A Hole To The Heart: An Interview with Filmmaker Martin Edralin and Star Ken Harrower

Toronto–Unbeknownst to me at the time, but the interview I had planned on the first Friday afternoon of the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival was going to have an unofficial theme; determination.

Coincidentally, during the discussion, we so happened to draw upon one of my favourite myths from Greek mythology, the myth of Sisyphus. The story of Sisyphus tells of the plight of a King, who is punished for his deceit, and is tasked eternally to push a boulder up a hill, only to have the boulder roll back down by day’s end. Hole may not be a cinematic interpretation of this myth by any means, but the process of how it was made just might be.  

The first instance of determination was my own; a determination to get to an interview I had arranged for, on time!

Parking in a rush and running to the Luma Lounge inside the TIFF Bell Lightbox, beads of sweat running down my forehead, I had finally arrived. As I approached the table where director Martin Edralin and star Ken Harrower were sitting, their vibes seemed to be relaxed, clashing greatly against my sudden hyper-hysterical attempt to arrive on-time. Enjoying their drinks, as if the twenty minutes extra it took me to get there didn’t matter, I shook their hands along with their publicist and sat down, organizing myself, also trying to keep my professional dignity intact.

As I placed all my necessary tools on the table, I soon realized that my tardiness wasn’t going to be the only thing compromising my professional dignity, seeing as I had left my pen (and backup pen) in the car; a journalist’s greatest fear. Like a dog with no bone, and having left my laptop at home because of my obsession with conducting interviews the old school way (by means of notepad and pen), actor Ken Harrower couldn’t help but notice. Graciously pulling out a pen from the little side-slot of his wheelchair, the generous actor handed me a ballpoint on only one condition, “You can borrow mine, but I want it back!” Cutting my tension and nerves immediately, I gladly accepted his offer as we shared a laugh.

If you’re wondering who Ken Harrower is, he is a professional actor and painter who has found his way into his first ever screen role in Martin Edralin’s short, Hole. This brings us to our second example of determination, the determination of finding a voice.

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Harrower has a phenomenal story to tell, being a disabled man with AMC (Arthrogryposis Multiplex Congenita). With a childhood filled with intensive hospital care, to his quick journey to manhood and independence, Harrower is the epitome of reaching for your goals, and finally attaining them. Although his backstory was only briefly touched upon in the interview, he did discuss how he prepared for his role as Billy. “My experiences of the past helped me draw on old emotions I had to deal with over the years; but this is by no means a story of my life.”

Hole is a Canadian short film that was recently featured at the Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland before it made its way to the Short Cuts Canada programme at TIFF. The film is an intimate and initially foreboding little gem that stars Harrower as Billy, a gay disabled man living independently in the city of Toronto, searching for intimacy.

The film takes the liberty of offering many affecting and deep emotional commentaries; about the mundane, the pursuit of independence and the longing for human contact. It connects with audiences in feverishly haunting and raw, but mostly fantastic ways. From its initial viewing, I was nothing less than captivated.

The film is held together on-screen by Harrower and commanded off-screen by its director. The main protagonist may be disabled, yet speaking to director Edralin (who is not disabled) he explains feeling a deeper resemblance to Billy than Harrower, despite Harrower’s obvious physical similarities. “It’s really an existential film for me, dealing with the mundaneness of everyday life with tiny moments of genuine human connections or beautiful life experiences. In a way, my life, emotionally, is closer to Billy’s than Ken’s is. I’ve always felt detached for the world, like I don’t fit in. Ken on the other hand, is extremely social and optimistic although at times he also experiences the kind of loneliness and isolation portrayed in the film.”

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There was a point in the middle of the interview where Edralin urged me to not give away the ending and a very powerful image in which the film was initially founded on. Admittedly, this off the record talk prompted quite a fear in me while I wrote this article.

For one, I wasn’t quite sure if the protagonist Billy’s homosexuality was a plot point that needed to be held in secrecy, especially since TIFF doesn’t include that fact in their programme description for the film. Luckily for me, famed Toronto Critic and personal icon Liam Lacey recently featured Hole in his on-going TIFF Diary-serieshighlighting gay-themed films at the festival this year, which cleared my air of doubt.

Although it was quite intimidating knowing one of your journalistic icons featured an article for a film in which you are interviewing the filmmakers, I may have had the upper hand on Mr.Lacey, seeing how I was able to conduct an interview on these talented filmmakers before him. I am almost positive that sometime in the future, both of these men will be highly sought after for many interviews to come.

Quickly shifting gears, the talk of Lacey brought us to the theme of homosexuality within the disabled community and how its showcased in the film. Ken, an openly gay disabled man living in Toronto, met Edralin on a Ontario government production,  and, as Edralin remembered, showed up on on set with a pride flag on the back of his wheelchair.

A pioneer in life as well as in his craft, Harrower has never seemed to be ashamed of his sexual orientation or his disability, and why should he be?

