SPIRIT OF PLACE: The Place In Between
Wiebke Von Carolsfeld
The Place in Between
by Wiebke Von Carolsfeld
Many years back, sitting on a dock by a lake somewhere in the Kawarthas, a friend suggested doing a writing exercise. “It’ll be fun,” she said, and somehow we all agreed. So, exchanging cocktails for pens, we set down to our task:
“In the home where I grew up…”
While I watched my friends scribble away like there was a Giller award waiting at the finish line, I was stumped.
There is no home I grew up in. No one street. No one town. The first time I moved, I was three months old. By the time I reached fifth grade, I had been to five different schools without having been thrown out of one. I had gotten used to making new friends, explaining that “Wiebke” was indeed my first name and not my last, and imagining over and over again what life would be like in this new, exciting place—only to be disappointed soon enough that while the outside had changed, the inside, my inside, had not.
In Germany, where I grew up, this kind of itinerant lifestyle was highly unusual. Suspicious, even. After two wars, people were done with upheaval. Why move if you don’t have to? Different is not necessarily better. Steady wins the race. Most Germans are born, married and buried in the same place. For all the love that we have for travel, relocating, even across provincial borders, is not on most people’s to-do list.
Finally, my parents settled down in Cologne, the place I call, when pressed, my hometown, even though no real Kölner would ever consider me one. I was not born there, don’t understand the local dialect, and who cares that Kölsch is the only beer I like to drink. Still, it’s as close as I ever got to having a home, even if I could never quite shake that feeling of not fitting in there, of being apart, of being an outsider looking in.
In my early 20s, I came to Canada. First for a visit, but soon to stay. In the first 10 years, I moved 10 times. A sun den on Brunswick, a cockroach-infested apartment in Kensington Market, Ossington before it was hip. I won’t bore you with the rest. Today, when I cycle around Toronto, I constantly come across places that used to be my local. Windows behind which I once tried to figure out what to do with my life. Stores where they knew my name. Streetscapes that used to be intimately familiar but that no longer are—though that really is another story.
Along the way, I found a community of misfits interested like me in the arts, politics, eating, laughing and, eventually, film. My English improved and my accent softened, though that embarrassment only went away once I realised that Chrétien, the prime minister at the time, was struggling harder than I to keep his sentences afloat—in both official languages.
Come home, my father said, every other time we talked on the phone. In Canada you’ll always be a fifth wheel. True, but in a city where more than 50 per cent of the population was born outside the country, that is not a particularly unusual feeling. Being an outsider, I discovered, does not mean being alone.
Years later, I started making films. About women that I found interesting. About journeys that were compelling to me. About Agnes, in Marion Bridge, who returns home to Sydney, Nova Scotia, after years away in Toronto. About Abbey, a Canadian who ran off to a remote place in Ireland, trying to find a place to call home, to STAY. About Fern, a Cree girl who grows up disconnected from her roots in wintery Montreal, in my most recent film, The Saver. Struggling to make it on her own after her mother’s sudden death, Fern is determined, like all my other heroines, to lead life on her own terms. Each of them is stuck in between. Looking for a community, a home.
It is only in hindsight that I noticed the thread. At the time, these were simply stories that touched my heart. Stories that I needed to tell. Stories about people in flux, betwixt and between. Now I realise that every time I leave my house, read the paper or take a cab, a new story emerges. About love unable to break down cultural barriers. About a mail-order bride working triple overtime to support her family back home. A mother who thought Canada would provide a safe haven for her family, only to see her child deported. The stories are legion, but maybe because few immigrants become filmmakers, too many are yet untold.
I now live in Montreal, an island of English in a sea of French. Yet another language to learn, a new set of friends to make, more cultural feathers to unwittingly ruffle. Here, every time I leave my house, language becomes a question. Should I ask for directions in English, order my coffee in French? Conversations start in one language but might switch to the other halfway through the sentence. One person speaks English, the other French. Or Urdu or Vietnamese. And while this might be annoying to some, a bastardization of language and heritage, I revel in this linguistic uncertainty. Finally, I am in a place where language is not a given, where everybody has to choose carefully which dictionary to reach for, not just me.
The sense of displacement has by now become one that is most familiar to me. Even as a film editor, most jobs have been away from home. The Saver is the first movie that I shot while sleeping in my own bed. The constant movement between here and there shows up on screen, too. Right in the beginning of Marion Bridge, Agnes watches her hometown fly by. Everything looks familiar, but she no longer belongs. There is a similar scene in STAY, when Abbey arrives in construction-torn Montreal, though in the end she decides to return to Ireland, a place where her lover awaits. Fern, in The Saver, does not have a car or money to take a cab, so she walks from place to place. Stuck, like my other heroines, like me, in that place in between.
Over the years, I have learned to embrace that feeling of not belonging. To cultivate it, even. I surround myself with people who share that sense. On the set of The Saver, French and English were spoken interchangeably. Characters come from all over the country, the world, with no explanation given. Accents of all sorts were welcome. Difference celebrated. In a world as fluid, multicultural and fragmented as ours, it still surprises me how homogenous a lot of our cultural output looks. Actually, “disappointment” might be the more honest word.
Looking back now on that sunny afternoon in the Kawarthas, seeing my youthful self sitting on the dock, jealous of my friends’ easy sense of belonging, I wish I knew then that being stuck in between would not only give me a life full of adventure and constantly new, shifting horizons but also my voice as a filmmaker. I now use my skills as an outsider, as an observer, to tell stories. Being from away gives the storyteller the freedom to probe deeper, to be independent, to speak about a place without strings attached. And having learned at a young age to easily connect to new people sure helps with making movies, often with a new crew, in an unfamiliar place, and in a language that is not my first or my second.
Seeing that this is a story, I can end whichever way I want. So I am willing myself to get up from that dock by the lake and to walk away from my friends writing happily about the places they grew up in. I stand at the edge of the water, grateful for what brought me here, trusting that the journey ahead will be fulfilling—and then jump into the clear blue lake for a cooling swim. You never know where inspiration comes from. Sometimes it just might be from that place in between.
Wiebke von Carolsfeld is a Montreal -based editor, writer and director. Her third dramatic feature film, The Saver, will be released in 2016.