Premiering out of the Discovery section at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival, M.H. Murray’s I Don’t Know Who You Are is one of the year’s most noteworthy debuts. This intense drama follows a musician (played by TIFF Rising Star Mark Clennon) during one weekend, as he desperately tries to get enough money to pay for HIV-preventive medication after a sexual assualt. As this distinctly Canadian production played for local and international audiences, Awards Radar sat with Murray and Clennon to discuss the filmmaking techniques and personal influences that lent the film its power and authenticity.
Shane Slater: It’s very rare to see films about assaults against men. What motivated you to tell this story on film?
M. H. Murray: This film is based on a personal experience that I wanted to sort of process through the act of filmmaking. It’s a project that I was thinking about for a few years before I decided to start exploring it. And Mark and I had previously collaborated on a short film that was well received. So I figured I would pitch it to him. And once we started talking about it, we couldn’t stop. And we just were throwing ideas back and forth for probably a year before we actually made it.
So it was sort of a cathartic experience. For me personally, and professionally, it was an opportunity for Mark and I to continue working together. And to tell an important story that’s personal to me, but filter it through this fictional character of Benjamin and sort of merge our different experiences to create something that is universal on some level.
SS: The character has a Jamaican background like yourself. How did your personal perspective inform the role?
Mark Clennon: I think the biggest way is just the pride that Benjamin has, that’s a very Jamaican characteristic. I think if this experience happened to a Canadian, it wouldn’t necessarily have gone differently. But I think that there’s a possibility that they could have processed it differently.
Whereas I think for Jamaicans, there’s so much pride involved in how we live our lives. And for better or for worse, we make a lot of decisions based off of pride, and especially given how homophobic our culture is. We’re particularly prideful of things that pertain to sexuality and the LGBT experience. And the logical thing for someone like that to do would be to ask for help, and to go to the police and talk about it. Whereas I think for a Jamaican man, even for someone living in Canada, which is very progressive, I think even someone like that would still have some of that inner homophobia and homophobic ideas about why was I assaulted? And too proud to say anything.
So that definitely is a part of it. I think the proudest part of it though, for me as a Jamaican, was being able to play opposite Grace McDonald, who’s my mother in the movie. She’s also Jamaican, like Jamaican Jamaican. For non-Jamaicans, they’re like, “Oh my god, two black people speaking, they must be Jamaican.” Whereas for us, being able to hear her accent and my accent, it was a very small part of the film, but being able to hear the authentic accents, I was very proud to be able to see that and to do that.
SS: I love the authenticity and naturalism of the film. Can you speak about how you achieved that through your collaborative process?
MC: I think that that naturalism is something that Matt really is keen on as a director and we really tried to strive for that. And I got a lot of great direction from him about how to perform naturally and to percieve and show that naturalism. But I think it’s so funny, I was in my apartment, I was with my friends, I was in a very safe space. So I had the luxury of feeling like I was at home. So it was easy to be natural. Whereas for a lot of actors, it’s sometimes challenging when you’re on set, and you don’t know the people. And it’s a weird environment, and things are awkward. And you can’t really let loose as much.
So I think the naturalness of the performance and everything kind of comes from just the environment. But that’s my take on naturalism. I’m not sure if Matt has a different perspective.
MHM: Yeah, I think the fact that we were in Mark’s apartment, and his own space and again, Mark was very involved with the scripts and everything. So he knew what he was getting into. And he was able to sort of process a lot of it before we even shot. Also, just being kind of around the city. We shot a lot of it in the city or in areas that we frequent.
So I think it allowed us a bit a bit of freedom. Sometimes when you’re shooting in a new space, or in a space you’ve never been before, you have to go through all these motions of comfort, and you have to learn the space. And I think because we already knew this space so well, we skipped a few steps. And then we were able to just kind of jump right into stuff quicker, because we did shoot a lot of stuff in a very short period of time.
