As a love story, the Quebec film Gabrielle is described by its screenwriter and director Louise Archambault as being like Romeo and Juliet.
It's certainly about star-crossed lovers. Gabrielle and Martin are young adults who fall for each other while singing in a choir, but since they both have intellectual disabilities family members do not treat them as having control over their own choices.
"Martin is less developmentally challenged than Gabrielle and his mom wants more for him, but he loves Gabrielle. At one point they cannot see each other anymore; she's sad, disappointed and she rebels. She looks around and can see her sister and her mom having relationships and living with their partners," Archambault says.
"Gabrielle is learning life; she's learning how to become a woman. At the start she's child but by the end she's a woman."
Gabrielle is being shown during the Whistler Film Festival (WFF) on Saturday, Dec. 7, at the Rainbow Theatre at 4 p.m.
Archambault came to the story idea because she "wanted to talk about happiness." She tells the story of a woman from her neighbourhood in Montreal that she used to see at the local swimming pool.
"She was more mentally challenged than the cast in my film," Archambault says. "In the changing room at the pool she had someone helping her but she was a strong personality, never wanting to wear her bathing cap and yelling. I would see people uneasy with it.
"But in the water, every time, she would just sing super well and be happy. It was beautiful, but I still felt people were uneasy."
Around the same time, Archambault learned more about Young Musicians of the World, a non-profit organization working with young people from needy villages and neighbourhoods in Quebec and abroad, including India, which figures in the film.
Gabrielle is Archambault's second feature. Her first, Familia, won the Claude Jutra Award in 2005.
What is unique about Gabrielle is that its lead actor, Gabrielle Marion-Rivard, has Williams syndrome, a condition that can bring on cardiovascular disease and learning difficulties sitting side-by-side with enhanced language abilities and often outstanding musicality. Half the actors were similarly impaired, Archambault says, allowing for an authenticity and spontaneity in the way the film was made "because this is their lives."
"They were non-actors, really, and they kept their own names in the film to help the spontaneity and I could play with that and work with them more easily. It was very fulfilling and inspiring," she says.
The music also crosses boundaries and touches audiences of all abilities and backgrounds.
Archambault says: "It wasn't intentional. I'm conscious that when you make a film and choose that medium you want it to talk to a lot of people. Music and especially choir singing expresses for those characters their emotion, their sensitivity.
"I wanted my main character to sing because it is a wonderful way to connect. When you have nothing you can still find a moment of happiness because of the choir singing, it gives you a good feeling. After the film you just want to sing. That was what I wanted, actually."
In September, Gabrielle was chosen to be Canada's entry for the foreign language category in the 2014 Academy Awards. Archambault explained that Gabrielle is one out of 65 international films being considered as finalists for the Foreign Language Oscar. This number will be whittled down to five or six by the time the awards are presented.
"It's such an honour and when you make a film you don't think about that," Archambault says. "It's quite a feel-good film and the subject is delicate, I think it's a film with the sunshine in it. So I'm happy because sometimes for those kinds of awards they want war. I am also happy because it shines a light on those people who inspired me to make the film."
The box office for Gabrielle has been positive.
"We are the second best in box office in Quebec right now," Archambault says. "When you make that kind of film you don't necessarily expect that. It's not with stars, and the producers, the investors, they really believed in the project. Our gut feeling and our hearts was with the story, and its success was a wonderful surprise because it means the audience is open to that kind of film."
The WFF showing of Gabrielle will be followed by an In Conversation discussion with Archambault and producers Luc Déry and Kim McCraw joining WFF Director of Programming Paul Gratton.