Japan's Aokigahara forest has become so notorious as a site for suicide that it has become more commonly known as the Suicide Forest. In 2010, for example, it was estimated that more than 200 people attempted suicide in the forest, 54 of which were successful. And that was not an unusual annual number — it's actually significantly lower than the record 105 bodies found in the forest in 2003.

The forest's popularity has been attributed to Japanese writer Seichō Matsumoto's 1960 novel Kuroi Jukai (Black Sea of Trees). Matsumoto was seemingly the first of dozens of storytellers around the world to choose Aokigahara as a setting for their work, including Canadians like author Jeremy Bates, with his 2014 novel Suicide Forest, and — most recently — Winnipeg-born Nadia Litz, with her second feature film The People Garden.

Set almost exclusively in the forest, Garden follows a young Canadian woman (Dree Hemingway) who travels there to find her missing rockstar boyfriend (François Arnaud). But when she arrives, her mission is stalled by an aging starlet (Pamela Anderson) who seems to know more than she lets on.

People Garden

Pamela Anderson in "The People Garden" (Pacific Northwest Pictures)

"I think what she is really looking for is her own identity," Litz tells CBC Arts about her protagonist. "Away from the baggage of her boyfriend. All of the characters are trying to deal with their baggage. All of them have different coping mechanisms and approaches to doing that."

Litz said she wanted to try and make a film that would be for the young women who maybe craved something a little "more off-kilter than Twilight," like she did when she was young.

"As a young woman, films like Sofia Coppola's The Virgin Suicides and Lynne Ramsay's Morvern Callar meant a great deal to me," she says. "Those films reflected my offbeat sensibilities. They were patiently paced, oddly romantic, wry, with dark or melancholy atmospheres. They were spellbinding like other films I was discovering at the time by directors like David Lynch, Jim Jarmusch and Wim Wenders. But those films were female-centric. I felt like they spoke directly to me as a young woman."  

People Garden

Dree Hemingway in "The People Garden" (Pacific Northwest Pictures)

The People Garden is certainly female-centric. Beyond Litz, there's the cast led by Hemingway and Anderson, both of whom the director called "refreshing and modern" to work with.

"Equality, to me, is choosing the best people for the job and having talented women to choose from in that mix." - Nadia Litz

"I think [Dree] is an incredibly surprising actress," Litz said. "She is elusive in a way that is deeply compelling to watch on screen. She doesn't give it all away. I respond to that as a director. And if Dree is a surprising actress, I would say that Pamela is a surprising person. I always found her sexpot persona fascinating, but within a few minutes of speaking with her she became even more intriguing.  She knows everything about art, counting people like Richard Prince and David La Chappelle as close friends. Her level of activism is profound. She makes wise choices as a mother. There is something very refreshing and modern about both of them."

Litz also assembled a well-balanced crew in terms of gender, notably with producer Coral Aiken and cinematography Catherine Lutes.

"Equality, to me, is choosing the best people for the job and having talented women to choose from in that mix," she says. "The best people for the job will always be people who are original and interesting, and so naturally diversity is paramount in that equation. We had three different crews in BC, Ontario, and Japan. There was diversity across the board, and I think that comes across in how fresh the film feels."

The People Garden is available now on iTunes, Google Play, the Cineplex Store and all major VOD outlets across Canada including Rogers, Telus, Bell and Shaw.