Fort McMurray has had a tough time after suffering from quite an infernal inferno. Yes, everybody has heard all about it on the news and within social media. But not all perspectives are the same. And one particular perspective that seems to be standing the strongest is Var Bhalla’s documentary, This is Home. With barely any money, Bhalla took a couple journeys to his home town where he was raised to interview different residents of the town and hear their stories. One story that seems to be a heavy subject throughout the documentary is how a couple in India moved out to the small town and spent a lot of their life raising a family out there. An incredible film with a powerful message, I spoke to Var Bhalla to ask him all about what may be his most amazing work.
HNMAG: Given the subject matter is very dark and personal, what are the aspects you had to focus on while filming?
Var Bhalla: Well, starting out, I wanted to make it more than just a new story, because everything you were seeing [during the fire] was filmed by someone who didn’t live there, so you’re hearing a different perspective from me. I was born and raised there, a lot of my family and friends live there. So it became personal, and I wanted to explain this is more than just about oil. It’s a tragedy story, and what this community is all about. But obviously to talk about that, I had to talk about what happened because it’s one of the worst Canadian disasters of all time. I had to concentrate on those aspects and really try to focus my story of family, how my parents immigrated from India, as well as talk about the tragedy.
HNMAG: What was the hardest part of filming a documentary such as this and why?
Var Bhalla: Just hearing the stories. One of the women who was filmed, Verna, she lost her husband she lost her home first and than less than 12 hours later she found out her husband passed away.
Those aren’t always the type of stories you hear, that is double devastation right there to go through all of that in the span of 48 hours is really tough. So being connected in the community, I felt I was hearing stories that were not in the mainstream media.
HNMAG: As this film was shot with no budget, how did it affect your work? Did it make shooting easier or harder and how?
Var Bhalla: Well, if you want to get something done, you got to be a 1-man team sometimes. When I went over there and was filming everything, I pretty much had to become a journalist, which I wasn’t used to. Making the calls, producing, but mostly just trying to chase down leads as well. It’s like ‘Okay, I heard this person’s here, they’ve got an hour.” The rebuilding was happening, and people were coming back. You really have to get to that spot or you’re going to miss all the action. I found that a little challenging, grabbing my camera and not really having time to think about it. Everyday I woke up, I didn’t know where it was going to take me. There was always a story happening from the rebuild as well.
HNMAG: How long did it take to shoot the whole thing?
Var Bhalla: I made about 4 trips in total. It happened in May, and they started letting people come back in June, and that’s when I flew over to Edmonton and took a bus to Fort McMurray for my first trip. Then I took my next trip trip during Canada Day, as well as one in Winter to show the rebuild. And then another one somewhere in the middle there *laughs*
HNMAG: Was it hard to do so many tasks at once? How did you keep the jobs balanced?
Var Bhalla: The filming and producing was all me, but it was good to have some help. My friend Matthew Israelson came on board to support with the editing and all of the scoring for the film. I didn’t know what to expect, I just really wanted to capture this story for my community. I was trying really hard to get funding for it, and when you hear the first no’s, you say “Well, I can still make this, I just have to do a lot more work.” So I didn’t let a ‘no’ stop me, I just went with it saying, “I haven’t got a budget here, but let me capture the story” and it turned out to be really unique! And I think that’s why people are connecting with it, because it was actually made by someone who was born and raised there. In a small community, what is it all about? Who are the types of people that live there? Because obviously, we hear the stereotypes of what that place is all about and I’m not saying that there’s none of that there but it really is a good community to grow up in.
HNMAG: What was the best part of shooting this documentary?
Var Bhalla: I think seeing how people came together and rallied, and how Canada really stepped up to support. From all different cities in Canada, people were coming out to help. And then the community just rallying, there were neighbours helping neighbours, and just seeing that is like humanity. You see people helping each other. Some people came out completely scratch-free, with their house being completely fine, and then across the street, the house was completely gone. So helping your neighbours to get back to where they need to be.
HNMAG: What are you hoping people will get and learn after they have watched This is Home?
Var Bhalla: I think the overall message is “Canada’s One”, how strong of a country we really are, because that represents who we are if a town is in need, a small city regardless. We all need to help, especially with the BC fires going on right now. We all help each other and I think that’s what makes this country amazing. It’s filled with diversity and it doesn’t matter what your culture is. Humans come first, and that’s what it’s all about.
It’s nice to know no matter what happens, Fort McMurray is standing strong no matter what has happened to their delightful home. This gives me hope that other places being devastated by the fires will someday be safe as well. I’m also hoping that Var Bhalla’s documentary and it’s meaning spread around more than Canadian wildfires too. Currently, This is Home is screening at the following places at these times: September 14th, 4pm at Fox Theatre as part of TAFF (Toronto Arthouse Film Festival) with free admission, September 23rd, 7pm at the Town and Country Centre as part of the Airdrie Film Festival (Tickets available here), and September 24th, 5pm at the Regent Theatre in Durham during the Durham Region International Film Festival (tickets available here). In the future, the documentary may be premiering at a couple festivals out here in Vancouver. I really hope so myself.