Ann Marie Fleming Returns With ‘Can I Get a Witness’

In a career spanning more than 35 years, Ann Marie Fleming has relied on a deceptively simple guiding principle – make stuff.

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Ann Marie Fleming - Photo credit: Ed Araquel

Born in the Ryukyu Islands (Okinawa Prefecture), under U.S. military occupation, with a mother of mostly Chinese origins and an Australian father, her family settled in Vancouver where Fleming started making films while studying at the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design. Her short films, including Blue Skies, New Shoes, I Was a Child of Holocaust Survivors, Big Trees, are a mix of docudrama, animation, and reflections of her own life.

In 2003, she debuted the animated documentary The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam, about her great grandfather, a globe-trotting acrobat and magician, and in 2016 she wowed us all with her critically acclaimed animated tale Window Horses, about a young woman’s love of poetry and desire to understand her family history.

Now, she returns to feature filmmaking with Can I Get a Witness, a live-action/animated movie set in the near future where the world’s population collectively agrees to end life at age 50 to erase poverty and save the planet, and a young person is assigned to document their sacrifice. The film, co-funded by the CMF, is set for release in 2024 and stars Sandra Oh, Keira Jang, Joel Oulette and Andre Anthony.

Now & Next caught up with Fleming on the line from Vancouver where she spoke candidly about her “climate grief,” the joy of collaborating with longtime friend Sandra Oh, and other passion projects she plans to bring to the big screen.

How long have you been working on Can I Get a Witness?

Oh my god, I've had this script and this idea for a very long time. And it was only after COVID that it started to make sense to other people because then it became a tabletop conversation. What are we willing to do for the greater good? Basically, it's the answer to all the world's problems - climate, poverty, trans-species, democracy, everything. We just turn back technology and we all have to die at 50.

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Keira Jang & Sandra Oh - Photo credit: Ed Araquel

Like so many of your films, this one is coloured by your worldview, specifically, your environmentalism.

I have been living with climate anxiety for a long time, a lot of people are, and I think everybody's living with climate grief too, right? People are just starting to put a name on it and people feel so helpless and they feel that they don't have personal agency.

And the second component of the film is that younger people then document that sacrifice.

Right. In the story, young people, if they have artistic proclivities, they can choose to become a documenter because there's no more photography in the future - digital or analog - because of the end of extraction industries. We follow Kiah (Keira Jang), it’s her first day on the job as a documenter, and she's teamed up with Daniel (Joel Oulette), who has a little more experience and is showing her the ropes. Sandra Oh plays Ellie, Kiah's mother. She’s part of that first generation of people who had to witness people leaving in the new world order.

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Joel Oulette & Keira Jang - Photo credit: Ed Araquel

You’re dealing with very heavy issues, but you call the film a “gentle satire.”

Yes, but it’s interesting, Sandra Oh doesn't like the word “satire.” Her word for this is “fable.” And it's true. The film has a lightness to it, a sort of other worldliness, and a gentleness. Yes, it's a very gentle world where incredible sacrifices are made.

You have known Sandra Oh since 1994, and she provided the lead voice, and co-produced Window Horses. When did you start talking to her about joining this film?

Sandra is, of course, a very busy person, and I had this in front of her for a couple of years, but it was when she had a bit of a break a year ago, she was able to put her thoughts to it. And she was very interested in this film from the point of view of how it deals with death and dying, and how you don't see that a lot in films from the West.

I don’t think I even have to say what an honour it is to work with Sandra Oh, her process is so deep, her commitment to the material and her character so profound. Such a generous actor, and Joel Oulette and Keira Jang were just revelations. I loved working with them, all great actors, and lovely people.

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Sandra Oh - Photo credit: Ed Araquel

Do you feel some of your climate grief has been alleviated in the process of making the film?

Mine? No, I must tell you, I've had a lot of losses in the time that I've been making this film, a lot of personal losses. And of course, the world has had a lot of losses. But it makes me feel okay about death, that was the big surprise.

You’ve also been working on Shanghai Follies, a fictional re-telling of your great-grandfather Long Tack Sam’s life and your family’s mixed-race history.

I've been trying to make that film for over 20 years, but I got to make Can I Get a Witness instead. It’s based on my great-grandfather who was a traveling Chinese vaudevillian acrobat and magician. But the big deal is that he married my great-grandmother, who was a Catholic woman from a small Austrian town who'd never been anywhere. So, they had mixed-race kids - my grandmother and her sister were actually in his show - and the film is set in Vancouver in 1932. I'm always interested in not the clash of cultures, but the rub of cultures, because my family's been mixed-race for so many generations. But I have another project I have to tell you about.

Really, what’s it about?

It's called Gift Horse. It’s set in Japan about somebody who finds these envelopes filled with money that are placed in public washrooms around the city. And, again, it's about ethical choices, like what do people do with this money. It’s based on my time in Japan many years ago, on real events, and instead of people going, ‘Oh, isn't this wonderful and delightful,’ people were thinking that somebody was trying to subvert society. And, of course, there's a climate angle to the story too.

You seem busier than ever, and that’s saying a lot for someone who has been making films and art for more than 35 years!

Oh, bless you. Well, Can I Get a Witness took 12, 13 years to come to fruition and it’s been eight years since my last feature. It’s so hard to get films made, you just have to hang in there. Just hang in there and believe in what you're doing.

Ingrid Randoja
Freelance writer Ingrid Randoja is the former film editor of Toronto’s NOW Magazine, the former deputy editor of Cineplex Magazine, and a founding member of the Toronto Film Critics Association.
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