Wheeler's Movies Have Heart

Canadian director's World War II family drama was a highlight of Filmfest DC

THERE are films like ``Tender Mercies,'' ``Norma Rae,'' and ``Driving Miss Daisy'' that tug at your heart and won't let go. Canadian director Anne Wheeler's ``Bye Bye Blues,'' which had its United States premi`ere at the Filmfest DC here, is one of those heart-tuggers, about people so real they could live down the street. The lethal violence, R- and X-rated eroticism, and drugs that are prevalent in many Hollywood films today are missing from this one about a family torn apart by World War II.

Director Wheeler knew the story well before she shot a frame of film: Her own mother had lived it - braving a harsh life in Canada, raising her children, and waiting for her husband's return from a Japanese prison camp.

``Bye Bye Blues,'' which won three ``Genie'' awards (Canadian Oscars), is one of 57 feature films screened at the fourth annual Filmfest DC, which ended last night.

Earlier Wheeler plopped into a chair in her room at a midtown hotel to talk about how she made ``Bye Bye Blues.'' ``Yes, it's a family story.'' she admits, one which she wrote from her own memories and imagination.

Her funny, poignant romance about life in a windswept Canadian town has the authentic ring of a documentary, though it is a feature film. The film's plot is really her mother's half of ``War Story,'' a docudrama based on her father's World War II diaries as a prisoner-of-war doctor in a Japanese prison.

``He was captured in Singapore and kept in a Taiwanese copper mine,'' she says, before he was sent home after the war. They were separated for six years, from the time the young Canadian doctor, adventurously serving with the Indian Medical Service in 1941, was sent ``to places unknown'' during the war, and his wife and children were shipped home to Canada. It took her four months, via boat trip around Cape Horn and a train trip from New York to Alberta, Canada, traveling with three sons still in diapers.

Wheeler says her own grandparents were very different, more understanding than the ones in her film. Its heroine, Daisy Cooper, returns home to a bleak life - short on food, money, and jobs because of the war - in a tiny Canadian town that looks like a northern Wyeth painting. The British government sends no money, and her letters to her husband are returned.

Desperate to support her young son and baby girl, she takes a job playing piano with a band at local Saturday-night dances for soldiers going off to war. She turns singer in the band, ``The Stardusters,'' which becomes such a hit it goes on tour. Daisy falls in love with the band's trombone player, Max, but refuses to marry him, remaining faithful to the husband who may or may not survive the war. The film's ending is a bittersweet surprise.

Wheeler shot her film in the blistering heat of India and the frozen north of Canada for under $4 million. She says she never quizzed her mother about her memories or feelings. And her father never spoke of the war. Her mother had played piano with a Canadian band during the war's separation. ``When I told my mother I was going to make a film based on her story, she said, `You know, dear, you'll have to spice it up a bit. It was a long, dry story waiting for six years to find out whether your father was alive or not.' So she gave me full liberty to spice it up, which I did with trombone players and such.

Daisy and Max ``became very, very close, but in my mind I feel that she stays with her commitment [to her marriage], and that's what makes her special. I had a great deal of pressure to put a love scene in between the two of them, and I refused to do it. I went as far as I was willing to go. I had this true story in mind, and I knew the structure of it.''

But she did interview many women separated from their husbands by the war, ``much as a documentary filmmaker would do, and I wove those stories into the fabric of the story I knew.''

``Bye Bye Blues'' was shot, like all Wheeler's films, in Western Canada, partly in Edmonton, where she lives with her family, and partly in Drum Hill (southern Alberta) and the tiny village of Rowley, population 15.

``Some of the criticism of the film was that people like this don't exist, at least people of this moral fabric,'' says Wheeler. But when they were shooting in Rowley at Christmas, one woman asked her how she was getting her Christmas baking done for her children. Wheeler admitted it was difficult, and the woman laughed, then gave her two shopping bags full of Christmas baking.

``Bye Bye Blues'' stars Rebecca Jenkins as Daisy, in a luminous performance; Michael Ontkean as Teddy, her charming husband; and Luke Reilly as the tough but vulnerable trombone player, Max Gramley. Although it has yet to open nationally, it's making the film festival circuit (the Houston Film Festival is next), and it's already swept Canada.

Wheeler's first film, ``Great Grand Mother,'' was a prize-winning documentary on prairie women. Among her feature films are the award-winning ``Loyalties,'' and ``Cowboys Don't Cry.''

Her next film, ``Angel Square,'' is a project her husband, Garth Hendren, who develops curriculums for the provincial government, helped her find. ``Angel Square,'' a mystery/comedy starring Ned Beatty, has just been shot for release next fall.

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