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Warren Sulatycky's new drama Jasmine Road a quiet study of intersecting lives

Aixa Kay and Melody Mokhtari in Jasmine Road.
Aixa Kay and Melody Mokhtari in Jasmine Road.

Jasmine Road began life as two films.

Well, two ideas anyway. For years, Calgary-based writer, director and actor Warren Sulatycky had been developing a story based on his time working ranches in the Rocky Mountains. It was initially meant to be a play, a profile of an aging modern cowboy who was a composite of the men Sulatycky had worked with.

But when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau opened the border to Syrian refugees in 2015, the wheels began turning for a very different story.

“I was curious about what was happening to the wave of refugees once they left the headlines, once the flashbulbs disappeared,” says Sulatycky. “I was interested in what their lives were like once they got here. Where did they go? What were their obstacles?”

It was during a leisurely Sunday drive with his parents a few years back to big-sky country near Longview, where much of Jasmine Road would eventually be filmed in the summer of 2019, when the two ideas began to overlap.

“I thought why not put the western story together with the Syrian story?” says Sulatycky. “I didn’t feel I was in the place to tell a full story, I don’t want to appropriate that story. But I felt I could manage the two together and not feel like I was appropriating a voice that should be told by another filmmaker.”

Jasmine Road, which screens at Cineplex Odeon  Eau Claire Market on Sept. 27 and is now available to stream online as part of the Calgary International Film Festival, is a quiet film despite some potentially explosive elements. Greg Ellwand plays Mac Bagley, a rancher devastated by the death of his wife. While his school teacher daughter, Loretta (played by Calgary expat Caitlyn Sponheimer), also lives on the family’s sprawling acreage, Mac is living a solitary life in a fog of grief and only opens up to the spirit of his dead wife who appears to him to offer counsel and comfort. Loretta becomes involved with a young Syrian refugee in her class named Heba (a remarkable performance by Vancouver-based newcomer Melody Mokhtari), who fled her country with her mother Layla, (Aixa Kay) and uncle, Salem (Ahmed Muslimani). Loretta invites the family to live on the Bagley ranch, much to the initial annoyance of her father. The film follows some typical culture-clash terrain. Mac, whose xenophobia seems to cover a need for isolation, slowly begins to empathize with the family, particularly as they encounter some Alberta-bred bigotry from residents of the nearby conservative town of Red River and he learns more about the horrors they faced back home. But thanks to perceptive performances of the actors and well-crafted characters, the film offers surprising depth without ever becoming preachy. Layla was a journalist in Syria and is still angry and reeling from the disappearance of her husband and the war that ravaged her home. Heba escapes into a world of magic and illusion, combining sleight-of-hand tricks she learns from an old magic kit with a yearning for spiritual answers.

“I looked at the internal lives of the characters and how there might be overlapping themes of grief and loss and death and how people manage those elements in life,” Sulatycky says. “I was looking for universalities between people. Even though people might be from very separate cultures, what is it that makes these characters similar. What is it that is universal to us all? Grief and loss are things we all deal with in life. As a writer, you go into your own world to approach those dark places.”

Sulatycky grew up in Edmonton and became involved in theatre and film as a child. By 13, he was a member of ACTRA and scored a role in the 1977 Hanna-shot film Why Shoot the Teacher? opposite Bud Cort and Samantha Eggar. He studied at SAIT in the 1980s and continued to act and worked as a director and writer in television, dividing his time between Toronto and Calgary. In 2015, he began developing a script for what would eventually become his debut, 2019’s character-driven, Toronto-set, family drama April In Autumn. It was during development of that film in Toronto that he met Sponheimer, a fellow Alberta expat who would end up co-writing, co-producing and playing the lead in that film.

Sponheimer signed on to co-produce Jasmine Road and play the role of Loretta.

“We had a lot of conversations about all the characters,” says Sponheimer, in an interview from her home in Montreal. “I fell in love with the story and also fell in love with some of the people we met through the casting process; people we didn’t even end up casting but came in and were so open about sharing their stories about being refugees and what happened in their home country and I realized how important it was.”

It was also important to get the cultural facts right. Sulatycky hired consultants to ensure details about Syrian history, food and music were accurate. Scenes were shot at Margaret Chisholm Resettlement Centre and Calgary’s Centre for Newcomers which added authenticity about how refugees were handled when they first arrived. Other scenes were shot at Tasse Bakery, which specializes in Syrian goods in Calgary’s northeast, and Aladdin’s Casbah, which specializes in Middle Eastern fare.

“We really tried to imbed ourselves,” Sulatycky says. “That was really part of the agenda of the filmmaking, of the journey. We really wanted to engage the community.”

Of course, when dealing with deep, dark issues such as displacement, grief and racism, there is a danger that a film can become overly heavy or didactic with its messaging, which Sulatycky wanted to avoid.

“I didn’t want it to be a school lesson and I didn’t want to wrap it up overtly,” he says. “But I felt after April in Autumn and Telefilm giving me another chance to make another film, how often do we get to do that in Canada as a filmmaker and artist? I thought what is it that I want to say and do in life. At that time, as there is today, there was just so much going on politically with immigration and with mass migration all over the world. It was more a response to, as an artist, what was it that I really needed to say at this point and how do I say it without turning away a lot of people. I have to engage as many people as possible. It had to be soft-pitch.”

Jasmine Road will screen at Eau Claire Sept. 27 at 7 p.m. and will be available to stream throughout the Calgary International Film Festival, which runs until Oct. 4. Visit

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020

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