There was no greater way for Canadian director-writer Anne Wheeler to honour her mother than create the film Bye Bye Blues. Based on her mother’s experiences during the Second World War, it explores the life of a wife and mother who joins a local dance band to support her children while her husband is at war.
“I felt women’s stories in general hadn’t been told. So many stories about war are usually about the fighting side. For me, representing the home front was lacking. It was usually not given much due. Women’s relationships were underrepresented. I was lucky to have a sense of purpose and I made films of Western Canada,” said Wheeler in a telephone interview from her home in White Rock, B.C.
Wheeler is a Canadian icon with 40 films to her name, twice that many TV episodes, and 15 documentaries. Bye Bye Blues was filmed in 1988, a year-long project telling Canadian women's stories.
STARFest 2021 and the Arden Theatre are co-presenting a rare screening of Bye Bye Blues on Wednesday, Oct. 13, followed by a 10-song live concert of the film’s music. Jazz vocalist Mallory Chipman has dug up George Blondheim’s original film score, and organized a seven-piece band for the event.
In real life, Wheeler’s father was a doctor, and out of necessity, had accepted a job in India. The couple, with three young children in tow, lived the “life of a Raj” in India. But then, the Second World War exploded, and Wheeler’s father was sent with a British battalion to Kuala Lumpur.
“[Parents] were separated abruptly. Although they shifted to the fact they were separated, they hoped to see each other in one year.”
However, news arrived the British colonies in the East had fallen to the Japanese and tens of thousands had been taken prisoner. It was a shock, especially since her mother had no way of obtaining information about the Wheeler patriarch.
“My mum had to find a way home. She boarded a boat from Karachi and filled with Polish people.” Wheeler’s mother and brothers endured a lengthy boat trip around the Cape of Africa before reaching New York. And from the American port, Wheeler’s mother had to find her way across Canada with the children.
“She was powerless to do anything. She had no way to make a living like generations of homemakers before her. She was 30 years old with kids and she plays the piano. A local band is looking for a piano player and she wins a spot in the band.”
Like many women of the era, Wheeler’s mother was forced to take the initiative and do things never attempted before. With men away at war, a new breed of women was discovering untapped strengths within themselves.
“She went through big changes, and it set up a feeling of confidence. She wanted to do things differently for her children, and it had an impact on my generation,” Wheeler said.
The 1989 fictionalized epic was filmed in both India and Alberta throughout four seasons to create the passage of time. The low-budget $4-million film cost “peanuts compared to most films,” said Wheeler.
But as storytelling goes, it became legendary, attracting 11 Genie Award nominations.
After the screening, a live concert takes place. In addition to Mallory Chipmen on vocals, the concert features Brett Hansen (guitar), Stephanie Urquhart (piano), Murray Wood (bass), Biboye Onanuga (drums), Fred Mack (saxophone), and Remi Noel (trombone).
Wheeler will also appear virtually at STARFest on Thursday, Oct. 14 to chat about her latest book. Taken by the Muse: On the Path to Becoming a Filmmaker is a collection of six short stories based on adventures in her 20s. It was a period when Wheeler was unsure about the direction to take in life.
“They had a huge impact on me and the way I thought,” said Wheeler, who gives us a taste of Africa, India, and even Fort McMurray as seen through her eyes.
“They’re very dialogue oriented, a bit like a play with myself as the characters. At my age, I only have a limited number of stories that I can make into films. So, I decided to write the stories down before they’re forgotten.”
Wheeler will do a short reading followed by a Q&A. Tickets for Taken by the Muse are available at www.starfest.ca.
Tickets for Bye Bye Blues: The Music & Film are available at https://stalbert.ca/exp/arden/.