From debilitating stage fright to starring in a film premiering at the 71st annual Locarno Festival, 16-year-old Emma Bonikowsky has come a long way in a short time.
La Cartographe, an independent short film written and directed by Nathan Douglas, will have its premiere Aug. 9 at the world-renowned festival in Locarno, Switzerland.
Bonikowsky plays Emma, who, facing a tumultuous family life, begins investigating her neighbour’s “wildly boring” running route after he is in an accident.
Bonikowsky, born and raised in Hope and a student at Hope Secondary School, was once so afraid of the stage she would cry at the thought of standing in front of a crowd and cringe when the audience would clap for her.
Around the age of 10 or 11, something clicked and her fear of the stage transformed into an active interest. She began acting with a theatre group in Chilliwack, went on to do some background acting and eventually locked in on her path to working in film and television.
With five years spent in the Vancouver acting scene – auditioning, training, acting on the stage and working on a commercial – La Cartographe is Bonikowsky’s first film role. Having her short premiere at one of the longest-running film festivals in the world is something Bonikowsky said neither she nor Douglas could have imagined a short time ago.
“I still can’t believe that a tiny film about a very personal vision of a section of north Burnaby, B.C., is going to reach so many people around the world,” Douglas wrote via email.
According to the website Film Festival Life, Locarno was “created as a festival aiming to discover new talents and new trends… (and) has established itself as an invaluable launch-pad for the new generation.”
Young directors who have had their films screened at the festival – including Stanley Kubrick, Spike Lee and Gus Van Sant – have gone on to world-renowned careers.
This is the first time Douglas has a film premiere at Locarno, although he’s no stranger to praise on the festival circuit.
His 2015 short Son in the Barbershop screened at 20 film festivals and won, among other awards, the judge’s award at the Northwest Filmmakers Festival in Portland, Oregon.
Brother’s Keeper, a film he wrote and directed in the SFU Bachelor of Fine Arts in Film program, was selected for five festivals and won the Denali award at the 2012 Alaska Film Awards.
Bonikowsky’s path to starring in La Cartographe began long before she was cast in the role of the lead character, who is also named Emma.
Bonikowsky originally auditioned for a film Douglas was a producer on, It’s Him, which didn’t work out.
“But he really liked my work and so then last spring he contacted me and said, ‘Hey, I’ve been writing this project and I’ve been keeping you in mind for it. Would you like to be in it?’ ” she said.
The role was 100 per cent written for Bonikowsky, Douglas wrote, and based so closely on what he knew of her temperament he didn’t see a point in giving the character a fictional name.
She is present in nearly all scenes and even the film’s premise was written to give her an opportunity to show her contemplative acting style, Douglas added.
“When I saw what she was bringing to her audition, I felt she like she was accessing a very deep inner well of feeling. But it also felt raw and unpredictable and, when I began writing, the question became, ‘OK, how do we draw on that ability?’ ” he wrote.
With a seemingly simple premise and on the surface mundane environment of urban industrial landscapes, the 30-minute film lingers on the things most city-dwellers pay scant attention to – the ebb and flow of traffic, nondescript industrial buildings, a dirt path carved by many feet in between two official roads.
Bonikowsky’s character meditates on these spaces, their history and how they are shaped by human intrusion.
The film doesn’t rely on dialogue. Instead, the focus is on expressions and emotions conveyed without words.
“That’s one of the challenges, especially my character. She didn’t say a whole lot in the film, and so it’s just about somehow finding or clicking into that feeling and having to portray emotions without using your words and how much to show and how much to hide,” Bonikowsky explained. “So that was a challenge, but it was really cool to be able to do that.”
“I am less concerned with drama or psychological insight than with capturing the thickness of a moment – a look, a gesture, a movement, a word, a presence,” Douglas writes on his website.
This complexity of La Cartographe suited Bonikowsky well. As an actor, she sees her strong suit in the world of drama and subtlety rather than comedy and Nickelodeon-style grand gestures.
Bonikowsky had experience on film sets with her extra work, but La Cartographe was something different.
The film was set entirely in and around Douglas’ apartment, a small space that the 10 crew members and four actors shared during the five days of filming last summer.
Working with Douglas and the team was collaborative, welcoming and friendly. While nervous at first, Bonikowsky said the experience “couldn’t have gone better.”
“He was an awesome director because he made sure to ask me … It was a lot of working together instead of him directing me, which I think I was really lucky to have for the first time. Definitely, not all directors are like that,” she said. “It made it a lot easier to connect to the character.”
Some moments required a lot of focus. Bonikowsky recalled one moment when she was filming a scene where her character was behind a couch while a crew member was painting her nails.
The cameras were up close on her and a million things were going on all around: focus was crucial during the five days of filming.
What her career holds after Locarno remains to be seen.
After the film, Bonikoswky and Douglas will hold a Q&A period, and she hopes to make connections at the festival.
Getting older, by one year, may also help her career as casting directors and producers are often hesitant to cast actors under the age of 17. It comes down to the ability to work overtime, which 16-year-olds are not allowed to do.
Still a shy person at heart, Bonikowsky said acting has taught her the value of being outgoing and meeting new people – skills she’ll likely make good use of on the festival circuit.
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