Shaan Rahman stars in the captivating short film Bardo Light, which makes its world premiere at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) as part of Short Cuts Canada: Programme #1. Intertwining suspense, sci-fi, and spirituality, this film blurs the lines between genres, in a style akin to M. Night Shyamalan. Rahman delivers a strong, moving performance as the suspect, while co-star Chris Mackie is spot-on as the interrogating officer. With a plot as spooky as an old Twilight Zone episode, haunting music, and impressive production values on a student film budget, Bardo Light is a perfect mastery of the short film format. It’s engaging and original, and will leave you with a few lingering goosebumps. Criticize This! caught up with Rahman to talk about Bardo Light, what he’d do if Shyamalan called, and life and work in the Canadian film scene.
What is Bardo Light about?
Shaan Rahman: The film is about a young man named Farnsworth, who is prime suspect for the cause of his father’s death, and is consequently being interrogated by a detective attempting to “bad-cop” the truth out of him. Farnsworth claims that his father was an alchemist and was taken by the Bardo Light, the light that’s claimed to be seen by people who have come back from the brink of death. As the skeptical detective pushes on with the interrogation, he wrings out the truth from Farnsworth about how this light came to their discovery and how it changed their lives.
How did you get involved in this project?
SR: A few months before the shoot for Bardo Light, I was working on another short film written by Connor Gaston. We worked well together and seemed to creatively click, so he gave me a call after we wrapped that movie up, and generously offered me a part in Bardo Light. And of course, I didn’t think twice about saying yes.
What was your first impression when you read the script?
SR: At first read, the enigma of the piece hit me pretty hard. Although I had heard of the Bardo Light before through obscure Buddhist references, reading the script pushed me over the line between knowing the Wiki definition of it, to actually reading up the text from the Tibetan Book of the Dead and watching ceremonies performed to help a dying member of the community over to the other side. Besides the enigma, the other thing that hit me about the piece was the lack of empathy Farnsworth was facing from the world, because of his incredible story about his father, not to mention being accused of ridding the world of his only remaining close family and then lying about it. It pulled some heart strings.
You have studied math and physics, and are said to consider yourself a scientist. Did you have a connection to this story because of that?
SR: I certainly could relate to having a science man for a father, and the desire to be a part of his discoveries and studies. I feel that being a scientist and an artist, for me, are getting closer and closer to being the same thing. The older I’m getting, the more I’m feeling that science, the arts, the abstract and the spiritual are all part of the grander consciousness of the Universe, and not mutually exclusive. I like to think of them as different languages used by the same life force. One language maybe completely different from another, but they’re both composite of text and phonetics. So yes, reading a story where one’s scientific pursuit has led them into the spiritual realm definitely resonated with something I believe, about them being part of something bigger than they are on their own.
This melding of suspense, sci-fi, drama and spirituality in Bardo Light could arguably be compared to the work of M. Night Shyamalan, for example the The Sixth Sense or Signs. Would you agree with that comparison? And if your phone rang with Shyamalan calling from Hollywood on the other end, what would you say?
SR: Yes, I would say that the style of the story and method of story telling for this piece is a decent comparison to some of the ways Shyamalan tells stories. It’s a perception or an idea that we don’t completely understand, and though more and more comes to the surface about it, it’s our minds as the audience that put together the end-game of the story, from all the previous clues. If Shyamalan called, I would thank him for the incredible work he’s done and the inspiration that he’s given me…and then perhaps blurt out my resume as fast as I can, in hopes it would stir up a generous offer from him.
Chris Mackie plays the cynical cop that’s not buying an ounce of your character Farnsworth’s story. How did the two of you play off each other, to create that tension?
SR: Chris Mackie’s a pro and he came into work with the detective’s cynicism already on; he also practices law, so I imagine he has experience with the credibility or incredibility of people’s stories. We did not rehearse together before we shot the film, we both came in ready to work. He brought in his objectives of nailing the perp, while I brought in mine to reveal my character’s innocence, and the tension simply sparked naturally between the opposing viewpoints of the characters.
The interrogation scene contains many non-verbal insights into Farnsworth’s psyche, in the form of nervous fidgeting, eye movement, or a frightened licking of the lip. Was it a conscious choice to communicate so much about your character through your body language?
SR: Not conscious during the performance, no. The method of preparation that works best for me is to study the part and do the research as much as possible, and then find a way to put myself emotionally in the shoes and circumstances of the character. Once I find that place, I start there, and the rest is carried through by my subconscious, including the body-language and movement. If I’ve done my prep and my work well enough, the movements and nuances are taken care of by my subconscious, and I no longer need to think or pay conscious attention to those aspects to achieve them.
What other projects can we expect to see you involved in, in the future?
SR: I’m currently involved in rehearsals for a local theatre company called Spectral Theatre, and am running the audition gauntlet for more student films and local TV shows in Vancouver. So, nothing in particular at the moment, but anything can always change in the next.
You were born and raised in Bangladesh until moving to Canada at age 19, and have expressed a love of Vancouver. What was it like starting a new life and film career in Canada?
SR: The first few years felt like a vacation, and it still does now, but in fewer ways. A lot of culture shock – the amount of space, clean air, water, the general friendliness of the west coast culture and lack of noise pollution. It was brilliantly exciting, which was all topped off with the acting training I enrolled myself in. It was something I’d always wanted to do, but never found the right environment and inspiration for back home. So to bottom-line an answer never really ends, it was like getting a completely fresh start at everything! And this time I steered my path towards everything I wanted.
Why should people go see Bardo Light?
SR: The character’s story is very relatable to many perceptions and human sensibilities. It also reflects how the system and governance of most our civilized culture finds the idea of the supernatural or spirituality so repellant sometimes, that it would rather demonize the victim than be open to the possibilities of an incredible event. Nobody can claim to know all the answers, but most insist on claiming to know what the answers are not. It’s a self-devouring cycle of misplaced conviction, and desperation for certainty. Anybody who has lost something dear, and then been punished for it, will hopefully find something heartfelt and truthful about the story of the film.
It’s also a chance to see, once again, that good work in the Canadian film scene can come from any kind of budget, location and ambition. It was after all, a student film made in a small city, on a small island, off the coast of a huge country; and proves that there is work to be seen and deserving to be made anywhere, by anyone. The production values of student films in general, across the country, have climbed so much in just a few short years… Thanks to the equipment and technology being made available to students, who don’t otherwise have enough money, after paying for tuition to make films. When dreams and ambitions belong together, one makes the other true and whole. Hopefully this film, as well as the other student films and underdog filmmakers in the festival, will inspire people to find a way to tell their stories, and know that lack of money or lack of proximity to the big studios in Toronto, Vancouver and L.A alone, can’t stop them from being told.
Bardo Light is playing as part of the Short Cuts Canada: Programme #1 at TIFF 2012 on Friday, September 7 at 7:15 p.m. at the TIFF Bell Lightbox and Saturday, September 8 at 1:15 p.m. at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.
Follow all of our TIFF 2012 coverage at criticizethis.ca/tiff.
Top image: A scene from Bardo Light. Courtesy TIFF.