While Mazo de la Roche was one of Canada's most prolific writers, she was also one of the country's most enigmatic.
That was the greatest challenge faced by Annex filmmaker Maya Gallus when she decided to capture de la Roche's story in her film The Mystery of Mazo de la Roche.
A docu-fiction that recounts the intensely private life of the author of the Jalna novels, also known as the Whiteoak Chronicles, was a labour of love for Gallus. She worked on the project off and on for 20 years.
In examining de la Roche's life, the filmmaker uncovered some surprising details from the author's life, though the more she dug into de la Roche's past, the more those facts seemed to shift and swirl.
"I had thought she was a Victorian spinster and didn't know she had a whole other life," Gallus said. "But every time I came across some new information, it seemed the facts of her life changed. I would hit a wall and get frustrated, then put (the project) aside."
Despite those frustrations, uncovering the details of de la Roche's life story kept nagging at the filmmaker. While she had planned on making a strict documentary, she managed to break through once she decided to add a dramatic element, complete with actors to play the roles of de la Roche, her lifelong companion Caroline Clement and others.
"It freed me up creatively," Gallus said. "(de la Roche) was so adept at making fiction of her own life, it just made sense."
Getting to know the author's adopted daughter, Esme, offered more insight into the life of a woman who let few people in and whose true story stymied many who knew her.
Spending some time in Benares Historic House, where de la Roche spent considerable time and which is believed to have inspired the Jalna series, was another key to unlocking the mysteries of the writer's life.
"I'm very superstitious and when making a film about someone who's no longer with us, I need to make sense of their magic," Gallus said. "There's lots of Mazo magic (at Benares)."
While de la Roche rose to fame in the 1920s with the Jalna series of books, her experiences seem tailor-made for today's celebrity-obsessed world. Deeply secretive, the author was great at portraying a persona in the vein of celebrities such as Madonna and Lady Gaga. She and Clement kept their true selves well-hidden from the public eye as they lived in what was, at the time, a highly unconventional Boston marriage-style arrangement.
"I think she'd be very comfortable today, with the whole concept of fame and the celebrity culture that's so invasive," Gallus said. "She understood clearly the concept of the public and the private self."
Gallus said the author appeared to want to be part of the mainstream conservative lifestyle, though her books belied that to a certain degree. Perhaps the strongest character in the books was the matriarch, Granny Whiteoak, a rarity in what was a male-dominated culture.
Though de la Roche obviously had great strength herself, Gallus believes the writer related more directly with Finch Whiteoak, a sensitive artist type.
"You can see parallels between (Finch Whiteoak) and (de la Roche's) inner life and how fragile she felt," the filmmaker said.
Gallus, who co-founded Red Queen Productions with Justine Pimlott, has directed several films, including the Gemini Award-winning Girl Inside, which documents the story of Madison as she transitions from being male to being female.
Her first feature, Elizabeth Smart: On the Side of Angels, also looks into the life of a celebrated Canadian writer.
The filmmaker has a love of - and a knack for - profiling the lives of specific subjects.
"I love peeling away the layers of the onion skin to find what the truth is of (a subject's) life and what's really important," she said.
Gallus resides in the west Annex, where she has lived for more than a decade. The creativity within the community helps to fuel her own fire for filmmaking.
"Mirvish Village is a fantastic place," she said. "There are so many artists in the area."
The Mystery of Mazo de la Roche will be screened three times as part of the upcoming Hot Docs Festival, at 4:45 p.m. on Sunday, April 29 at the TIFF Bell Lightbox Theatre, 6:30 p.m. on Monday, April 30 at the Isabel Bader Theatre and 4:15 p.m. on Sunday, May 6 at the Cumberland 3.
For more information on the film or the Hot Docs Festival, visit www.hotdocs.ca