As I delved deeper into each man’s goal for the film, I was surprised to find stark differences in what the film meant speaking to each of them. It became quite clear where their differences distinguished their intentions for the film, and where their similarities aligned for a very complete film overall.

“For me, the main message of the film is that disabled people are sexual human beings just like anyone else. And like sexual human beings, we are as horny as anybody else. We are all human, and humans have a desire to be loved, and to have intimacy with another person. Hopefully, this film will help society understand this and make clear that disabled people are sexual human beings too”, explains Harrower.

For Edralin, he comments on how this film was his quest, or his artistic logic of getting the boulder to stay at the top of that hill–a feat Sisyphus never was fortunate enough to attain. “It’s not that I had to speak about sexuality and disability. Ken was the spark, but the story came organically years later while I was setting out to write a film before leaving my full-time job at the time. I was interested in the small moments we experience with real human connection. Otherwise, life for me is very matter-of-fact; daily routines and obligations. But I think we are constantly searching for these moments to escape the routines to make our life more fulfilling.”

Working at the Canadian Film Centre (CFC) as an in-house production coordinator, Hole became Edralin’s little portal to acceptance, manhood, and a voice to his creativity that he had almost given up on. Edralin goes on to explain, “A grant deadline was coming up and I thought it would be so great to have a project lined up before leaving the job. I pushed myself, staying up late at night and up early in the mornings, writing both the script and grant application.”

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In addition to being just a moment for the individuals involved, Hole digs deep to prove that this story is so much more. Hole is a voice for people who have no voice; a calling. We recalled other films that dealt with disability and the desire of homosexual love, coming up with examples that fulfilled the former, but finding none that authentically showcased both. With examples like The Sessions, Rust & Bone and a Sundance winning short Benny Goes Boom, that Edralin suggested I watch, Ken cleared the air on the topic of disabled homosexual films, “I know of NONE.”

It’s only appropriate that a man who has been breaking the rules since birth, break the rules one more time to deliver an honest account of a piece of society that could be described as a micro-minority.

Edralin, on the other hand, found deeper connections to the film’s themes that he could only see in hindsight. “I can identify with gay culture, as being sort of an outsider culture. Growing up, I felt the same way about hip-hop and black culture in the 1980’s and 90’s. I always felt different. I never thought I fit anywhere. And with the gay culture and this idea of hiding something, and having to ‘come out’ just to be who you are, I guess I have felt like that creatively. I wasn’t a creative person growing up and never thought about making a film. I started making films intuitively and it took a long time to learn how I wanted to communicate within this medium and what exactly I wanted to say.”

Thinking that his creative form of expression would come from prose rather than film, Edralin, a 34 year-old Torontonian living in the Roncesvalles area, continues by saying that, “I found cinema late in life and it felt like this language; this medium I can actually speak in.”

Like any adversary, the film and its dynamic duo had an uphill battle from the start. Ken, who narrowly got the part as Billy, admits that Edralin had someone younger in mind for the role. “I didn’t even intend on casting him. I was going to audition him, but was looking for an actor who was almost half his age. When we had the audition, he was clearly the best choice” admits Edralin.

Watching Hole, I couldn’t picture any other actor in the role, disabled or not. Harrower slays every gaze, every facial movement and transcends Billy to a level of cinematic prestige.

“Just to let you know, I have not seen the movie”, confesses the actor while discussing the film further. In a natural laughter, I see the seriousness in his face and realize his honesty.

In utter and complete disbelief of this man’s faith in his director, I at that very moment, decided to break one of my sacred rules. Instead of having the interview published the next day, I chose to write this article only after seeing an audience reaction to it: it turns out I waited for all three reactions of each showing at the fest to finish the article.

In an attempt to really understand how the audience soaked up the commentaries of the film and the emotions circulating, this interview ended up being one with a few days investment.

Unexpectedly, the investment was well-worth the wait.

Thanks to the overwhelming emotional response everyone had with the film and its infectious palpable energy running deeply within each and every spectator, Hole has become a miracle film that has graciously changed my appreciation for short films. To say the least, I am truly honoured to be a part of it.

The finale of Sisyphus’ parable is structured so that we gain a sense of compassion for the poor King. Although he was condemned to suffer for all of eternity, perhaps we would still like to think that no matter the circumstance, he can still find a glimmer of hope to live a happy (after)life. Like Edralin, or Harrower, these daily struggles they have faced throughout their lives have brought them to this point; a moment where, as Edralin explained earlier, makes all the dullness worth it.

“Even with my parents now, instead of hinting I should get a real job or that there is no future in art, they tell me how proud they are of me, saying ‘we will support you no matter what’. And now I feel like this is MY big coming out!”

In many ways, this is a big coming out for all of us involved– myself as a journalist, Edralin as an artist, and Harrower as a man who is capable of doing anything he sets his mind to. By the time the interview ended, we all came out of a hole; each our own void filled with our greatest fears as well as our highest aspirations for life.

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