TORONTO – First-time filmmaker Jamie Dagg certainly didn’t make it easy on himself when he decided to shoot in Laos.
His debut feature “River” follows a U.S. volunteer doctor scrambling to escape authorities when he intervenes in the rape of a Laos woman, and ends up killing the assailant.
Rossif Sutherland plays the bewildered American, whose desperate race to the embassy has him ducking through narrow neighbourhood streets and swimming across the murky Mekong River.
It’s a simple premise, but Sutherland says shooting in an impoverished country with little movie infrastructure made the process “a harrowing experience.”
“It was a really, really difficult film to do,” Sutherland says, noting it involved “a lot of guerilla filmmaking.”
“A lot of the film is about me being on the run and so I’m running through actual crowds and interacting with normal people who don’t always know they’re being filmed. And if they were looking at anything, they were looking at the people holding the camera and not the lens itself.”
Dagg says he wrote the tale while living in Laos about five years ago.
“I was thinking about how we as people all have the capacity for violence within us,” says Dagg, who will receive a Canadian Screen Award for best first feature this weekend.
“I was trying to think of … what that perfect storm of circumstances would be to allow that to bubble to the surface and in this case, a healer becomes a killer.”
Initially, Dagg’s protagonist was a Canadian working in Laos. But then Dagg discovered Canada doesn’t have a diplomatic office there.
He says Canadians would have to go to the Australian embassy if they needed help and that was too complicated to address in the script.
Sutherland, nominated for a Canadian Screen Award for best actor, says the 31-day shoot required some nimble improvisation.
“Whenever there were moments that we felt that we could use, surprises in the environment that we were shooting in … we would adapt and embrace the environment that we were in. So I never got to really leave character.”
“River” opens in Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal on Friday.