“Acts of the Imagination” is a searing portrait of immigrant society in Vancouver, Canada. The main characters are Katya (Stephanie Hayes) and Jaroslaw (Billy Marchenski), a young Ukrainian brother and sister who exist at the margins of the east side of Vancouver. The other two main characters are Seuchong (Maki Nagisa), a Korean single mother who is Jaroslaw’s lover, and Aashir (Julian Samuel), a middle-aged Pakistani who becomes Katya’s lover. The film moves along as a series of set pieces involving this quartet. Originally written by screenwriter Michael Springate as a play, the movie retains the heavy emphasis on dialog but is not the least bit “stagy”. Even though it was obviously made on a shoestring, the director Carolyn Combs has not allowed this limitation to sacrifice anything visual. Using a hand-held digital camera, she has a impressive flair for turning Vancouver’s industrial semi-slums, gritty railroad bridges, and polluted river into strikingly poetic images.
Although the film is mostly about human relationships, the broader context is the troubled politics of the 20th century and the legacy of socialism in particular. Katya is haunted by the slaughter of Ukrainian peasants in the early 30s as well as the murder of her parents who were Ukrainian nationalists, so much so that her fragile psyche appears to be cracking at the seams as she speaks frequently with her dead mother-hence the act of the imagination that give the movie its title.
One day as she is relaxing on the banks of a Vancouver river, she meets Aashir who works as a janitor. When she learns that he is a socialist, she puts him on the defensive as might be expected given her hatred for the USSR. He fends off her attacks and adopts a patient, almost paternalistic, stance toward her. In keeping with her generally unstable demeanor, she seduces Aashir who soon learns that the younger woman’s sexual appetite is a double-edged sword. It appears to be her way of bending him to her will.
Initially, I felt put off by Katya who gives the audience all sorts of reasons to dislike her. However, once I began to become more familiar with her as a character, I found myself warming up. She is an apt symbol of the diminished expectations of Eastern Europeans and former Soviet republics today. Despite her nationalist aspirations, the Ukraine was not able to provide her and her brother with the means of survival. They came to Canada, traditionally a pole of attraction for Ukrainian immigrants as the U.S. is for Mexicans and Germany is for Turks.
Katya’s brother Jaroslaw tries to be as patient as he can with his troubled sister and has hopes for a better life with Seuchong, who he hopes to marry some day. But when he learns that she has taken Aashir as a lover, he loses control and behaves even more irrationally than his sister. You are left wondering whether there was an incestuous element in Katya and Jaroslaw’s relationship, but as is generally the case with this highly subtle script you are invited to consider multiple interpretations.
In an interview with efilmcritic.com, screenwriter Michael Springate explains the origins of “Acts of Imagination”:
Historically, the roots stem from my living among the Ukrainian Diaspora in Montreal, and my visit to Ukraine in 1992, after its declaration of independence from the Soviet Union, but also during the financial meltdown of that period. It was a time of paradox and contradiction, in a society where no-one was quite sure which part of the official history of their time was accurate or not.
I would suggest that it exactly such paradoxes and contradictions that lie at the heart of “Acts of Imagination” and give it its deep emotional power. The movie is available from Moktak Releasing and highly recommended for those who prefer intelligent and thought-provoking movies.