So I think if we had been filming in a studio or something, it might have been a different experience. Or it might have been more difficult for us to figure out something as simple as, Benjamin walks into his kitchen, what does he do? He plops down onto this chair, you know? But that was just something that was already natural. If we had to recreate the whole set, it might have been more difficult to be like, okay, where does he go when he’s comfortable? What does he do when he’s anxious?
So the space and atmosphere definitely helped a lot I think, in terms of that naturalism. And for me as a director, giving Mark the space to just improvise a little bit and just make shit up as he went along, as long as it was within the confines of what the scene was about. I think we went into it really clear. It was fun for me to see him take the words and sort of run wild with them. And I think the result is what you see on screen now. Organized freedom, I guess.
SS: I want to touch on that line in the film where his friend says that he’s the scrappiest person she knows. It feels like such reflective of how queer people need to have this fighting spirit because of homophobia. How did you ensure that the character has that agency and fighting spirit and not just be pitiful, considering the premise?
MHM: That was something we talked a lot about. I mean, it was really important for us to create a character that was making decisions and was trying to follow the rules at first and we get to see him get pushed a little bit to do things that he might not normally do. And there’s definitely earlier versions of the script. A lot of different things happen. He attempts different things, or goes sometimes too far, sometimes doesn’t go far enough. And I think what ended up being in the film is a result of that collaboration between Mark and I, and also Victoria Long, who was also a story editor on the film.
It was a difficult balance, because I wanted it to feel real. In real life, we make decisions that don’t always make sense logically, but our decisions are always a result of our circumstances. And so even though everybody might not do some of the things that Benjamin does in the film, I think if they’re engaged in the story, and if they’re on for the ride, then they’ll understand the desperation. And they’ll also hopefully, understand that he tried his best to do the right thing.
It’s a horrible situation, which is I think, what we all hoped we would try to do, or what we would like to think that we would do when we’re faced with adversity. But I think there’s only so much a person can take. And as queer people, we deal with so much every day, and all the baggage that we carry throughout our lives. I think for queer people, certain things can be heightened because of the experience of being queer in this world. It’s just a little bit more drama. So you gotta be scrappy on some level.
MC: I think what makes Benjamin such a survivor is that he is someone who is not from a bubble. He’s definitely lived a life and had to go through things. Who knows how someone else would have reacted to this scenario? But it was never an option for him to just stop and give up. He was constantly fighting and trying to find more money. I think that speaks to that scrappiness that comes from being gay. I think the thing about being gay is even if you are not the direct victim of getting attacked daily and things like that, you still live in a world where you’re forced to harden because you see all the ramifications of your identity all around you. You just see it everywhere you go from the day you’re born.
So it just makes you really tough. And I find it’s a bit of a blessing in disguise. Because yes, your life might be harder than a straight person’s, but you’re also able to withstand things that straight people can’t.
SS: I feel like this film would be surprising for an American audience, because when we talk about healthcare, we’re always thinking about how great Canada is and how it’s free and so much better than the US. So it’s interesting that health care being too expensive is the central conflict in a Canadian film.
MHM: Because Canada is on the other side of the ocean from Europe and we’re right beside America, I feel like there’s certain elements of our culture that are very Americanized. And then there’s certain elements of our culture that are like the Commonwealth, like Britain. And I think one thing in our culture that is kind of weirdly split in the middle is health care. Because we do pride ourselves on being able to provide a lot of stuff for free. There’s a great social government program. But the other side of it is, there’s certain things specifically like pills, dentistry and eyes. Like, someone decided that eyes and teeth are not that important. But they’re just as important as everything else.
But anyways, I digress. A lot of pills are not covered. So that’s where it becomes like a weird, private, kind of a more Americanized thing. And it’s not just for HIV medication or PEP. There’s a bunch of other different kinds of pills that are not covered by the government plan. So I think it’s a complex situation. We don’t want to trash it or anything. But we do want to point out some of the things that still could be fixed. There’s definitely work that can be done to make certain things more accessible, that aren’t currently accessible.
