SONGS OF IN­SPI­RA­TION

CIFF doc con­nects Indige­nous cul­tures

Calgary Herald - - FRONT PAGE - ERIC VOLMERS When They Awake will screen at the open­ing gala at the Cal­gary In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val on Wed­nes­day, Sept. 20 at the Jack Singer Con­cert Hall at 7:30 p.m. Ac­tresses Michelle Thrush and Melissa O’Neil will host the evening and Iskwe will

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.

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