Songs She Wrote About People She Knows is a comedy with a serious underpinning. Making its TIFF debut on Monday, it’s the story of Carol (Arabella Bushnell), an office worker who expresses her disdain for friends, family and co-workers through song.
“The germ of the idea came from somebody I know who was involved in a group with communication problems,” says writer/director Kris Elgstrand, whose script for Man Feel Pain took the Best Canadian Short Film prize at TIFF in 2004.
“To help facilitate open dialogue they actually brought somebody in whose M.O. was to get people to sing about the conflicts between them. I thought it sounded kind of ridiculous and hilarious so that kind of stuck.
“It dovetailed with some songs I had been writing. A few years ago I did a CD called Songs of the Sad Sack Volume 1: I’m So Disappointed, and the character of someone who wrote these songs expressing the inexpressible sort of evolved out of that.”
According to TIFF programmer Steve Gravestock, the film alternates “between scenes of outright hilarity (especially the film’s opening) and moments of genuine, keenly felt emotion,” but the message that art can overcome all lies at the centre of every scene.
“People are generally happier if they have some sort of creative outlet that allows them to express some version of their experience,” Elgstrand says.
“There are people who are creative, but in a different way. There is expressing deep feelings like people try to do in music and plays and movies. Then there is another whole category of the knitters and the découpagers. A lot of the art on the walls in Carol’s apartment was actually done by the lead actor’s mother. She is dead now and we had all this stuff lying around and we thought, where did Carol come from? What other stuff had she tried?
“I don’t know if she was expressing deep feelings, but she put a lot of her anxiety into it. She découpaged everything. There were a few years where she’d découpage a table. She’d découpage 20 or 30 picture frames. Mirrors. It does feel good to create something, even if it isn’t expressing deep feelings. There is something very rewarding about starting a project and finishing it. I think that is therapeutic as well.”
The movie has that inspirational message, but is buried in a sea of slapstick comedy and musical gags.
“If the movie inspires somebody to write a song and sing a song about a friend and it makes them feel better,” says Elgstrand, “that would be great, but ultimately I hope people come and have a good time.”