When three school friends went their separate ways after graduation from the University of King's College nearly three decades ago, they had no idea that years later a life-altering catastrophe would bring them back together with a new mission in life.
Michael Melski became a playwright and filmmaker, Barb Stegemann became an author and entrepreneur, and Trevor Greene joined the Canadian Armed Forces, serving as a peacekeeper in Afghanistan. While meeting with village elders on a mission to help rural citizens access clean drinking water, Lieut. Greene was attacked by an axe-wielding member of the Taliban in 2006, sustaining a critical head injury from which some medical experts thought he might never recover.
All three are reunited by the new documentary Perfume War, the Wednesday Night Gala screening at the 2016 Atlantic Film Festival (with an encore screening at Park Lane Cinemas on Thursday). Directed by Melski, the film chronicles how Greene's determination to overcome the damage that had been done to his brain inspired Stegemann to help continue his mission to help the Afghan people recover from years of conflict.
In her case it was perfume, not water, that she saw as a key to self-sufficiency.
When Stegemann launched her inspirational book The 7 Virtues of a Philosopher Queen, a guide to tempering business sense with a socially conscious approach, she joked with friends that the cover's brocade design would go perfectly with a perfume bottle. What she didn't realize at the time is that her desire to help continue Greene's work would lead her to an NPR story about Afghan farmer Abdullah’s desire to grow orange blossoms and roses, instead of the opium poppy.
Contacting Abdullah through the Canadian International Development Agency led to the creation of The 7 Virtues line of fragrances, using ingredients grown by farmers in troubled corners of the world like Rwanda, Haiti and, of course, Afghanistan.
“We launched the perfume on International Women’s Day, a few days later we were on the front page of the Globe and Mail, and eight weeks later we were on Dragon’s Den, and it helped me break even,” says Stegemann, taking a rare quiet moment to chat with Melski on the eve of Perfume War's AFF premiere.
"At the same time, there were documentary makers contacting me after I'd appeared on Dragon's Den saying 'We'd love to make a film on you!' I even went so far as to sign a deal and got locked into a contract, and then with the funding situation here, a year went by and nothing happened.
"Then more documentary companies ran it by us, and did the same thing. Finally my husband sold his car dealership, and said we'll fund the documentary, get Michael to make it, give him creative licence, and just make it happen."
While the determined Stegemann takes on the multi-billion dollar fragrance industry, Greene tackles the wiring of his own brain, eventually retraining it to the point where he can stand up again, while also starting a foundation dedicated to educating young Afghan women.
The two-pronged approach to creating something positive out of a devastating situation proved irresistible to a storyteller like Melski.
"I saw the potential for an amazing story about this epic friendship between Barb and Trevor, and how inspiration can lead to transformation, both personal and global," he says.
"I've always been a fan of what Barb's accomplished, and I was very affected by what happened to Trevor. For a while I was negotiating for the book rights to his autobiography March Forth, and was close to doing a deal, but it didn't happen. So out of two things that almost happened, we finally have something."
"That's kind of how life works, isn't it?," smiles Stegemann, who had wanted to collaborate again with Melski since he first helped her out with defining her characters in theatrical productions in King's' basement theatre, known to students and faculty as The Pit.
"Even though we all went in different directions, we all have that same respect for each other when we're collaborating," she says. "I mean, we'd done it when we were 18, so it's kind of neat to do it in a different format nearly 30 years later.
"He can still work with me, in a respectful way, and both Trevor and I got journalism degrees at King's, so we're probably easier to work with — or maybe more difficult in a way — but we have that ability to respect the storyline, and help Michael with whatever he needs in terms of research or background.
"You'll feel that sense of family throughout the film, even to the point where my son Victor, who's also Trevor's nephew, is director of photography, after Michael mentored him."
Finding the focus for the story of Perfume War led Melski and Stegemann down many different paths, from the tangled web of international trade to the ongoing effects of post-traumatic stress disorder. Interviewing Sgt. Rob Dolson, who was with Greene when he was attacked and fired the shot that killed his teenage assailant, led to U.S. Department of Defense contractor and olfactory expert Dr. Pamela Dalton.
"They're trying to find the worst smell in the world, something that can clear a battlefield, but she's also working on using scents to treat and perhaps cure those who suffer from PTSD," says Melski. "All these things started to converge and align with the story we were trying to tell."
To date, Stegemann's story has taken her across the Middle East, Africa and the Caribbean, and now India, where she's teaming up with farmers to provide jasmine for a new scent.
But it all began with Abdullah in Afghanistan, who had been persecuted by the Taliban and was resisting the pressure to become involved in the international drug trade at the ground level. His determination became fuel for Stegemann's entrepreneurial fire. "I was mocked, people would say, 'Who do you think you are?' and I went on Dragon's Den when I was living off my Visa card and didn't have any money," she recalls.
"If I'd listened to those who'd mocked me, I wouldn't have persuaded Abdullah not to give up, and now we have other buyers buying from him, and we've created a movement. People ask what I want people to take away from all this; I just hope that when people have an idea or creative thought, and they believe in it, it can leave a better footprint on this Earth, and they'll develop a certain gift to deliver on that idea, whatever that special thing is.”
For Melski, making Perfume War was a risk, taking time away from dramatic projects like his upcoming gothic horror film The Child Remains, but at the same time, he knew he would have to become a part of telling this story.
"The allied effort to stem terrorism in Afghanistan did not succeed. What Barb is doing is making real positive change in an area where the combined military might of the western world was not able to," he says.
“So the film presents a way to fight a war without conventional weapons. Through faith, through courage, through determination, and Barb and Trevor both embody that highly. ... Wars have been going on since human beings first picked up stones and clubs, and people have been trying to survive that, and cope with that, and rationalize that from then to now. But it seems like these two are onto something timeless, turning hate into love with some sort of crazy alchemy.”