Nova Scotia

On the secluded set of N.S. director's first feature film about consent, friendship

For the past two weeks, about two dozen people have been gathering at a secluded cottage in the woods to make a movie together.

Bystanders expected to be released at film festivals this fall

Director Koumbie, middle, wrapped shooting Bystanders on Friday. She's pictured here with actors Marlee Sansom, left, and Deborah Castrilli. (Submitted)

For the past two weeks, about two dozen people have been gathering at a secluded cottage in the woods to make a movie together.

The picturesque location, on the edge of the Shubenacadie River near Enfield, N.S., is the sole set for the new feature length film, Bystanders, expected to be ready for film festivals this fall. 

It tells the story of six childhood friends who gather for their annual weekend away. The reunion begins to unravel when they learn that one of them is guilty of sexual assault.

Director Koumbie and her writing (and real-life) partner Taylor Olson, also a filmmaker, came up with the idea about six years ago.

"We, at the time, were having all these conversations around consent, and there were some members of the community where things had come out. It just felt like the community was kind of reeling from it," said Koumbie.

"And our thing was like, no one's talking about this."

The six-person cast is Taylor Olson, Marlee Sansom, Cavell Holland, Peter Sarty, Deborah Castrilli and Katelyn McCulloch. (Emma Smith/CBC)

A few months later the Harvey Weinstein story broke and the whole world was talking about consent and holding perpetrators accountable.

The filmmakers questioned whether there was still a reason to tell their story.

"It very quickly became apparent that there was," said Koumbie. 

The script changed a lot over the next several years as the filmmaking duo decided to focus not so much on survivors and perpetrators, but the community of people around them who were impacted by this kind of violence.

Bystanders is the first feature length film for Nova Scotia director Koumbie. It tells the story of six friends who get together and discover that one of them has a shocking secret. Mainstreet 's Emma Smith visited the set on Thursday and chatted with the director and cast.

Olson plays Justin in the movie, the character who sexually assaulted his girlfriend when they were university students — but who doesn't even realize it.

"One of the things that we want to explore in the film is what happens when someone that you think is a great person —and actually maybe for the most part is — commits something this monstrous," Olson said. 

Koumbie has won several awards for her short films, but Bystanders is the first feature-length movie she's directed. (Emma Smith/CBC)

Actor Deborah Castrilli said the honest and difficult conversations the characters have in the movie continued even after Koumbie called cut. 

"Any work we do, I think, as actors … shifts us and changes us because it does, whether we like it or not, and it allows us to really reflect on our own lives and be more empathetic," Castrilli said. 

There were also times on set when things got heavy and took their toll, added cast member Cavell Holland.

"It's not just a group of castmates, it's a group of friends, but it's also a support system," Holland said. "No matter what situations we were ever in, we all had each other's back. We all have this check in." 

This cottage on the edge of the Shubenacadie River serves as the set for Bystanders. (Emma Smith/CBC)

The film is made on a small budget — "a small budget divided by two," in the words of producer Terry Greenlaw — so finding the perfect location was especially important.

"The interior/exterior of this property is our only location, being that the story is about a group of friends that go to a cottage for a weekend," said Greenlaw. "So the location is like a character."

Koumbie has won several awards for her short films, but Bystanders is the first feature-length movie she's directed.

"This is really huge for me, and so every time it was like, you know, this small budget or this low budget, I'm like, have you seen our craft table? Like, this is incredible," she said.

With files from CBC Radio's Mainstreet