Friday, May 31, 2013

From the Empirical Archives: The World of Actress and Director Tara Browne

The World of Actress and Director Tara Browne
Richard Jones
Originally published in the November 2012 issue of Empirical

To the ears of Canadian filmmaker Tara Browne, “diversity” signifies considerably more than a feel-good word. It sums up every facet of her life, both the good days as well as the downright ugly ones. With seven ethnic streams jockeying for position in her DNA–Austrian, British, Scottish, Hawaiian, Philippine, Spanish, Chinese–she could hardly avoid the mantle of diversity.

Browne grew up in a charming middle class neighborhood in Vancouver, British Columbia. The neighbors all looked nice. However, a person’s façade of gentility does not necessarily guarantee an inner core of civility.

“I stood out–which I hated,” Browne recalls. A little blonde, blue-eyed girl once said to her, “Your hair is brown, your name is Browne and your skin’s brown too.” Another time, neighborhood punks in a car chased Browne and her brother and sister. “They tried to scare us–and they certainly did,” she admits.

Browne’s parents were not spared from violence. When the family went camping, people threw rocks at her parents’ tent. Ethnic hostility did not cease with rocks. “When I was a little girl, about seven, I witnessed a neighbor shout out racist remarks to my father,” she recalls. “He thought my father was the gardener.” After some more angry words, the neighbor and her father began throwing punches at each other.

Later in her life, Browne’s varied background became a negative factor when she auditioned for a role. “I have a difficult time fitting into the mold of casting,” she says. “I’m not Asian enough, not white enough, not Spanish enough. A casting director even told me that to my face. He is a friend and he told me [that’s] the way the business is.” All these elements began shaping her concept of diversity.

Perhaps that is why she refuses to be bundled into someone’s little box of ethnic clichés.

“I am many things,” says Browne with formidable justification. “I don’t like to be put in one category.” Consider her degree in criminology which preceded her studies in the performing arts. Browne’s father told her the only way she would gain respect was to get an education or make a lot of money by ascending a corporate ladder or becoming a lawyer or a doctor. Browne says, “I kind of bypassed all that and became an artist. I took the harder route. What can I say? I like challenges!”

But first, she spent four years in Simon Fraser’s criminology program, where she sought to understand “how social and political life is shaped through power.” If one considers criminology and art unrelated, one would do well to dust off Alexander Pope’s pithiest aphorism: “The proper study of Mankind is Man.” That includes not only saints and sinners, but also the bulk of humankind harboring both personas within their crania.

On the path of the digital film

In 2005 she began studying method acting at Methodica Acting Studio in Vancouver, receiving a diploma in 2007. From there, she found a platform at Vancouver’s Pocket Stage that specialized in cutting-edge playwrights. Canada’s film world began taking notice of the versatile young woman on Vancouver’s stages, offering Browne a role in The Ovum Factor by Marvin L. Zimmerman. Some have called this venture to the Amazon an “eco thriller” crossed with indigenous respect for protecting wildlife systems.

Then Europe called. Browne headed across the Atlantic to star as the “Asian Girl” in a NIVEA beauty commercial that aired across Europe. While in Hamburg she directed an all-German crew and starred in The Audition, a short film inspired by Jane Martin’s play. She managed this neat trick although she does not speak German.

Back in Canada, she set up residence in Toronto in 2010. After careful thought, Browne decided that a film career offered the most efficacious vehicle to support her vision. Thus she launched her own “independent platform of artistic vision.” Named Diversity Face Films, it was in no way modeled on any Hollywood studio steeped in tent-pole mentality. She defined her goal as one “to create human stories of diversity that help generate greater integration, inclusiveness and understanding. We seek to break down differences and to help build greater social harmony.”

To ensure that the world would take her seriously, Browne has emphasized state-of-the-art quality. She described her goal as becoming “a new independent film platform that produces high-quality, visually beautiful, thought-provoking films dedicated to diversity. That includes [diversity in] actors, stories, and crews. We are here to promote diverse faces, diverse stories and diverse film crews from around the world.”

Ethnic equity remains a far off goal in the film industry. “When you go into a video store, look at all the covers on the DVDs and movie posters,” she suggests. “Then count how many ethnic [minorities] are playing the leads. . . . Then go outside the store and walk around your neighborhood [and] see if this is equal representation.”

“North America is largely made up of immigrants and yet when you turn on a TV it seems that the actors are mainly white with a [few] African Americans [to] make up for all other races. . . . I’m not saying all of Hollywood is racist. I think there are several factors involved. There is just not a lot of encouragement for ethnic people in the arts from their families. . . . That’s why it’s important to focus on your inner self . . .your unique self. Stop trying to fit in.”

Browne encourages minorities to stay true to themselves. “In the end, we should all focus inwards. That’s where the power is.. . .” Who else can create an authentic minority viewpoint? “Ethnic people have a tremendous opportunity to tell their story. It’s just that being an artist is not promoted very much amongst immigrant families.”

