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Clip from All My Puny Sorrows // courtesy CIFF

CIFF 2021: All My Puny Sorrows

By Rachneet Randhawa, November 3 2021—

All My Puny Sorrows was a special presentation and drama film featured at Calgary International Film Festival (CIFF) 2021 centring around the book adaption and bestseller All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews. It’s a story about two sisters, Elfrieda — or Elf, a world renewed pianist who lives a glamorous, wealthy and happily married life — and Yolandi — or Yoli, a broke divorcee and struggling writer who tends to attract the wrong men in her search for love and lives with her teenage daughter. Above all else, Yoli is desperately trying to keep her older sister Elf alive and give her reason to live life.

The film highlights key themes from the novel like inherited and intergenerational trauma, suicide contagion and the empathy burden that Elf took on as the eldest sibling taking after their suicidal father. The Gauntlet sat down for an interview with the film’s director, Michael McGowan, to learn more. 

As an international bestselling novel, there is usually the added pressure of translating the storytelling onto the big screen. The theme of assisted suicide can be a controversial and delicate subject, which is what the plot is based around.

“It’s an interesting examination of somebody who wants to die and the reasons they want to and based on Miriam’s own lived experience,” says McGowan. 

McGowan emphasized this and found this to be true, but took on the challenge wholeheartedly. 

”There are three really great roles — the two sisters and the mother — and I thought that we could cast really well and punch above our weight,” says McGowan. “The most challenging aspect of making the film was the time crunch as they shot the entirety of the film in 20 days. So [we] had to be incredibly prepared and locked into the shots they were going to do and really plan out how they were going to cover the scenes, and potentially getting shut down during the shooting period, especially due to COVID protocols.” 

As for on-screen chemistry, Alison Pill, who plays Yoli, and Sarah Gadon, who plays Elf, meshed well together and were great partners performing the script to the best of their ability. Based on how McGowan originally envisioned the film inspired by the book it turned out better than he expected. 

“I couldn’t be happier,” he says. “I mean you forget the numerous drafts and the editing and everything else. But I think the film really played beautifully. Mariam was extremely happy with the way it turned out. I think that’s the highest compliment.”

Although McGowan is now a veteran in the film industry, his directing career wasn’t always this way. There was a lot of trial and error. 

“I started as a journalist, as a carpenter, as a teacher [and] I did a bunch of things, but I got into filmmaking through the writing,” says McGowan. “And basically, I made this little indie film because I wrote a screenplay and somebody said, we should make it.” 

As for what youth and students can do to get more involved in filmmaking, McGowan suggested that creating stories with what you have around is a great place to start. 

“Now more than ever, the barriers to entry are almost zero,” he says. “You have an iPhone, you can be a filmmakers. [Steven] Soderbergh proved that, so instead of waiting for ‘gatekeepers’ to allow you, just go ahead and make stuff and see if there’s an audience for it.”

All My Puny Sorrows had its Alberta premiere at CIFF 2021 that ran from Sept. 22 to Oct. 2. Be sure to grab this great read and check out the film.

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