The rules are simple: 1. No severe pain; 2. No permanent physical damage; 3. Nothing illegal.
How bad could it be?
Inspired by a flippant remark about the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Canadian filmmaker A.J. Bond made a bet with close friend and longtime collaborator, actor David Amito, to see which of them could withstand a week of psychological torture at the hands of the other.
The result is the claustrophobic and grimly unnerving feature, Stress Position — an independent film with a direct Langley connection.
Shot in an avant-garde “torture chamber” in an isolated warehouse, what begins as a bizarre and darkly humorous reality TV scenario gradually spirals out of control, testing the limits of the men’s friendship and exposing an unsettling link between filmmaking and torture.
Stress Position made its debut at Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF) last week. And joining the cast and crew at several of its screenings was Langley’s Amy Belling.
Belling’s first feature film as a cinematographer (she is also producer), Stress Position has won a number of international awards. In Canada, it has been nominated for seven Leo Awards, including a best cinematography nomination for Belling, as well as best motion picture and best direction.
It was released in April in Toronto, and is now being shown in Vancouver, with one final VIFF screening on Friday, June 6.
These days, Belling divides her time between Vancouver and Los Angeles, but the 33-year-old filmmaker has deep roots in the community.
For Belling, a Brookswood Secondary School graduate, a career in filmmaking was a natural fit. It was at the high school, known for its exceptional film and video department, that her future began to take shape. After graduating, she studied at UBC and, later, attended the American Film Institute (AFI) in Los Angeles, where she completed a masters degree in cinematography. Up to that point, with respect to cinematography, at least, Belling had been largely self taught.
Making the move to L.A. opened doors for the young filmmaker that she might otherwise have had a tough time cracking.
“My options for work are more interesting and varied than if I had just stayed in Vancouver,” she said. “Last year I shot an American indie feature film for a month in Denver, called A Remarkable Life and lived for five months near Santa Barbara, shooting the Canadian TV series, Unusually Thicke.
“Lots has been happening, and there are a lot of plane rides in between all of these shooting locations, film festivals and workshops, but I love it so much and feel very lucky to be doing work that I am passionate about.”
Belling has produced feature films, shorts and television — but this project is not like any of the others.
Filmed on a micro budget — $50,000 of private equity funding — Stress Position had an intriguing high concept and a very manageable scope, in that it required only one location, three actors and limited crew, explained Belling.
But it was the controversial nature of the premise that hooked her.
“It was different than any other film I had ever been a part of creating, because these were people playing themselves and working from a 30-page treatment where dialogue and scenes were improvised instead of scripted,” Belling said.
“The film is foremost psychologically terrifying in its violence and not at all gory in its violence,” said Belling, adding that the filmmakers are inspired by the works of Stanley Kubrick, Roman Polanski, Michael Haneke, among others — all of whom create psychologically terrifying films that lack visual gore.
“We just aren’t in to graphic gore as a form of storytelling, and find the psychological violence much more impactful and frightening. It also suits the tone and style of our films, and places the films we create in an artful, more psychological thriller category.
“It is a fine line to walk, creating that kind of tension and terror without getting gory, and I think at times we really achieved suspense and tension, and then at other times we failed.”
Something the filmmakers perhaps didn’t think about was the possibility that what was playing out in front of the camera might translate into the real world.
“It was so difficult to judge how everyone was feeling along the journey of making the film,” said Belling. “I felt particularly nervous about the dissolution of A.J. and Dave’s friendship as we witnessed the reality of what was going on between them as friends, as well as them as actor and director.
“Filmmaking is stressful no matter what, and making films with your friends is always incredibly risky. I really wasn’t sure at the time if they would be able to come out the other side as friends.
“A.J. and myself have had incredibly stressful moments during the production of all of our films, and each time our friendship and working relationship is tested in a new way.”
There were times, she said, when everyone on set was asking if pushing their friendship that far was worth making the movie. The risk appears to have paid off, though, with Stress Position getting plenty of attention from awards committees as well as some great reviews — a fact that isn’t lost on Belling.
“Honestly, the press we have received in Canada, the USA and the UK has been really exceptional,” she said. “I feel so honoured that so many critics have reviewed the film, written articles and engaged in interviews — not to mention the filmmakers, festivals and public that are talking about the film and programming the film. It is such a different experience than with our previous short films.
“This is my second feature film as a producer, but my first feature film as a director of photography, so it is very special to me in terms of where it ranks amongst the rest of my work to date,” Belling said.
And it’s one that really needs to be viewed in a theatre, she said.
“Stress Position is unlike any other film you will ever have the opportunity to see, and it is a film meant to be experienced with an audience,” said Belling. “So come to one of our upcoming Vancity Theatre screenings on May 30 at 10:30 p.m. or June 6 at 10:30 p.m.
“It will challenge you with questions about what is real, what is not, who your true self is and what you might be capable of.”
Stress Position isn’t the only film at VIFF this year that boasts a connection to Langley.
The feature Cruel and Unusual revolves around a man who is wrongfully condemned for killing his wife and arrives in a bizarre version of hell, where he is forced to relive her death for eternity. It was shot at some local farmhouses, as well as a Langley school and a park last year.
It is screening at Vancity Theatre on June 7.