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Themes - Film

Anne Wheeler

Photograph of Anne Wheeler

(1946- )
Feature Film Director

Anne Wheeler
Source


One of Canada's most acclaimed directors, Anne Wheeler has always sought to portray the lives of ordinary people and, in particular, ordinary women in her films. Wheeler tells authentic women's stories in a realistic context using her own life experience to guide her. For, as she states, "I can't make films from any other perspective than a woman's perspective. That's who I am and proud of it." (Cummins, p. 22)

Anne Wheeler was born on September 23, 1946 in Edmonton, Alberta, the daughter of Benjamin Morrill and Nell Rose (Pawsey) Wheeler. She was the youngest in the family and the only girl. As a child, she was determined to catch up with her three older brothers, regardless of whether the pursuit was athletic or intellectual. This early honed drive would serve her well in her future career.

Anne Wheeler's journey into the world of film directing was a circuitous one. After high school, Wheeler studied mathematics at the University of Alberta — chiefly, she explains, because there were no labs and no papers. With fewer demands on her time, Wheeler was able to pursue her interest in theatre and music and to finance her education by singing in night clubs and performing in children's theatre during summer vacations.

After her graduation in 1967 with a Bachelor of Science in Mathematics, Wheeler briefly worked as a computer programmer before heading off on an extended trip to Europe and the Middle East, something that Wheeler describes as being pretty standard for a 21-year-old graduating woman at the time. Upon her return home, Wheeler decided to focus on her love of music and theatre by studying to become a music teacher. As she explains, "I would have loved to have taken drama at that time. I was from such a conservative background, it was just unheard of to do such a thing, so I went into music and became a high school music teacher because music teachers were acceptable." (Evans, p. 15)

Wheeler obtained her teaching certificate in music in 1969. Soon, however, driven by an urge to do more travelling, she took off on a year-long trip through the Middle East and Africa. Returning to Canada in 1971, she enrolled in a master's program in music education at the University of Alberta. It was there that her filmmaking career began. She and a group of nine male friends at the university decided that they wanted to make films about the West and formed Film West Associates, an independent film production cooperative and ad hoc film school. None of them knew the first thing about filmmaking, but this did not deter them, for, as Wheeler explains, "It was the early 70s and a time when everybody felt they could do anything, and so we joined up and made a collective. It was a terrific way to learn how to make films because none of us even knew how to load a camera. We knew nothing." (Cole and Dale, p. 242) Wheeler and her fellow members of the collective took turns being a director, a sound person and camera person, thus honing Wheeler's skills in the rudiments of all aspects of film production. Wheeler and friends subsequently won an Opportunity for Youth grant to make commercials for the Canadian Dental Association. Thus, Wheeler's first film, made in 1971, was a one-minute humorous commercial entitled "How to Brush Your Teeth", featuring operatic voices and baroque-styled music. These commercials were a success and within a year Film West Associates was winning awards for its documentaries and doing work for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC).

After five years and about twenty short films, the collective began to break up and Anne Wheeler left to become a freelance director, mostly for the National Film Board (NFB). In 1976, she helped establish the Board's North West Centre in Edmonton.

Among the documentaries and short dramas that Wheeler made for the NFB, the most notable are Great Grandmother (1975), a frontier woman's tale inspired by her own grandmother's journey to Western Canada, which she wrote and directed, and A War Story (1981), which proved to be a watershed in her career. In A War Story, Wheeler chronicled the Second World War experiences of her father, Dr. Ben Wheeler, who had been a medical officer attached to the British garrison in Singapore and spent several years in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. This film garnered Wheeler many international awards, among them the Blue Ribbon Award at the American Film Festival (1983).

It was during her years at the NFB that Anne Wheeler married Garth Hendren and in 1979 she gave birth to twin boys, Quincy and Morgan.

Anne Wheeler's working relationship with the NFB continued until the early 1980s when the Board decided to cut all directors on staff. Wheeler had initially been hired as a producer/director, but was expected to drop her directing role in order to keep her position. Wheeler decided that it was an opportune moment to move on, and with Anne Frank, a colleague from her CBC days, she developed a script, A Change of Heart (1983) that was produced as a CBC movie. Frank and Wheeler shared an interest in women's roles in society, and A Change of Heart reflected this as it told the story of a farm family in transition from the viewpoint of a middle-aged woman who must decide whether to abide with tradition or face a new life on her own. A Change of Heart is significant to Wheeler's career in that it marked her complete transition to dramatic work. Even though her earlier work in film was in information and documentaries, drama had always been a key element in her films, and films such as Great Grandmother and A War Story had extended dramatized passages. With her move to drama, Anne Wheeler began to draw on her own interests and sensibilities as the fodder for her movies.

