SONGS OF INSPIRATION
CIFF doc connects Indigenous cultures
For anyone who thinks the traditional festival circuit in Canada can be a bit of a grind for filmmakers, consider the experiences of P.J. Marcellino and Hermon Farahi.
Since early this year, the co-directors have been holding screenings of their musical documentary, When They Awake, in Indigenous communities across Canada’s North, sometimes for audiences of fewer than 20 people. From Nunavut to the Yukon, they travelled to these remote areas by plane, by dirt road and, on at least one occasion, by snowmobile.
That latter adventure happened in April, when a stubborn blanket of fog threatened to strand the two filmmakers in Igloolik, a hamlet in Nunavut. Marcellino and Farahi were particularly excited about the stop, being that it is the home of Inuit filmmaker Zacharias Kunuk, the man behind the 2001 classic Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner.
The two filmmakers gave Kunuk a private screening of When They Awake but eventually learned that the flight they had hoped to take out of Igloolik had been grounded 60 kilometres south in the tiny community of Hall Beach. It meant that the two could have been stuck for over a week in Igloolik, which would have put a major wrench in the tour. But, coincidentally, Marcellino had a friend who lived in Hall Beach and began hatching a plan. How hard could it be to get to Hall Beach? All they needed was a hunter with a snowmobile, GPS and knowledge of the land.
“The next few hours we had, we spent trying to find the right hunter and trying to get this done before 6 p.m. before gas stations closed,” says Marcellino, in an interview. “By six we were on the road and we crossed to the other side and got to my friend’s place just in time for dinner.”
It’s a great story, but it also points to a larger “think-outside-the-box” approach the two filmmakers have adopted when getting their film out to the Indigenous communities celebrated in When They Awake. Three-and-a-half years in the making, the documentary is a
labour of love that chronicles the renaissance of Indigenous musicians from across Canada who are using their talents to celebrate their culture and address colonization and other dark aspects of their history. The documentary takes its title from a quote by Metis leader Louis Riel, who in 1885 said, “My people will sleep for 100 years, but when they awake, it will be the artists who give them their spirits back.”
Neither Marcellino nor Farahi is Indigenous — the first thing audiences see in the film is a disclaimer that reads “This story is not our own.” So they relied on collaboration and feedback during that northern tour. While a few of the bigger screenings included traditional Q&As, most ended with the filmmakers participating in a story or sharing circle.
“The most important part was really sitting with elders and youth and listening to their feedback,” Marcellino says. “As you can imagine, between April and now a lot has changed in this film. Those changes are due mostly to what happened on that trip, the feedback we got about the things that are working, the things that are not working. If you’ve seen your films 300 times, you sit in the back and instead of watching the film you watch people. That’s what we were looking at: when people were laughing and crying, when they were uncomfortable, when they were interested. At the end, at the Q&As and sharing circles we learned so much about what people were thinking, that allowed us to tweak things.”
The tweaked version will screen on Wednesday at the Jack Singer Concert Hall as part of the opening gala of the Calgary International Film Festival. The film features more than 45 Indigenous performers and includes both interviews and riveting live footage from acts such as internationally acclaimed Inuk throat singer Tanya Tagaq, roots-blues guitarist Derek Miller, hip-hop trio A Tribe Called Red and Iskwe, a Cree/Dené and Irish electronica and trip-hop artist who will also perform in Calgary at the opening gala’s after-party in the Jack Singer lobby.
The film highlights artists and Indigenous communities across Canada. There’s even a stop in Calgary, where the cameras focus on folk festival performances by Buffy Sainte-Marie and The Jerry Cans.
Before becoming filmmakers, Marcellino worked as a journalist and political adviser with international agencies, while Farahi has a background in cultural anthropology. The two worked together on 2014’s After the War: Memoirs of Exile, which chronicled a family’s three-generation trauma inflicted after the 1945 shooting of a Ger- man officer by Soviet soldiers.
Three-and-a-half years ago, the two filmmakers travelled to the Arctic with members of the classical music ensemble The Gryphon Trio, which provided the score for After the War. The musicians were visiting the Northwest Territories to participate in a youth-engagement project in six northern communities. But the story kept growing. In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada released its reports that explored the long-term impact of abuse suffered by Indigenous People through residential schools, with commissioners concluding that it amounted to “cultural genocide.”
“If you are in the Northwest Territories, Indigenous themes are so prominent,” Marcellino says. “We were very tuned into that. So when the reports came out, both of us being people who have worked on inclusion and exclusion professionally before we became filmmakers, it drew our attention and we started to have conversations that everyone in Canada was having at the time.”
The filmmakers began connecting with Indigenous musicians, including Leela Gilday, Leanne Goose and Susan Aglukark, who eventually signed on as an executive producer.
Eventually, focus shifted from the Gryphon Trio’s project to a much broader tale about how Indigenous artists were using music to engage communities and their young people. (The former became a separate documentary, which is expected to be released later this year.)
The timing of When They Awake was deliberate, with both filmmakers hoping the film would raise questions about Canada’s past in its 150th year. But while the film addresses dark topics such as colonization, cultural suppression and the devastating impact of the residential school system, the tone is anything but grim. The artists involved all convey hope and a determination to preserve and pass along the music, stories and language of their respective cultures.
The music, meanwhile, is eclectic and exhilarating, showcasing artists who are mixing their cultural traditions with strains of hiphop, electronica, folk, blues, rock and country.
“When you look out there and you see people like Tanya Tagaq and the guys from A Tribe Called Red and you see Buffy Sainte-Marie and you see Iskwe and the impact they are having and how amazing they are and how empowered they are and how full of voice they are, you can’t help but feel a sense of hope,” Marcellino says.
Filmmakers P.J. Marcellino and Hermon Farahi’s musical documentary, When They Awake, is screening at the Calgary International Film Festival starting Wednesday.
P.J. Marcellino and Hermon Farahi’s film conveys hope and determination.