Show Me Shorts film-maker Rachel Ross lets Joanna Wane in on a family secret
Three years ago, Auckland film-maker Rachel Ross tossed a few essentials into her overnight bag and drove down to Rotorua to visit her dad. Toothbrush, knickers, weed ...
The bonding session father and daughter shared that weekend over a couple of joints — and bags of chips when the munchies kicked in — sets the scene for her bittersweet short film, Green, which premieres at the Show Me Shorts festival next week.
Yep, THAT kind of green. Whether confronting trauma or challenging taboos, Ross can find humour in the most unexpected places. Another of her short films, Number 2, is set in a toilet stall. (A brilliant portrayal of performance anxiety, it was nominated for Best Screenplay at the festival in 2019.)
Her dad, who was recovering from surgery for prostate cancer, took some convincing when she first suggested experimenting with cannabis for relief from ongoing pain and the side effects caused by a cocktail of prescribed medication.
Ross, who's 30, also lives with serious long-term health conditions, endometriosis and ulcerative colitis, which have seen her repeatedly hospitalised over the past four and a half years. A couple of weeks out from the shoot for Green, she was admitted in acute pain with a ruptured cyst and felt so devastated about putting the project in jeopardy that it triggered a panic attack.
With the support of her close friend and producer, Morgan Leigh Stewart, Ross pushed through. Filming went ahead as planned, wrapping days before New Zealand went into its first lockdown. Mark Mitchinson, who plays the father on-screen, says Ross refused to let her personal struggles stand in the way. "I was overwhelmed with admiration for how she doesn't bring that to the set. She's such a lovely director, very committed, and she didn't want it to interfere with the work."
Ross had done a chemistry read with Mitchinson and co-star Gabe Wright before casting them in the lead roles. Her script gave them room to breathe, says Mitchinson, who has a 17-year-old daughter of his own (and plays a far less sympathetic character in another film on the Show Me Shorts programme, Blood and Gold, by New Zealand director Yamin Tun). For Ross, the result was electric. "I was in pain but it was manageable. There's nothing like the magic of a room full of creative people all just humming."
She says bonding through shared trauma has been the doorway to deeper intimacy with her father, strengthening their already close relationship. Green isn't strictly autobiographical, adding a fictional layer of tension, but there's humour and a fragile tenderness too as the on-screen pair huddle outside under a blanket getting high.
"Even before I drove down to see Dad that weekend, I thought, 'This is a hilarious premise for a film.' A father and a daughter lighting up together because they've both been really sick and want to see if that helps. But it could also be fun too," says Ross.
"My soft spot for film-making, in general, is where drama meets play and when life is a constant intersection of black and white, shades of dark and light. If you don't laugh, you cry, you know? I really wanted this to have a playful side, as well as being heartfelt and serious. So, yeah, we had a giggle. And I just find it funny, thinking about the fact that I lit up with my dad."
It's the fourth week of lockdown in Auckland for me and the ninth week of lockdown in Sydney for Ross when we talk by Zoom, her hair pulled up into a high ponytail. At the photoshoot a few days later, outside her inner-city apartment, it's the first time she's put on makeup for months.
Ross moved over in February to be with her partner, Stevie Lujan, a musician and emerging stand-up comedian from the United States who's lived in Australia for the past 18 years. She describes him as a grounding force in her life, but transitioning away from her tight support network back home hasn't been easy.
"I've gone through ebbs and flows — I had a bit of cry this morning," she says. "We live on a train line and I had a moment where I was just over the noise because I can't escape it. I think it's having no control over something as big as your day-to-day.
"We were trapped all last year and I knew Covid wasn't done. We just wanted to at least be trapped in the same country this time. But it's been a weird start to try and find my feet in a new place. It takes a while to assimilate - and it's a whole other kettle of fish trying to do that in a pandemic."
Adversity has made Ross tough, much tougher than she gives herself credit for. Her endometriosis went undiagnosed for years — an all-too-familiar scenario for the estimated one in 10 women with the condition, which causes severe pelvic pain and can lead to fertility problems.
That's not the only short straw she's drawn, genetically speaking. In her early 20s, she began suffering from sporadic rectal bleeding that for years was written off by doctors as haemorrhoids. She takes some responsibility for that, too. "I grew up with very much a 'she'll be right' mentality, which I think is very much a Kiwi thing. I downplay it even to myself if something's quite bad because I don't want to make it a big deal or be a drama queen."