In 1985, Anne Wheeler made Loyalties, her first dramatic feature film, which she co-wrote with Sharon Riis, a Saskatchewan writer. Considered by many to be her finest piece of work, Loyalties is set in Lac la Biche, a small town in Northern Alberta and focuses on the relationship between a Métis woman and an upper-middle-class English woman who comes to live there with her doctor husband under mysterious circumstances. The film is dramatically and emotionally charged and emphasizes the power of female friendship in the face of suffering and adversity, a recurring theme in many of Wheeler's films. Loyalties received positive reviews, and Wheeler was praised for her willingness to grapple with serious issues. The film garnered many awards at international film festivals in the United States, Portugal and France.

Wheeler's next success came with the film Bye Bye Blues (1989). Wheeler both directed and wrote the screenplay that she adapted from the experiences of her parents during the Second World War. The film tells the story of Daisy Cooper, a young wife and mother who returns to her prairie home after her husband is posted to Singapore. When her husband is captured by the Japanese, Daisy becomes a singer with a travelling dance band in order to support her family and begins to assert herself as a fully realized individual. Sensitive, bittersweet and infused with the light of the prairie landscape, Bye Bye Blues won international acclaim and box office success and garnered three Genie awards. As one critic noted, "Accented by gorgeous shots of the rolling Alberta landscape, you can feel Wheeler's love for the land through the lens. A real beauty with good tunes, Bye Bye Blues is an important part of the Canadian film canon." (Monk, p. 279)

In 1990, wanting to expand her horizons, Anne Wheeler shocked the Alberta entertainment industry by moving to Saltspring Island in British Columbia. This move took her closer to Vancouver's rapidly growing production industry and she became more involved in directing series for television and developing television movies and miniseries.

In 1992, Wheeler was contracted to direct a two-hour television adaptation of Margaret Laurence's novel The Diviners. Wheeler and the entire production crew were understandably nervous about putting the work of one of the great icons of Canadian literature on film, but, fortunately, Wheeler had forged a friendship with Laurence before the novelist's death in 1987.

In 1985, Wheeler had written and directed a half-hour television special based on Laurence's short story "To Set Our House in Order", about a young girl's passage into adulthood. After viewing the drama, Laurence had placed a midnight call to Wheeler to tell her that she loved the work. "We were on the phone for three hours that night," recalled Wheeler, "We talked about that film, and its main character, and what Margaret does with characters." (Dwyer, p. 51)

Wheeler said that what she learned from Laurence that night, and in subsequent conversations, influenced her work on The Diviners, particularly her feelings for the book's protagonist, Morag Gunn. "I can relate to her inside and out," Wheeler said. "For me, she's not an object but an extension of myself and other women." (Dwyer, p. 51) Wheeler stated that, although a man could have directed The Diviners, she felt that her own experience as a woman helped her to bring depth to the film. The Diviners was a good fit for Wheeler, as it dealt with themes that were common to many of her earlier films: themes of place, time, dislocation, love, loss and death, and, most importantly, women dealing with their own independence and self-expression. The Diviners was well received and won both a Gemini for Best Television Movie and a Genie for Best Movie of the Week.

Wheeler's next project was another movie for television, The War between Us (1994). The film deals with Japanese-Canadian internment camps in the interior of British Columbia during the Second World War. It focuses on the relationship between a white Canadian woman living in the town where the camp is built and a Japanese-Canadian woman whose family is stripped of its livelihood and possessions and forced to live in the camp. Wheeler's trademark themes once again came into play in this successful film that received a number of international awards — among them, the Red Cross Award for Humanity.

At this point in her career, Anne Wheeler was one of Canada's foremost directors, yet she still had difficulty financing feature films, a problem inherent to the Canadian film industry. As Wheeler noted, "It's always hard to find money to make a movie. It's even harder when there isn't a tradition of giving film-makers money, as there is in the U.S." (Monk, p. 85)

With financing an ever-present problem, television continued to provide an outlet for Wheeler's creative talents. In the mid-1990s she directed a number of television movies for the CBC, among them Diana Kilmury: Teamster (1996) and The Sleep Room (1997). In 1998, she directed the first three episodes of Da Vinci's Inquest, setting the style for this ongoing successful CBC series. She also directed several episodes of another well-received CBC series, North of 60.

