While in residence as a ResSupport Fellow at Akademie Schloss Solitude, Katherine Kennedy interviewed former fellow of the Akademie, Ann Marie Fleming, and actress Sandra Oh about their upcoming feature length animation WINDOW HORSES. Created by Fleming and starring/co-produced by Oh, the story follows Rosie Ming – a Canadian poet of Chinese and Persian heritage – as she journeys to Iran to take part in a poetry festival. This culturally rich film celebrates the beauty of diversity, and how it can be used to bring people together and affirm communities that are often under-represented.
Katherine Kennedy: WINDOW HORSES was originally conceptualized during your fellowship at Akademie Schloss Solitude. What did this residency do for your creative process, and how did your stay inspire the story?
Ann Marie Fleming: When I was in Solitude, it was a difficult time for me. I felt very isolated. I was one of the only residents not to be living in Europe, and would find myself alone for days at a time in the winter. I was there as a filmmaker, but I was in the writer’s wing – I met an exiled poet from China, a film festival director who had parents from different countries that both spoke different languages, another poet who would only speak his own language; and here I was, trying desperately to learn German. I truly understood how much language is culture. It was also in Germany that I was introduced to the poetry of Rumi through adaptations by the American poet Coleman Barks.
As an immigrant to Canada, I had always felt like an outsider, but when I lived in Germany, I felt truly Canadian for the first time. Suffice to say, why people leave and why people come was heavy on my mind. [The founding director of Akademie Schloss Solitude] Herr Joly, himself, spoke of the Jewish diaspora in Germany growing, especially through the arrival of Russian, Ukrainian or Belorussian Jews. Around the time of my fellowship, there was also discussion surrounding the returning of the German Jewish diaspora. This idea of belonging had an impact on me, and I actually base a character in WINDOW HORSES on Herr Joly.
I have been working with these same themes for almost two decades since then. I did two installations in Solitude about the unspoken stories of women, particularly mixed race immigrants, and about the metaphysics of Sufi poetry juxataposed against the rituals of womanhood: woman as daughter, lover, bride, wife, ex-wife and mother. That being said, the original script forWINDOW HORSES was conceived as a live action film: a father-son relationship(!) about the German diaspora, particularly to North America after the Second World War, and the alienation of families.
I wrote the song WINDOW HORSES while at Solitude – it is in the book I also wrote during my fellowship, Breathless: the book of Anne, which is about my oldest friend who had killed herself. I performed it with my guitar out by the horses one magical candlelit night. I wish I had a picture. I spent a lot of time looking out the window at those horses. Literally.
K.K.: In addition to the intersection of cultures, Solitude can foster openness to collaboration and working with kindred spirits, even beyond the fellowship period. Can you and Sandra please tell me how you came to work together, and for Sandra, what about this particular project struck a chord with you?
A.M.F.: I first met Sandra back in the early/mid 90’s, when we were supposed to make a feature film together, Dog Days, which was a kind of ghost story about a Chinese immigrant family in the wilds of British Columbia… coincidentally, with a missing father and a dead mother. That project fell through, and I was invited to attend Akademie Schloss Solitude. It’s what I did instead of the feature, I guess. Sandra and I kept in contact over the years, but she went on to a very successful and busy career in the U.S. and, after many years of development, I reached out recently to see if she was available and interested in playing the role of Rosie Ming, and she said yes. More than that, she loved the project and wanted to come on board as a producer.
Sandra Oh: There are several reasons why I fell in love with this project – firstly, I’ve known Ann Marie for years now, and we’ve been trying to work together off and on for all that time. I love [Ann Marie’s avatar] Stickgirl and all she represents, and to voice her in such a heartfelt and deep emotional story was something I knew I had to do. WINDOW HORSES hits all the things that are important to me – it’s pro girl, pro tolerance, pro diversity and PRO ART!
K.K.: The style and animation that we have seen so far is fantastic, and I think Stickgirl is perfectly positioned as the leading lady because she has the ability to be autobiographical yet universal through her simplicity and charm. Tell me more about how Ann Marie, Sandra and Stickgirl as creator, actress and avatar will bring the film’s protagonist Rosie Ming to life.
A.M.F.: It’s a big step for me. Stickgirl (who plays Rosie Ming) has been my avatar since the 80’s and she has always had my voice. So giving her to Sandra to play is an act of trust and respect. It’s like a Bunraku, really, there are three people bringing Rosie Ming to life… me, through my words and original character, Kevin Langdale through his drawings, and Sandra Oh through her voice.
K.K.: Something else I find compelling and relatable about WINDOW HORSES is that the narrative transcends specific cultures. For example, I don’t have personal ties to China, Canada or Iran, but as a multi-racial woman from the Caribbean – an intrinsically hybrid and culturally complex region – the protagonist Rosie Ming’s journey of discovery, exchange and understanding still resounds with me. Can you both share your thoughts about the cathartic effect a film like this could have across the world’s many cultures and diasporas?
A.M.F.: Omigod, Katherine. This is exactly what you are supposed to take from the story. In its specificity is its universality. This is a story that takes place in Iran, and is steeped in that culture, but is about everybody’s stories.
S.O.: My nieces are mixed race, and it’s very important to me that they see themselves represented in this society. It cannot be understated how important it is for people who do not see themselves reflected, either at all or negatively on a regular basis, to know that there is a place for them to exist, truthfully and in a whole, complex way.
A.M.F.: WINDOW HORSES speaks from the place of all people: immigrants, people who are of mixed heritage, people who know nothing about their culture, people who have never left their village and are deeply embedded in their histories. It’s about what we share, and how important it IS to share. It’s about listening to each other’s stories. In WINDOW HORSES, it is poetry that bridges those gaps between generations and cultures. It is the same moon in the Tang Dynasty poem Quiet Night Thought by Li Bai that we see when we look up at the sky and miss our own home.
K.K.: “Distances and differences keep us apart, and we forget to remind each other of our own stories.”
This is a line from the beautiful graphic memoir The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam, an epic, cross-cultural tale you unearthed about your great-grandfather. This statement stood out to me in relation to WINDOW HORSES because of the emphasis on hearing the stories of others, and using memories and experiences as cultural unifiers rather than dividers. The Indiegogo campaign offers forums for us to share our stories, poetry and music, creating a sense of community among those invested in the project. How has the public reaction been to this participatory approach?
A.M.F.: The most amazing thing about the Indiegogo campaign has been the response we have received from the public… all over the world. They say exactly what you say…that the story IS them, or the story TOUCHES them. And there have been people who just want to support us, who have been doing outreach in their communities, trying to spread the word, looking forward to the film. It’s amazing. Of course, we still are trying to raise more money, that’s the goal, but we’ve been rewarded in so many ways. There is another line fromThe Magical Life of Long Tack Sam which is continued in WINDOW HORSES: “history is relatives.” You know that it’s true.