Following the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami in Southeast Asia, Halifax-based documentary filmmaker Rohan Fernando travelled to his native home of Sri Lanka to document the aftermath of the disaster. But while filming overseas, there was one interview subject he couldn't shake from his mind upon returning to Canada.
"There was one particular woman I met who had lost her two sons, her husband, and her parents. She was completely alone. Everyone who meant anything to her had been taken away in a split second," Fernando says. "Just to try to understand what her experiences would be like after something like that, it stuck with me."
The result is Snow, the premiere feature-length drama by Fernando after a career spanning more than 10 years as a documentary filmmaker.
The film follows Parvati, a young Sri Lankan who loses her entire family and immigrates to Canada following the tragedy. The film is inspired in part by Fernando's family's experience moving to Lower Sackville as a boy and the culture shock they faced upon arrival.
But while growing up in Nova Scotia, Fernando wasn't always interested in becoming a filmmaker. He began as a painter, working part-time at a video store to pay the bills, until he became increasingly disenfranchised in the world of fine art and more interested in the VHS tapes he stocked part-time. He decided to enroll at the Vancouver Film School.
But after countless documentaries, the restrictiveness of the genre caused Fernando to become restless. "I found there was this ethical boundary in terms of intimacy in documentary," he says. "In documentaries, you're projecting your thoughts on someone else's emotions. I wanted to be able to interpret those emotions for myself, and drama seems the only way you can do that."
But that doesn't mean his experience didn't carry over to the production of Snow. To save on costs, Fernando operated the sole camera on set, giving the film a cinema verite style and allowing him to shoot continuously on the fly without the restrictiveness of blocking each shot.
Due to tight funds, rather than import established Sri Lankan actors, he cast predominantly non-actors from around the provinces. "I was comfortable with using non-actors from my documentary background, so I decided to cast people based on their life experiences and then workshop the script with them so the characters were molded a little better to their personalities."
One such "non-actor" was local singer ---and recent ECMA winner---Ria Mae, who plays a homeless troubadour with a shadowy past.
"She wasn't the character that I had really envisioned for that specific role. You know, that character is a bit self-absorbed and Ria is a very generous person, so she was kind of playing against cast," Fernando says. "But she had the experience of being on the road and living out of a suitcase, and she also played songs that felt really relevant to the film."
The filmmaker is currently shopping the script to a psychological thriller and has another drama in the works.
"Documentaries will always be my passion and I'll probably go back to it one day, but for now, this is the place I want to concentrate my energy," Fernando says. "I'm pretty excited about the medium."