Producer Chelsea Winstanley heads to Toronto with “Jojo Rabbit,” a black comedy set in WWII from her husband Taika Waititi in which a lonely German boy must confront his blind nationalism when he discovers that his mom is hiding a Jewish girl. Oh, and he does that with the help of his imaginary friend, Hitler. Winstanley’s resume is chock full of projects championing people bucking the system. Her doc “Merata: How Mum Decolonized the Screen” brought the late Maori filmmaker Merata Mita, and her tireless campaign to give women and indigenous filmmakers opportunities, to the world’s attention this year. Her next film is “Thief of Sleep.”
Do you feel comedy is the best way to approach uncomfortable subjects?
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I think it’s one way to do that. We have to allow people to feel comfortable with something that is often a tough subject and allowing someone to see it through the eyes of a child — that’s the genius thing about this film, that it’s told through the eyes of a child … You can look at it through the eyes of a child and you see how ridiculous adults can be. So while it’s a tough subject it’s probably being treated in the perfect way to allow people to see the ridiculous side of war and its effect, then leave the theater thinking how children are affected by war — all wars — not just the horrific World War II. It still happens today. That’s kind of the thing about the film too, it’s a good balance between drama and comedy. Balance between the relationship between the young boy and the young girl. It’s a beautiful kind of relationship — it’s a love story, really.
What type of films do you need to make?
Going back to my love of documentary. Stories that are rooted in truth. And I guess that’s going on with the #MeToo movement and Time’s Up … so I’m focusing on stories that haven’t been told before and stories from minorities. “Thief of Sleep” is a really good example of that. You have this incredible story of a young man who goes on a journey from Iran — his escape — and he seeks asylum in a country that he thinks is actually going to be a safe place but in reality the West is not doing a great job dealing with its own internal politics and the refugee crisis. So the place he thinks he’s coming to is not in all reality, paradise.
What kinds of films do you have coming up?
In terms of my other projects, “Merata,” she was always on a mission to find space for filmmakers to tell stories that really weren’t being told before, so I think she is always kinda on my shoulder or I’m always looking for her advice even though she’s not here. I feel like I can talk to her and check in to what she was trying to do, and I feel that those are the films I want to make — that are seeking truth. Those are films that are important to make, and I want women to win so I’ve got a couple of projects that are focusing on women.
How important was it to make Merata in this political climate?
The reaction we’ve had around the world has been incredible and I think we didn’t realize how powerful it was and how timely her message was and what she was trying to do. Ava DuVernay said said at a presentation: ‘Who else had not heard of this woman and her films?’ People put their hands up. ‘That’s what’s crazy here! When I found out about her and I couldn’t believe it. We need to be championing this woman because she’s so relevant.’ What Ava’s doing and her whole philosophy seems to be so on par with what Merata’s doing it’s just absolutely incredible that we could reach so many people in so many ways.
And also a wonderful reaction is people getting a little fire in the belly, like oh my goodness, if that woman, who was a single mother of five children, was out there doing these things and championing people, women of color, women’s rights, it makes you kind of look at yourself and say what am I doing?