For Zack Bernbaum it started with a title, all thanks to his Bubbie. In the spring of 2016 the Toronto-based director was at his parents’ house with his sister and brother-in-law, and his beloved grandmother. And “my sister’s dog starts jumping up and down, and my Bubbie says ‘she’s dancing!’... it was a cute moment.”
Somehow the Dombrova added itself, he says, and the phrase resonated and stuck with him for a while before he began crafting the concept and basic story of an elderly grandmother, a final request, and a madcap journey that tests the bonds of a brother-sister relationship.
The Dancing Dogs of Dombrova makes its Canadian premiere at the Whistler Film Festival Nov. 30. Brother and sister Aaron (Douglas Nyback) and Sarah (Katherine Fogler) travel to Poland to retrieve the remains of their grandmother’s dog Piotr. The two begin squabbling as soon as they arrive – in the middle of the night – in Dombrova. They can’t agree on anything: from whether or not their surly taxi driver wants to kill them, to how best to carry out Bubbie’s wishes. Aaron blames his sister for his broken engagement; Sarah blames him for setting the bar too high.
“It’s a little weird,” Bernbaum admits of the script written by Michael Whatling. It’s got this “absurdist and off-kilter vibe from the get-go” but at its heart it’s a story about addiction, family strife, and forgiveness. The director knew he wanted to tell a sibling story and draw from his own family dynamic: “I think every familial relationship is fraught with conflict… not that they are my sister and I, but there was a lot that I was able to draw from.”
And Bernbaum’s 97-year-old grandmother, the woman who started it all, makes an appearance in the film and earned a dedication in the end credits. “It’s a way to honour her . . . . Being able to share her with an audience is very special.”
Is Bernbaum a pragmatist, like Aaron, or a free spirit, like Sarah? “I definitely have an overthinking tendency, always trying to think of the errors that will happen,” he admits. “I’m a director and producer so it’s that practical mindset where I want things to be a certain way... I’m trying to have a bit more of a go-with-the-flow attitude.”
The challenges of shooting in Romania required all of Bernbaum’s easygoing attitude: the crew shot in sub-zero temperatures, in locations with no modern heating, so “the interiors were just as cold as the exteriors . . . . we were wearing 14 layers and still shivering.” Then there was the vintage Lada (“a brilliant find”) that, true to its unreliable nature, had no heat, only passable brakes, and refused to start each day in the cold.
But the Transylvania region blessed them with picture-perfect locations, like the synagogue in which Sarah and Aaron chat to the resident rabbi. The synagogue was only recently reopened in recent years and was basically shot as is, says Bernbaum, who notes that there were only four Jews in the small town. “Locations are everything: you can make a white wall look interesting but it’s a lot of work. If you find a place with built-in character like that, 90 per cent of your work is done.”
Bernbaum didn’t shy away from the “Canadian-ness” of the story, despite the fact that the film debuted at the Austin Film Festival and would be playing for audiences in the U.S. and abroad. Brother and sister are from Toronto (Aaron recently defected to Ottawa) and one character orders a “double double” in true Canuck style. “I didn’t want to shy away fully from the fact that they’re Canadian, or make it vanilla so it’s digestible to everybody,” he says. “Not everyone will get it, but that’s OK.”
The director of And Now A Word From Our Sponsor and Cold Deck interned in Los Angeles after university and says he is open to a move south for the right project: “I like L.A. I’m not against moving there and being involved in that system. I want to make films that audiences see and most audiences see movies in the Hollywood system, so L.A. is always on the radar.”
For now, Bernbaum is excited to be heading west to showcase the film at Whistler, where he skied with his family as a child. “It’s a cool place to go and for this kind of movie this festival makes a lot of sense,” he says. “I’m very excited to share this with a Canadian crowd.” It’s his hope that people will laugh and be entertained but also be inspired by the themes of recovery and reconnection in the film. “People are moving a mile a minute but it’s important to know where you come from and share in those histories with family and friends. Those are the things that bring people together.”
The Dancing Dogs of Dombrova is part of the lineup at the 2018 Whistler Film Festival, Nov. 28-Dec. 2, which features master classes, a music showcase, talent programs, and 90 Canadian and International films. Tickets available at whistlerfilmfestival.com.