Original-Cin Q&A: Highway 61's Valerie Buhagiar writes a new chapter of challenging films

There is much to admire and muse about in Valerie Buhagiar’s ethereal, out-there latest film, It’s Hard to be Human

The film opens on the beat of emergency lights, pulsatingly illuminating bodies strewn across a damp road. A fatal accident has occurred, although how and why and who are not yet revealed.  

From there Buhagiar introduces Agnes (Nina Gilmour), a young waif-like teen caught in what seems to be scenes from her past and her present, living in a vortex between life and death. Agnes wakes to find herself in a pristine but (save for a few wandering souls and one dog) an abandoned hospital. The film weaves an intriguing narrative imagining what it’s like, as the title suggests, to be human in a world where God, if he exists, is an elusive parent and the Virgin Mary is a medicated out-patient.     

Nina Gilmour in a hospital/holding-area between life and death after a car accident in It’s Hard to be Human

Nina Gilmour in a hospital/holding-area between life and death after a car accident in It’s Hard to be Human

Buhagiar is forever cemented with Canadian cinema and the rock ‘n’ roll road films of Bruce McDonald. She portrayed memorable, independent and robust lead characters in Roadkill (1989) and Highway 61 (1991). Buhagiar became fascinated with the process of filmmaking and creating her own stories, beginning in 1993 with the short film, The Passion of Rita Camilleri (based on the tragic death of a close friend)

Now, mere days after releasing her second feature film, It’s Hard to Be Human, Buhagiar leaves for Malta to begin shooting a third feature. 

Valerie talked to Original-Cin’s Thom Ernst about the root of her passion for filmmaking and It’s Hard to be Human.

ORIGINAL-CIN: Why the leap from actor to director? 

VALERIE BUHAGIAR: I’ve always wanted to make things. Since Grade Four, I’ve been writing plays and performing them with my sister and her friends. And then as an adult, I did the acting thing. I acted in a couple of films, and I liked it, and I started to see more cinema and thought, “I’d like to create that.” 

“I’d just finished Roadkill, and I wrote this story based on my best friend, Diane, who had died in a fire. At the time, I thought it might be a play and someone said, ‘Wow, this is pretty cinematic. Maybe you should make it into a film.’ 

“I didn’t know how to write a script. And then I did Highway 61. So, I learned more about how to make a film because we never had trailers. We were always on set, so you could observe. And then I dove right in. A friend help me write the screenplay, and that eventually became the film The Passion of Rita Camilleri, and it did extremely well. 

“I was shocked. And I didn’t think I was going to make more films. I just wanted to tell that story through cinema.  But people started saying, ‘So, what are you going to make next?’ Then I made One Day I Stood Still, and an eleven-minute piece about a woman who wants to jump onto the subway tracks. And that film also did well. 

“And that’s when I decided I wanted to become a filmmaker. It wasn’t because I didn’t have work as an actor. It was just about wanting to make things.”

OC: And then you wrote and made The Anniversary (about a woman who carries on with anniversary dinner celebrations, though it appears her husband has gone AWOL)

BUHAGIAR: “Actually, no. I wrote It’s Hard to be Human before The Anniversary.

OC: Then why do The Anniversary first?

BUHAGIAR: “Because I couldn’t get the funding for It’s Hard to be Human. And I couldn’t do it for the $15,000 I did with The Anniversary. Before The Anniversary, I was looking for a play that I could make into a film. 

“Someone suggested looking at A Dream Play by Strindberg. That line, “It’s hard to be human,” was in that play. And it just vibrated in me - the whole idea of God and his daughter; that play is huge. There are castles and the ocean, and I tried to write it, and it was hard. 

Valerie Buhagiar (photo torontofilmcritics.com)

Valerie Buhagiar (photo torontofilmcritics.com)

“Just about every grant option rejected it, and in my frustration, I sat at my kitchen table and wrote The Anniversary in three days. I liked what I had there. I called Maurizio Trezzi, who was a production assistant on a film I acted in, and said, ‘Hey, do you want to help me make this? Co-produce? We’re just going to do Indiegogo.’ We got $15,000. People worked for free.”

