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acting up north Wanted: Anglo man and woman who can pass for 65 or older in low-budget short film. Previous acting experience required. Must be available for one week in early October and willing to travel to Lacolle, Québec. Accommodations provided. No pay, but small honorarium possible.

Philippe Spurrell of Montréal hopes this casting call — paraphrased above — will help him find two talented thespians for Blanket of Secrecy, the 35mm project he plans to start shooting this fall. “It’s a ghost story based on real events,” explains the 40-year-old writer-director.

Spurrell’s screenplay was inspired by a news item that appeared about a year ago in the Montréal Gazette about a shameful, and relatively unknown, chapter in his country’s history. “Even though we were a haven for the Underground Railroad, Canada actually had slaves of its own,” he says. “The story described a man named Philip Luke, a British loyalist from ‘the Lake Champlain area’ who fled into Québec with his family and six slaves in the 1790s.”

This Revolutionary War combatant settled in St-Armand, a municipality next to Phillipsburg, just across the border from Highgate Springs, Vermont. In Blanket of Secrecy, Lacolle, across the New York State line near Rouses Point, will be a sort of geographic body-double for St-Armand.

Luke’s slaves were buried in a spot marked only by a large slab of limestone that is still officially called “Nigger Rock.” Segregation prevailed after Canada chose abolition in 1833 and, during the 19th century, their descendants were interred in the “Negro Cemetery.” This designation appears on the original graveyard signpost now exhibited at the Missisquoi Historical Society in Bedford, Québec.

“Eventually the land was sold, the gravestones were razed and crops were planted,” Spurrell recounts. “Corn grows there today.”

Enter Hank Avery, a contemporary third-grade teacher in St-Armand who has been trying to make some changes. He wants the limestone renamed “Slave Rock” and a monument to commemorate the disappeared cemetery. Luckily, Spurrell points out, the Québec government has ruled that the property is “a heritage site” protected from development.

Where reality ends, fiction begins. According to Spurrell, Blanket of Secrecy is his attempt “to create a kind of ‘what if?’ In my script, there’s a farming family in a remote, isolated place with a legacy of keeping slaves until the late 1960s.”

Two elderly white people remain on the homestead. One day, their estranged grandson arrives. He doesn’t know these people but wants to understand his roots. “He slowly uncovers the ugly truth,” Spurrell explains. “Ghosts begin to appear from every generation back to the 1790s.”

He decided to approach the topic as a feature, because “I think the genre can promote more dialogue than a documentary would.”

The budget for his film, which will be about 30 minutes long, is $30,000 (US). Spurrell has raised the cash and recruited mostly volunteers for the crew. He thinks the National Film Board of Canada probably will help cover his post-production needs.

Spurrell is no newcomer to the art form. “Until 10 years ago I directed shorts and short documentaries,” he says. “Some were accepted at international film festivals and won awards. But then I got too busy on other people’s films as a producer or production manager or actor.”

The Montréal native also has directed a film society at Concordia University since 1992, and he collects 16mm prints. This devotion to celluloid persuaded him to avoid digital video for Blanket of Secrecy. “To me, it’s a trendy aesthetic,” Spurrell suggests. “Thanks to that technology, these days everybody and their dog is a filmmaker.”

Want to audition? E-mail him at pspurrell@sprint.ca.

short takes Summer brings another update on Martin Guigui, the Vermont musician-turned-movie-mogul now based in Hollywood. He shot Colored Eggs in Nashville, however, and then decided Changing Hearts would look better on a marquee. No, it’s not about organ transplants. This as-yet-unreleased indie, starring Faye Dunaway and Lauren Holly, is a life-affirming take on cancer patients . . . The Flynn Center and the Vermont International Film Festival are teaming up on October 28 to present Koyaanisqatsi, with composer Philip Glass — in person — performing his score for the dialogue-free 1983 film, a panoramic view of modern America. The title is a Hopi word meaning “life out of balance.” Nine years later, the message is more relevant than ever.

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Susan Green

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