Homegrown short film making its Cape Breton debut Thursday night

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SYDNEY — Cape Breton writer-director Ashley McKenzie channeled a bit of her own story in the short film "Stray," which will be screened tonight just up the road from the half-demolished company house in Whitney Pier where it came to life.

"It's not autobiographical or anything but I think it's the film that has the most of my kind of childhood experiences in it," said McKenzie, who has chosen to pursue a career in film while based on the island.

Co-written by McKenzie and Nelson MacDonald, who also produced the project, "Stray" tells the story of Savannah — portrayed by Whitney Pier's own Brooklyn Campbell — a lonely nine-year-old struggling to find an object for her affection inside the confines of a hard-nosed home and work-worn town.

The 14-minute film had its official premiere last month at the Atlantic Film Festival in Halifax but will make its hometown debut tonight as part of the Cape Breton Island Film Series, which showcases independent films Thursday nights at Empire Theatres in Sydney. It will be a special night for McKenzie and MacDonald, both of New Waterford, who have long aspired to shoot a project on the island. Their two previous short films, "Rhonda's Party" and "When You Sleep," were filmed in Halifax, and bringing "Stray" to Cape Breton was made possible by "Rhonda's Party" winning CBC's Short Film Face Off, which came with a $50,000 grand prize film production deal.

"In some ways I'm forgetting the fact that this is the first film that is completely homegrown and that was shot here just because we've wanted to for so long," said McKenzie. "'Stray' creates a distinct world that just feels completely organic and completely unified, and I think that's what I always felt like shooting in Cape Breton would offer. Other people said ('Stray') felt like something that they haven't seen before and I think that's also something that I thought was attractive about shooting here. It feels really good to see the power that we think lies in making films here, is coming across on the screen."

Shot over five days in December of last year, McKenzie said Campbell  — selected from approximately 125 young girls who auditioned — was a natural in the lead role in her first acting experience.

"There's no way this film would have been made if any other girl had done it just because it's so demanding and because she was so mature and smart. She was like one step ahead of us and we needed that," she said.

Campbell's castmates in the film are Sam White, from Glace Bay, and Halifax-based actresses Susan Kent and Jennie Raymond.

Describing "Stray" as more experimental than her first two films, McKenzie said she is interested to see how the hometown crowd responds and relates to it when it hits the big screen.

"I just want people to ultimately connect with it in some way, and I'm also just trying to stay true to what inspires me and what I want to do and the ways in which I want to challenge myself," she said.

"Stray" will be screened at 7 p.m. prior to the feature film selection of the week "Barbara." Tickets are $11, and students are admitted for $7.

Stray credit roll:

Writer/director - Ashley McKenzie

Writer/producer - Nelson MacDonald

Cinematography - Stéphanie Weber-Biron

Production design/costumes - Valérie-Jeanne Mathieu

Editor - Jacquelyn Mills

Sound - Andreas Mendritzki

Music - Youth Haunts

Cast

Savannah - Brooklyn Campbell

Sherri - Susan Kent

Jenny - Jennie Raymond

Roger - Sam White

Organizations: Cape Breton Island Film Series, Empire Theatres, CBC Campbell's

Geographic location: Cape Breton, Halifax, Rhonda Brooklyn Sydney New Waterford Glace Bay

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