Hamsters are small, fluffy, cute-faced rodents that some people choose to live with. They sleep during the day, scurry to nowhere on exercise wheels at night, and rarely make it to their third birthdays. Hamsters are not epic.
With one possible exception.
Copain is a sweet-natured gay hamster from Paris. He falls in love with a sleek-furred Canadian hamster named Henry, and saves him from imprisonment. The two move into a luxury condo and pursue their dreams of becoming a chef (Copain) and a filmmaker (Henry). All is well with the couple until, on the eve of Henry’s big premier, Copain is suddenly deported back to France and the two must fight to save their love.
Cue background music, dramatic lighting, a barrage of special effects and the most painstakingly perfect set design a hamster could wish for. This is Copain de paix, the second short film by writer/director/producer Jacob Owens and award-winning art director Kevin Pitman.
Copain de Paris, the pair’s first collaboration, screened at the Atlantic Film Festival’s PS Atlantic Shorts Gala last year to a sold-out audience. The film, which first introduces Copain (played by himself) and Henry (played by Rosa), was a hit, and won the AFF award for Excellence in Art Direction, for which Pitman received $500 cash and Owens received $10,000 in services from PowerPost Production. The two pooled their winnings to create Copain de paix (peace), “the final journey of a gay hamster’s quest for love,” screening Tuesday at the Oxford Theatre at 7pm.
“We started the concept right after the film festival last year,” says Owens, a 23-year-old NSCC Screen Arts grad of 2004. “It’s been a year from start to finish.”
The year began with months of meticulous set building for Pitman, followed in February by weeks of shooting war scenes at Owens’s house in the evenings (Copain de paix was shot on HDV by Paul McCurdy, while Owens shot Copain de Paris by himself on Digital 8), and capped off with three full production days to capture the rest of the film in early March. Then Owens was off to England to do “nothing,” he says, laughing. “I went there and I was going to work, but for four months all I did was work on my film full time.”
His summer of post-production now complete, Owens is back in town and excited for the festival. “I wanted the world premier to be here, I don’t think about the rest of the world yet.” That said, Owens is approaching this year armed with the experience of having his last film tour the world—“Miami film festival asked for , and once it went there it went to places like Australia and all over the US and now it’s going to Italy,” says Owens. “It’s been a huge success and we didn’t even do any promotion for it.” Owens recently signed a Canadian distribution contract for Copain de Paris with Iron Rod Motion Pictures, and says, “I’ll definitely promote this one a lot more.”
As for Copain, the world’s (or at least Atlantic Canada’s) best-loved teddy bear hamster, he’s living out his twilight months in New Glasgow with Owens’ parents. “He lives an amazing life,” says Owens. “He has a double cage—two connecting cages—he gets treats all the time, eats whatever he wants.” But, unlike in the movies, he’s never fallen in love.
In fact, Henry and Copain got along “not at all,” and Owens had to compose every shot with the knowledge that “you can’t ever put them together at the same time…any hamsters fight if put together.” So much for the paix of the title, but, like all good films, that’s where strong acting comes in.
In Copain’s case, acting mostly involved eating, and he sweetly chews his way from scene to scene, at times joyous, at times wracked with sadness and desperation. Henry was also a professional eater, whether working in his edit suite or devouring the deportation notice posted to his condo door. “Henry ate it by accident, and then we just wrote it in the script,” says Owens. “It doesn’t really flow with the story because the whole thing’s very, very serious, but everybody loves it.”
This sense of seriousness is critical to understanding Owens’ directorial purpose. Unlike his star, Owens’ films are not intended to be read as cute fluff. They go deeper than that, embedding serious issues in sweet stories photographed in beautifully crafted settings. With hamsters.
“Right after the festival, after it played, we were really excited by the audience response because we didn’t think everyone was going to laugh as much as they did, ’cause I really make these films serious and I don’t expect anyone to laugh,” says Owens. “Especially the second one, it’s more of a sad film, and I don’t want them to think it’s like a kid’s movie, because it has adult issues with it.”
Specifically, “I think the most important thing is the whole gay thing,” says Owens. “It’s a gay film, but it really could be a straight film as well, it makes no difference. We wanted to make that because we were very, very sick of gay films being very, very stereotypical, so we wanted to make a film that was gay, but it really had nothing to do with the lifestyle, it was just two hamsters, boy hamsters, loving each other. And that’s the whole reason why I made both of the films.
“Copain for peace— theme of the movie. They just want to be together, right, and all these things happen to them to tear them apart. They just want to be two little gay hamsters that live normal lives.”
What could be more epically simple than that?
Copain de paix, as part of the PS Atlantic Shorts Gala, September 19, Oxford Theatre, 7pm, $10. Watch the trailer at www.owensproductions.com If you are attending the gala screening, see if you can spot Copain’s pet hamster on the big screen.