonist asserting her place in the world. What do you think of this pairing?  

HC: Like wine with cheese, baby! To be honest, I haven't seen Amélie in years - so it will be exciting to see how the two fit together. But it's fantastic to be paired with such a lauded and well-loved, iconic film.


TOPS: Marni, similarly to I Am Not a Weird Person, Amélie tells a woman's story by sharing her internal dialogue. What inspired you to write your film in that way?

MVD: I Am Not A Weird Person is a story about a character who feels out of control, trying to take back control of her world, so it was important she controlled and thus told her story to the audience. That fourth wall has an isolating effect, so it was her challenge to break through it in order to break free.

TOPS: For you, what makes Toronto a cinematic city? Is there something special about Toronto that you draw inspiration from?

HC: The various neighbourhoods, the various communities (there are so many I know so little about!), the food, but more than anything it's the underground dance and DJ scene. I've found space with my fellow dance/music-loving peers that feels liberated and alive and exciting.

MVD: Toronto is incredibly cinematic. When travelling from borough to borough it can feel like you're moving through entirely different worlds. Beyond landscapes, in each borough you’ll meet all kinds of people with extraordinary stories. Some of these stories are being told in literature and to a certain extent in theatre, but we’re just barely scratching the surface in cinema right now. However, that makes me hopeful. There is a tremendous reservoir and such opportunity. With so many exciting emerging filmmakers coming up in the city at the moment, I look forward to seeing how they tell Toronto’s stories on screen.


Cheese and I Am Not A Weird Person screen alongside Amélie, on August 5th at Christie Pits Film Festival.