In 2017, she flew to the US on a grant to write a draft of her first feature film, Exhale, at the New York Film Academy. (Still a work still in progress, it's inspired by the life of Colombian-born chemist and human rights advocate Ælien Rubashkyn, who was persecuted for being intersex and given emergency refugee status in New Zealand before becoming a citizen here in 2018.)
Ross began bleeding on the plane and was "horrifically sick" the whole time she was in New York but couldn't bring herself to cut the trip short. On her way home, she made it as far as Los Angeles before being rushed to hospital. Investigations revealed ulcerative colitis, an autoimmune bowel condition that had caused severe ulceration. "If I'd continued trying to fly home, there was a likelihood of my bowel perforating and I could have died in the sky."
Her father, who'd just touched down in Canada on a business trip, collected his luggage and got straight back on the next plane. He spent the next nine days at her bedside, organising an insurance claim for the $180,000 hospital bill and business-class flights home so she could lie prone.
Her colitis is now in remission, thanks to the right medication. Not so her endometriosis, which still causes attacks of excruciating pain. Her nervous system has come under such sustained assault that even relatively minor levels of stress and anxiety can activate flare-ups, something that's not easy to manage in the midst of a pandemic.
In the end, neither Ross nor her father found smoking cannabis particularly useful as a pain-relief remedy. She qualifies for a medical prescription for CBD oil, which has been much more effective and doesn't contain the psychoactive ingredient THC. However, the cost is prohibitive, at more than $200 for a 30ml bottle. In the 2020 referendum, she voted for the legalisation of cannabis for recreational use, to make the drug safer through regulation and to get it off the streets.
Living with an invisible disability takes its toll, says Ross. She's developing an idea for a fictional television series, Sick, about a young woman whose world unravels when she's diagnosed with a chronic illness and — like Ross — has to work out how to rebuild the pieces of her life while keeping her essence intact.
"I'm naturally a playful person but it has, at times and for long seasons, felt like that part of me has died. It's really tough, especially when it comes to trying to still be a functioning human being who has a social life and who has dreams.
"I have days when I feel good and can laugh about it, and I want to make something out of it because I know others are struggling like me. And that helps me feel less like it's the only thing that defines me when I can be creative out of that trauma."
SIX OF THE BEST
From a secret underground shoot in Iran with a real death-metal band (Forbidden to See Us Scream in Tehran) to an animation of a Neil Gaiman poem voiced by Amanda Palmer, Show Me Shorts is again going hybrid this year, combining an online programme with in-cinema screenings from Whangārei to Stewart Island.
Opening next week, the Oscar-accredited festival features 75 of the world's best short films chosen from more than 1600 entries (showmeshorts.co.nz). A lockdown-delayed awards night will be held in Auckland on Sunday, October 17; the Best New Zealand Film and Best International Film winners automatically qualify for entry to the Academy Awards. Canvas had a sneak preview of what's on offer — here are some of the highlights:
A Hole (NZ): Destined to become a cult classic — it's already inspired a jewellery range —and instantly recognisable to anyone who's sat in on a marketing meeting. In other words, it's a horror movie. Nominated for Best Cinematography.
My Ex Boyfriend (Sweden): Quirky and super-stylish claymation about two lovers literally growing apart. A clever and original little charmer.
Don vs Lightning (UK): A deadpan tale of possibly the world's unluckiest fisherman, set in the Scottish Highlands. You'll never look at a toasted sandwich the same way again.
Hysteria (Finland): Friendship is put to the test as a deadly fog descends on suburbia. Made under lockdown restrictions that confined filming to one person per shot.
Blood and Gold (NZ): A harrowing survival story framed by the Otago Gold Rush. Another powerful and visually stunning work, with dialogue kept at the bare minimum, by director Yamin Tun (a previous winner with Wait, in 2016). The most nominated film in this year's awards, it's in the running for Best Cinematography, Best Editor and Best Actor for both Joyena Sun and Jodie Hillock, who also wrote the script.
Straight Outta Covid (Australia): "I was meant to be in Bali right now." A socially distanced playdate, post-Covid lockdown, with shades of the "She's a pretty big job!" Mitre 10 sandpit ad. Aussies ...