Diversity implies that there are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of ways that an individual might approach any problem. To take advantage of diversity, her crew on every project includes members from a wide number of backgrounds. This not only offers many alternatives to consider, but more creative solutions. On a broader palette, this could serve as a model to bring better understanding and broader paths to a more just world.

Following the Picasso dictum “Art is a lie that tells the truth,” Browne produced The Poacher, a western unlike any other. The theme demonstrates that women can take on challenges as well as men. The script casts the mother as Native American and the father as white. “I purposely wanted to have a mixed-race family. I wanted to show that such families did in fact occur during these times in the Wild West,” she says. Browne called for a number of rarely encountered techniques. Set in the backwoods of Langley, British Columbia, the film uses several devices to create an 1890s flavor, including sets with elaborate period pieces.

The black and white photography and the silent film opening add an antique patina– until the first gunshot knocks us out of our seats. By then we are primed to accept Browne as a hard-riding, sharp-shooting woman. Not surprisingly, in real life Browne is both.

In addition to creating a different story, Browne put special importance on achieving “high production value.” To this end, she worked with a 60 man crew. The experienced professional team included photographer Pieter Stathis (some 40 movies on his credits) and Italian set designer Luca Carati, who has worked his magic in Europe, Asia, and North America. “I had a beautiful art director and a wonderful crew,” Browne says. “The film had an estimated value of $178,000, but I did it on a shoestring budget of $2,000 because I pulled favors. Period.”

In Elinor Svoboda’s recent gender bending fiction film, It Remains Unsaid, Browne starred as the principal antagonist. Composed by twin musicians Tegan and Sara, this Toronto production featured Browne as a torn and confused lesbian “coming out” in early adulthood. 

Currently Browne has accepted the lead role in Delerium, a Gothic horror film by Allen Legacy. Unlike most groan-and-gore epics, this one has a strong point of view. It will address breaking a cycle of domestic abuse, certainly an all-too-common practice in the world.

In the film, she says, “I had to do a fight stunt scene. [In that scene] I felt the pain of a woman in an abusive relationship. It was so painful. I thought, this is what I have to do, for those women stuck in a violent domestic relationship. For some reason I feel like I have a responsibility for this world and it’s just the beginning I think. I just wish I could do more.”

Meanwhile, Browne wrote a “semi-autobiographical” script inspired by the life of Buffy Sainte-Marie. The Grammy-winning Native American folk singer gained fame for her war protest song “Universal Soldier.” Browne calls Sainte-Marie “a truly remarkable woman who continues to make positive changes in the world through her music.”

Four decades later, Browne aims to “bring forth a message of peace and activism . . . for everyone to see. We plan to produce an award winning short which brings forth Buffy’s message of peace.” Browne is just the right person for the project. “I have been researching her life since 2008,” she says. Here, Browne’s ten years of training as a classical pianist and a knack for vocals came into play. This film marks a new level for Browne. “We are being backed by a well-known production company in Toronto,” she says. “This is my first well-financed production.” She plans to use this as a base for a future project. “From this film we are spawning the feature film.”

Here and there, after college, Browne absorbed uncountable examples of abuse by megalomaniac power mongers from classic literature through tomorrow morning’s newspaper. Even more inflammatory were first hand accounts related to her by the victims of persecution who had fled to Canada to avoid death or torture. The melding of Browne’s skills–and an encounter with a refugee from Burma (now Myanmar)–led her to write, produce, and direct I Met a Man from Burma in 2011. The award-winning film highlights the experiences of freedom fighter Ler Wah Lo Bo. This character-driven documentary short explores the oldest on-going conflict in the world. The narrative is expressed through the eyes of Ler Wah Lo Bo, a Burmese refugee. As a former revolutionary fighter for the Karen National Liberation he turned activist. The film touches on the current state of Burma with a focus on the use of child soldiers.

A number of festivals have accepted this documentary, including the Berlin International Film Festival, Berlinale Film Cloud, where it was chosen out of a thousand entries. It also appeared at the Vancouver International Film Reel Causes program, Toronto’s Hot Docs. Most recently, The Female Eye Film Festival in Toronto added I Met a Man from Burma to its screenings.

The film caught the attention of SHAW TV. An interview with Browne soon followed, reaching an estimated three million viewers. Soon, local newspapers and magazines contacted her, requesting interviews. Browne sent the Canadian immigration minister a copy of the film. About two months later, the minister called Ler Wah on May 6, 2012, to say that an upgrade from refugee status to full citizenship would soon take place. A film can generate more virtues than simply “putting butts in the buckets.” The proud filmmaker smiles the smile of satisfaction with this humanitarian act.

“I feel this is my biggest accomplishment so far in my life,” she says.

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