In two of her recent feature films, Anne Wheeler returned to her first love of comedy and gave a humorous twist to sometimes controversial subject matter. Better than Chocolate (1998) is a romantic comedy involving a lesbian couple, which won numerous awards in international gay film festivals and has crossed over to the "straight" community, where it gained a large audience. Suddenly Naked (2001) tells the quirky tale of an older, successful woman who falls in love with a much younger man, against her better judgment.

Anne Wheeler's most recent film is Betrayed (2003), which she wrote and directed for CBC television. Inspired by recent events in Canada and abroad, it chronicles a fictional small town suffering from an outbreak of severe water contamination. Wheeler continues to work in television, most recently directing the CBC series This is Wonderland (2003-2004).

With a career spanning over 30 years, Anne Wheeler is one of the most consistent and successful directors working in mainstream film and television drama in Canada. Now established in Vancouver, Wheeler remains a dynamic force within the Canadian film industry, where she has witnessed and participated in the evolution of a Canadian cinematic presence at home and internationally. Renowned for her generosity, she spends a great deal of time mentoring young Canadian filmmakers and bringing new people into the film industry.

For her contribution to Canadian film, Anne Wheeler has received honorary doctorates from six Canadian universities and a host of filmmaking awards and is an Officer of the Order of Canada (1995). Perhaps, as one critic notes, "Wheeler's most important contribution to Canadian narrative cinema is her sheer will and tenacity in bringing authentic Canadian women's stories to the big screen. Wheeler has accomplished this consistently in her films, and she has done so with a social conscience." (Cummins, p. 22)

Resources

Anne Wheeler. www.annewheeler.com (accessed March 25, 2004).

"Anne Wheeler: Screenwriter, Producer and Director." Contemporary Canadian Biographies [computer file]. Scarborough, Ontario: Gale Canada, ©1999.

Beard, William. "A Cinema Canada Interview with Loyalties' Director Anne Wheeler." Cinema Canada. No. 134 (October 1986), p. 24-28.

Cole, Janis and Holly Dale. Calling the Shots: Profiles of Women Filmmakers. Kingston, Ontario: Quarry Press, 1993.

Cummins, Kathleen. "Northern Divas and Romantic Catalysts: The Films of Anne Wheeler." Take One. Vol. 10, no. 36 (March 2002), p. 22-30.

Dwyer, Victor. "Company of Women: A Largely Female Crew Shoots a Canadian Classic." Maclean's. Vol. 105, no. 24 (June 15, 1992), p. 51-52.

Evans, Jane. "Filmmakers Don't Cry? An Interview with Anne Wheeler." NeWest Review. Vol. 15, no. 3 (February/March 1990), p. 15-18.

Jenish, D'Arcy, and Brian Willer. "Turning Homespun Ideas into Truth on Screen: Anne Wheeler (1989 Maclean's honour roll)." Maclean's. Vol. 102, no. 52 (December 25, 1989), p. 24-25.

Koller, Katherine. "Anne Wheeler: The Woman behind the Camera." NeWest Review. Vol. 12, no. 8 (April 1987), p. 18.

Longfellow, Brenda. "Gender, Landscape and Colonial Allegories in The Far Shore, Loyalties and Mouvements du désir." In Gendering the Nation: Canadian Women's Cinema. Edited by Kay Armitage, et al. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999, p. 165-182.

Lord, Susan. "States of Emergency in the Films of Anne Wheeler." In North of Everything: English-Canadian Cinema since 1980. Edited by William Beard and Jerry White. Edmonton, Alberta: University of Alberta Press, 2002, p. 312-326.

Monk, Katherine. Weird Sex & Snowshoes: And other Canadian Film Phenomena. Vancouver: Raincoast Books, 2001.

Simons, Paula. "Bye Bye Blues, Hello World: Anne Wheeler and Allarcom Go for the Big Time." Western Report. Vol. 3, no. 31 (August 22, 1988), p. 32-33.

Vermee, Alison. "Anne Wheeler and the Drama of Everyday Life." Take One. Vol. 4, no. 9 (Fall 1995), p. 38-41.

Wood, Robin. "Towards a Canadian (Inter)national Cinema, Part 2: Loyalties and Life Classes." CineAction! No. 17 (September 1989), p. 23-29.

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