"I was a photographer for years before I was a director. I was the third woman hired by United Press in the world as a photojournalist," says photographer and director Gail Harvey. "I was with an agency in New York that Diane Arbus’s daughter was with, and I often wondered what it would have been like to be her daughter."
Harvey’s new film, Looking Is the Original Sin, opens Friday, Nov 22 in Toronto. Starring veteran Canadian actors Katie Boland, Maria del Mar and Kent Staines, the film was inspired by the tragic life of Diane Arbus, whose candid and stark black-and-white portraits influenced generations of artists and revolutionized photography.
Looking Is the Original Sin tells the story of a mother and daughter in peril. Anna Trueman (Boland) vies for the attention of her gifted but tormented mother, Helene (del Mar) who struggles to reconcile her talent and mental health issues with raising a family. Del Mar fully inhabits the character of Helene Trueman with bursts of mania and maddening, crippling bouts of depression. The onscreen chemistry between Boland and del Mar is impressive — unsurprisingly, the actors played mother and daughter on HBO Canada’s 10-part series Terminal City.
Harvey says she identifies with Arbus’s experience working as a woman and mother in a largely male-dominated industry.
"I don’t have a friend that’s a mother who is not torn between career and family. So, that’s kind of what this story is about. She influenced me because she always stretched the limit of photography and was not afraid. She completely changed what the expectations of her were. She was born rich, got married and was an assistant to her husband, who was a fashion photographer, and then became an artist in her own right and went to the fringes of society," Harvey says. "She was the first person that I knew who really pushed the boundaries of photography. I found her pictures fascinating and what they said about the people she was taking pictures of. They were very humane, I felt, and you got to know these people."
Looking Is the Original Sin also has queerness to spare. Staines portrays close family friend Brent brilliantly. It’s a treat to watch him put on his drag queen face, and the tough-love relationship he forges with Anna as they down glass after glass of red wine is genuinely engaging and heartfelt.
Toronto drag royalty Heaven Lee Hytes is cast in a smaller role as herself but shines with the few lines she has and helps craft some of the best-looking and well-executed moments in the film. Multiple scenes throughout the movie were filmed at Play on Church Street (now Church on Church), where Staines performs as Hytes.
"I spent a lot of time taking amazing pictures of drag queens, and they were very honest performers and I love personality. I have a lot of close gay friends, and I wanted Helene to have a close gay friend," Harvey explains affectionately. "What I was able to do with the camera is take the drama into the real world."
Harvey will also exhibit 50 of her most acclaimed photos and celebrity portraits during the film’s run at Carlton Cinema.