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Taken by the Muse: On the Path to Becoming a Filmmaker

by Anne Wheeler

There’s a chatty intimacy to Taken by the Muse, a series of vignettes focusing on adventures Canadian filmmaker Anne Wheeler has embarked on in her life. Wheeler, whose critically acclaimed career includes the feature films Loyalties (1986) and Better Than Chocolate (1999), as well as episodes of Da Vinci’s Inquest and Cold Squad, chose to locate her memoir prior to her filmmaking career, centring instead on her wayward youth in the 1970s, during which she struggled to find her place in the world.

Unhappy with the education her parents insisted upon, and not wanting to settle into the role of a dutiful wife, Wheeler strayed from familiar paths in order to find herself. Most of these stories feature Wheeler as a small figure in a big world – the only woman in the Filmwest Associates collective, alone on the road in Mombasa, strapped to a plane to film an Indigenous reservation, or driving through the Canadian Prairies during snowy winters.

There’s a clear undercurrent of chance in her book. The introduction recounts Wheeler answering the phone at two in the morning; the caller is the writer Margaret Laurence. Wheeler had adapted one of Laurence’s short stories two years prior and the unexpected conversation provides Wheeler with one of her guiding principles: artists must be free to make their own choices. (Or, as Laurence put it, “You have to discover your own truth.”)

This freedom is tied up in Wheeler’s position as a white woman in Canada (and in various forays abroad). In the course of her travels, she struggles against sexism and finds meaning in telling the stories of other women. So much of Wheeler’s artistic work, which is inherently bound up in who she is as a person, comes from how she orients herself as an individual connecting to other individuals. She lowers her guard with a young man in Mombasa and learns from a woman in her 90s about the brutality associated with being a settler in Canada. These kinds of encounters become the foundation for her work as a filmmaker, first at Filmwest and then the National Film Board of Canada, where some of her early films are still available.

Wheeler notes that the stories she tells are of their time, and for that reason they feel out of touch with our current moment more often than not. As the book goes on, it comes to feel as though each chapter is a variation of the same set-up. Still, Wheeler provides a keen awareness of who is allowed the privilege of telling stories, a privilege she had to fight to get. What Taken by the Muse ultimately demonstrates is that life is not a straight line with a clear trajectory. Rather, the moments of growth and joy occur when you veer off a given path and create something worthwhile out of the diversion.