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The Dogs

On the run from his estranged father, Cameron Weaver and his mother, Katherine, settle in an old farmhouse within a small rural town. There, Cameron meets Jacky - a boy who appears to be from the 1960s - and discovers the farmhouse has a dark past, including the death of its former owners. Is this all in his head? Unable to shake the visions, Cameron attempts to solve the mystery and a murder – ultimately uncovering the truth about his own disturbing past. "The Dogs" is an award-winning Canadian feature of MIFF in the Fall seasonal competition of 2023. "The Dogs" is directed by Valerie Buhagiar. It is written by Anthony Artibello & Sheila Rogerson. The Canadian feature is produced by James Milligan, Anthony Artibello, Sheila Rogerson and Jason Ross Jallet.

Valerie Buhagiar, the director of "The Dogs" is a Maltese-Canadian actor and director. Her latest film is Carmen (2021).

Valerie Buhagiar first came to prominence as the co-star of Bruce McDonald's trailblazing Canadian indie film hits ROADKILL and HIGHWAY 61. Since then she has appeared in scores of films and tv series, has introduced films for The Showcase Revue, all the while continuing her stage career with recent hits including a Dora nomination for Botticelli in the Fire and Sunday in Sodom at Canadian Stage.

Valerie has also carved out a parallel career as a writer and director. She honed her unique vision, a blend of surreal imagery and emotional warmth, in a series of award-winning shorts beginning in 1994 with The Passion of Rita Camilleri. Her latest feature is Carmen, starring Natascha McElhone (Truman Show, Solaris, Californication, Designated Survivor, and much more).

Carmen has won glowing reviews at The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Austin Chronicle, The Vancouver Sun, and many other publications, and currently sports a glorious 100% Fresh Critic Rating at Rotten Tomatoes.

What makes you fascinated with the cinematic language and what was the first film project you worked on as a director?

I’m fascinated at how an image in motion can provoke so much emotion and vibrate within you for a very long time. It can tell a story without words.

My first film, The Passion of Rita Camilleri, is a personal story. The idea was conceived sometime between acting in the feature films Roadkill and Highway 61. I wrote a story in my journal, about the time when I was eight years old and my best friend, Diane, died in a house fire. And how I was curious about death and the afterlife. I decided to dive into this story as a theatre piece.

I then realized that it was too visual to become a theatre piece and switched to writing it as a screenplay. A friend, Judy Cade, co-wrote the screenplay. It took a long time to get funding. I almost gave up. Then a cinematographer friend, Rudolf Blahacek, really liked the script and said

he'd help produce it.

We finally got Arts Council funding and made the film. It played in many festivals, won several awards, and garnered rave reviews. That propelled me to want to explore becoming a filmmaker as well as continue acting. I have since bounced back and forth as an actor and filmmaker. I love it all.

What inspired you to work on "The Dogs" and why was it important for you to direct this project?

I’m truly grateful to have been given the opportunity to direct “The Dogs”. I loved the story written by Alan Stratton. The screenplay written by Sheila Rogerson and Anthony Artibello had a beautiful combination of heartfelt depth and haunting thriller elements.

I loved the script and could see the visuals after my initial read. The intertwining of elements made it so much fun to play with. The mother/son relationship, the ghost, the house as a character and the dogs and their constant presence make the film thrive. Along with the haunting elements we see the danger in domestic violence and how it can ricochet and damage children. It needs to be stopped and therefore this story needs to be told. I played with the idea

of our young protagonist having PTSD or is he embodying an evil entity.

And collaborating with the young actor with this idea we created a character that has an unusual gravitas that brings empathy and fear. In my meeting with the team of producers, James Milligan, Anthony Artibello and Sheila Rogerson, I gave them my visual treatment such as using Andrew Wyeth paintings as a template for the present-day footage and Norman Rockwell for the flashbacks. I told them I’d like to age Cameron (the protagonist) as the film evolved. Make him look like the ghost in the story by the end of the film. Being an actor myself, I was able to suggest actors for roles and as a team, we made some fantastic casting choices. They agreed to my ideas and that’s when I felt I was going to have fun executing this film.

What was the most challenging aspect of working on your feature project? 

The most challenging aspect of working on The Dogs and most films is time. There was never enough time to iron out the details or capture more of the scene. When you work with minors on a union shoot you only get so much time in a day, and they need to get a break every hour plus they get breaks for tutoring. I can respect that rule. But in our case, the minor is in every scene. We had to work very fast, block shoot and without the time I couldn’t pay attention to the details as much as I would have liked to. Along with that, the daylight in November is short.

We needed to work as fast as possible to capture what we can. The other challenge was the weather. I had a location set in a field by a rusty old car. It was beautiful. I knew a storm was coming so I got the Art Department to tarp it. The snowstorm was intense, and it was impossible to shoot in that location for that scene. Luckily, I found another location where we could shoot for that scene and the producers agreed to it. And of course, the dogs themselves. Our first batch of dogs didn’t want to bark, let alone bite.  Luckily the producers found the right dogs to do what we needed for the film, and we picked up those scenes a few months later.

What is your next film project and what are you currently working on? 

I’m presently attached to 2 feature films as a director and we’re waiting for funding. I’ve optioned a book that I will get made into a limited series. I just got development funding to continue writing a Jukebox Musical Comedy. Don McKellar is my script editor on that one and I’m having a blast. I’m presently in Malta developing a theatre piece with a few women here. I’m feeling blessed and life is full of good stuff.

What is the most difficult aspect of distributing indie feature projects? 

The most difficult aspect of distributing indie films is finding a distributor to love your film as you love it and then put it out there for you. To get people to see it even if you don’t have stars attached to the film. I find Canadians generally don’t go see Canadian films. We need support here. We need more marketing. Cinemas need to play more Canadian films and publicize them.

Does the language of cinema stand out more than other arts to you? And why? 

I make theatre and film. As a director, I only make films. I’m very comfortable in this world.

I love actors and guiding them to an honest performance. It’s magic when the camera moves into a character as though they are cracking open their soul and the actor lets their soul open within the story we’re telling. This is bliss and I want to fine-tune it with every film I make.

Why do you make films and what kind of impact would you like to have on the world as a filmmaker?

I’m a storyteller and I love to use moving pictures to tell stories because they can be seen all over the world. Images can last a long time and are international. I want to use my films to inspire people to live their best lives, to tell their own stories, and perhaps guide them to see things differently.

Where do you see the future of Canadian cinema and how could there be more support for female directors working on feature films in Canada? 

I’m truly concerned for Canadian cinema. English-speaking Canadian Cinema seems to be afraid to push boundaries, celebrate our stories, get Canadian audiences to watch our stories, and give us the funding to spend the time to make better films.

If there was more funding and more support, then I’d say we’re going to make films the world will want to see. But without that support, I don’t know what to expect. It’s taken me a long time to get funding to make my first feature. Is that because I’m female? Not sure but probably.

I’m glad the doors have opened.

I don’t, however, want to be picked because I’m a woman. I want to be picked because I’m the best person to tell this story. Back in the 90s, I knew that when I asked for a chair on set, I might be called a Diva. But if my male colleague asked for a chair on set, he needed it. The younger generation has put a stop to that. Thank you.

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