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Mattias Graham’s award-winning short film Bleach shown at more than 20 festivals worldwide

‘We wanted to make sure the film was truthful to survivors,’ says the Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema grad
July 28, 2023
By Julie Barlow, MA 94

Mattias Graham wears headphones, a t-shirt and surgical mask while on set, standing next to a swimming pool. Mattias Graham on the set of his film Bleach, filmed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the short film Bleach by Mattias Graham, BFA 14 (film production), 16-year-old competitive swimmer Damien clashes with his coach during training. In a parallel storyline, Damien plays with his younger brother at a hotel waterslide, but his thoughts return to the pool. Viewers know there’s trouble beneath the surface.

In just 13 minutes, the film captures the essence of a young man’s struggle with trauma. “The duality of the conflict with the coach and the brother bond was important to me,” explains Graham. “It is closer to the way we experience trauma and find ways to move forward at the same time. The process is not necessarily linear. There are stumbling blocks.”

When writing Bleach, Graham drew on his own days playing water polo in high school in his native Saskatchewan. “The pool is very much a home to me, but later on, a friend of mine who was a competitive swimmer at the time, shared a story with me about how they were assaulted by their coach.”

‘Solidarity and vulnerability’

Working with encouragement from producer and fellow Concordia graduate Emmanuel Hessler, BA 06, Graham wanted the project to focus on truth, tenderness and care. “We were exploring what this kind of solidarity and vulnerability looks like for young men,” says Graham, who worked with consultants at the script stage. “We wanted to make sure the film was truthful to survivors.”

Graham also wanted to create something that would be helpful for victims of abuse. “I was always thinking about how we could make something in a way that a teenage boy might connect.”

Bleach conveys a sense of intimacy but also of threat, both of which Graham achieves with low-lit water scenes shot in Montreal’s Olympic Stadium. “Water can be liberating, but it’s also suffocating. Damien loves the water but chooses to leave it by the end.”

Graham wrote the first draft of the film in 2018, then developed it after winning a grant in Société de développement des entreprises culturelles’ (SODEC) Cours écrire ton court 2019, an accelerator program for developing short films. He is grateful to his mentor, director and screenwriter David Uloth, BFA 00, as well as Hessler, who helped him produce the script, which he filmed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Working with Mattias was such an inspiring experience,” says Hessler. “He demonstrated immense care and sensitivity towards the subject matter and engaged fully with everyone who collaborated on the project.

“I’m keen to discover what other narratives he has in store for us.”

A man with light brown hair and beard smiles, wearing a navy blue zip-up jacket. Mattias Graham, BFA 14

‘Teenagers were really paying attention’

Bleach won the Best Short Film - Fiction prize at Saskatchewan’s Yorkton Film Festival in 2022. It has screened at more than 20 festivals across the world, including Short Shorts Film Festival & Asia in Tokyo, REGARD Saguenay International Short Film Festival, and the International Young Audience Film Festival Ale Kino! in Poland.

Graham was thrilled to see young viewers captivated by his film. “Teenagers were chatting away, but then really paying attention to the serious stuff that was happening. I thought, ‘We did it!’” says Graham.

The director was also excited to cast Indigenous Quebec actor Jacob Whiteduck-Lavoie in the role of Damien. “He was certainly the best person for the role, but for me, the idea that Indigenous actors can be excellent outside of purely Indigenous-settler conflict films was important.”

Graham, who is president of the Saskatchewan Filmpool Cooperative and works as a video editor on commercial projects in Montreal, is thankful for his years at Concordia’s Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema, where he honed his skills but also deepened his knowledge of film culture.

“Professor Peter Rist introduced me and so many others to things like late silent cinema and contemporary Chinese cinema — and just opened up this world of movies to us!

“Young filmmakers develop their network of peers at Concordia. I'm still in contact with other graduates, like cinematographer Derek Branscombe [BFA 14]. Some of the first people I met — on the first day of school — are still good friends.”

Mattias Graham’s short film Bleach.

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