OC: So, The Anniversary got made first, while It’s Hard to be Human had to wait.

BUHAGIAR: “Right. So, this is what happened: I was at my shrink. My shrink said, ‘We’re done.’ And I said, ‘What!?’ and she said, ‘We’re done. You don’t have to come here anymore.’ 

“And I said, ‘No. I have to come here. There’s no one else I could tell these stories to.’ And for some reason that sparked a memory which I won’t go into specifics about here. But it involved being in church with my father.  And so now, with his new memory, I returned to It’s Hard to be Human and took a more personal approach to the story.”   

OC: And this revised version felt right.

BUHAGIAR: It felt right.  I cast Nina Gilmore as Agnes. I’ve seen her in a lot of plays. Then I went looking for a producer. It was hard because it was such little money; about $60,000. Nina suggested her partner Johnny Hockin so he stepped in as producer and we plowed through and made it.

OC:  Why do you not appear in your own films?

BUHAGIAR: “It’s a question I’ve never really bothered asking myself. What I’ve just recently discovered is that It’s about ego. I’ve always heard in my family, ‘Stop showing-off.’ And showing-off was just playing, for me.

“But what I heard was, ‘Stop showing-off. You don’t want attention,’ and so I withdrew because you don’t want to show-off, you want to be humble. Which is funny, because then I became a puppeteer which you are performing behind a doll, and no one sees you.

“And so to write something for me to act in didn’t feel right to me. But I would never write that way anyway; I write the film I want to see. It’s not the film I want to see myself in. And then, once the script is ready, I think of myself in the role and I think, ‘(Gulp)…so and so could do it better.’”

OC:  Is part of that an interest in seeing how someone else might interpret your work?

BUHAGIAR: “Absolutely. And that’s a great thing because really, as I’m writing, I’m acting. Right? Acting came first. So, when you write a script, you are going through the motions of acting.

“And then when you bring someone else into the role, and the two of you are figuring it out, it’s only better.  Unless the person is not incompatible or doesn’t want to take any direction, but I’ve never had that. That’s because I take a lot of time (casting).  I pretty much stalk actors. I go to see theatre all the time. I love dragging people off the stage and onto my films.”

OC: Agnes is your central character in It’s Hard to be Human. Tell us about Agnes.

BUHAGIAR: “ Young girl aching for her father. Agnes is 18 or 19 years old. I think that’s an exciting time for people. It’s just a different stage of life. Teenagers—although this is likely true of people in general—when there is a void, we fill that void with something else. It could be alcohol, narcotics, sex, bad behavior; we go to the wrong place just to fill up the gap. 

“I think teenagers do that more than others, especially if there isn’t a parent there. They don’t feel safe at home, and I mean ‘safe’ as in someone to lean on.  

“In It’s Hard to be Human, Agnes’ mom is living to die, basically.  She’s self-medicating because her husband is absent.  You can take that as our Virgin Mary who never seems to have a voice. And then Agnes’ father is just too busy.  So, she’s a child, a young woman needing support. Now I’m finding, as a parent that teenagers need this more than the little guys.”

OC:  Where does this empathy for Agnes as a teen come from? Memories of your own teen years, or from being the mother of a teenager? 

BUHAGIAR: “Well, that’s really an interesting question. Initially my past. Then it branches out to humanity and the absence of spiritual life, although I hate using that word because it’s so big and vague but, something more. Something that makes us feel safe. 

“Actually, my son said this to me recently, he said ‘Mom, we all want to be seen. We all want to be watched.’ That’s what it feels like when no one’s around, and you’re alone going through the motions of life. It’s tough. We’re all pretty lonely, I think.”

OC: Is that’s what makes it so hard to be human, the loneliness?

BUHAGIAR: “I’m not going to give a definitive answer on that, but I think it’s a big part of it. Again, that void I was talking about is the lack of connection. If you’re not connecting with anyone or anything—it could be nature or whatever your spiritual life is—if you’re not connecting, there’s a void, and that’s lonely.”   

It’s Hard to be Human plays until April 25 at Imagine Theatres in Toronto, with screenings on the film festival channel highballtv.com to follow.