And like you said, this is a story that I think American people could relate to, and I am curious to see, once we release there, what those conversations will be like. I’m cautiously optimistic that it’ll create some sort of positive change up here in Canada, because I think, it would just be much better if it was easier to access these things.
MC: Yeah, it’s very complex. I think, for me, having lived in Jamaica, the US and Canada, I would definitely say that Canada is doing better, but it’s not perfect. And I think that that’s the problem. A lot of people think that because it’s better, it’s perfect, or it should be perfect. But it’s definitely not. This would have gone very differently if this was in any of those other two countries for so many other reasons. And I think that the issue of health care and medication costs in Canada is a very serious one. And it’s a very impactful one. Lots of people in this country can’t afford or get access to certain medications because of our healthcare system.
But I think, like Matt said, we want to kind of walk that line between being critical of our healthcare system, but also acknowledging that it is flawed. Like for me personally, having lived in those three countries, I will gladly choose Canada over the US and Jamaica, any day, period.
But I think it’s complicated. On the one hand, it is a very fucked up system. And I think the fact THAT any medication costs $900 is wild. But at the same time I’m very proud of some of it. The areas in which Toronto specifically has made progress specifically with is specifically with PrEP. And having access to PrEP, and how that has reduced our HIV infection rates. And I’m also very proud of the resources that gay men have in Toronto, because we have very generous testing facilities where you can go there every three months, and you literally scan your health card, you go into a room, you do your thing, you come out, and they text you the next day. It’s discreet, it’s anonymous.
So I think the challenge of this film, and the challenge of what we’re trying to do is we’re trying to highlight the inequities in our health care system. But also, we’re not trashing it, you know? We’re not here to say this is the worst country and that no one should live here. It just needs to be improved upon. And I think to Matt’s point, that this film can help bring awareness to some of those issues and help make it better, that’s a win win.
SS: On a lighter note, let’s talk about the fanny pack. It actually ends up being a very important element in the plot and it’s such a defining part of his character too.
MHM: You know, there are logistical reasons and personal reasons. One of the personal things is, I noticed the older I gotten, the more independent I became, the more I wanted to carry a bag. And then I guess like five years ago or something, fanny packs started becoming trendy again. And it became a discreet way for men to have a purse without being called out. I just noticed that I started carrying it around a lot. And then when we were working on the script, I just wanted something visual and physically tangible, that he could put the money in throughout the film as it’s collected.
And then, the high stakes of having something in your hands, as opposed to just like, electronically receiving money, I think that is just way more visceral and more exciting to watch. It just kind of worked out on a creative level, and then also on a logistical level. It was a great tool to have narratively, and I still have the fanny pack, but unfortunately, the zipper is broken, so it will have to be repaired. And then maybe one day, we’ll put it in a museum.
SS: Do you have any projects lined up that you can talk about?
MHM: I do. I’m shooting my next film in three weeks. Which is kind of insane. In the heat of pre production right now basically. It’s a queer horror movie. Basically, it’s an homage to 70s and 80s horror movies. It has a really exciting cast that will be announced soon. And then Mark and I are working on a few projects. We have a series that we’re working on. I think it’ll probably follow Benjamin again, but this time in the world of expensive dining. He’s gonna work in a fancy restaurant. And then we also have a feature that we want to shoot in Jamaica one day, and music videos. There’s a lot of stuff going on. Honestly, probably too much. I need to sleep!
MC: We’re gonna be in Jamaica soon to do some music videos. And then the feature is probably down the road. It’s been a goal of mine to make a Jamaican LGBT feature and Matt and I have been chatting about that and the logistics. The video that I did last year in Kingston, which was like an LGBT video, gave us a lot of inspiration to think about. I never thought that it was possible to do anything gay in Jamaica, but it is.
One of our main comparisons for this movie is sort of like, basically a Jamaican Call Me By Your Name sort of, in the way that it’s all kind of in one location. But it really highlights the beauty of the region. So the way that Call Me By Your Name really shows off Italy. That’s what we would try to do with this.
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity]