This filmmaker is racking up international accolades — and it's all thanks to Fredericton
Robert Gray's tight-knit community is at the heart of his globetrotting success
Robert Gray is on a winning streak. Only months after being awarded the 2016 Thomas Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award for his story collection Entropic, the 47 year-old Fredericton-based writer and filmmaker is now in Cardiff, where his short film Choke Hold is up for the annual Iris Prize — a prestigious award on the short film circuit. The winner is announced on Sunday, October 16.
Gray, originally from Prince Rupert, BC, teaches film studies and screenwriting at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton. He makes his films in NB as well — and when you're a filmmaker in New Brunswick, you know all the other filmmakers. You and your fellow artists take turns performing, setting the lights, directing, making the sandwiches and wondering what the hell it takes to get attention outside of the region.
I caught Gray just as he was departing from the ZeFestival in Nice, France, where he was screening his latest film 3 Cafes. Will his lucky run continue in Wales?
I find it's a bit of a trade-off, working in a small city. On the one hand there are few actors, mostly theatre-trained, and very few people for the crew. If more than one film is shooting in a weekend, you're kind of screwed!- Robert Gray
Gray reminds me that he is hardly an overnight sensation. "I was a screenwriter for a long time first and had around ten of my short scripts adapted. I wrote some teleplays that died in development, a feature that died in development. About four years ago I decided to start directing. I think I am making up for lost time."
Choke Hold, the film up for the Iris Prize, is a quiet, intimate and very sexy film about two young men learning to trust each other by practicing the titular wrestling move on each other. With minimal dialogue and subtle acting, the film brings two fraught interior lives into full focus.
"I think you can read Choke Hold a couple of ways," Gray suggests, "but one of my favourite readings is that it's about how complicated male friendship is in North America, how little room there is for intimacy."
"A festival programmer told me once my films aren't so much about being gay as they are about being in love. With Choke Hold, I'm interested less in sexuality than in how uncomfortable things can get when we are really honest with ourselves. No programmer yet has called Choke Hold a romance!"
It hardly seems surprising that a film made in a small city, with the help of good friends and co-workers, would also be so dependent on small gestures, snatches of sentences, and knowing glances, use the short hand people employ when they are familiar with each other. Watching Choke Hold reminded me of my own years spent in close-knit Fredericton.
"I find it's a bit of a trade-off, working in a small city," Gray notes. "On the one hand there are few actors, mostly theatre-trained, and very few people for the crew. If more than one film is shooting in a weekend, you're kind of screwed!"
"On the other hand, we have the best support I have ever seen and we have hordes of people excited to participate and create something. I think, for me, also, moving away from Vancouver gave me the space to play and be okay with messing up."
As part of a new wave of Atlantic Canadian film, Gray wants the rest of the country to know that "while there's a strong realist tradition in our films, I am most excited about the vein of absurdity and weirdness a bunch of filmmakers are carrying forward."