Way Up North
Laurie Sarkadi

Recording a Renaissance: Way Up North

A new northern doc road trips along the roots and rebirth of indigenous music, and Laurie Sarkadi loves it.

There’s no denying that northern youth carry within them a creativity informed by the expansive, often austere magnificence of their isolated surroundings. For those born in an Arctic environment from an indigenous culture, it’s in their DNA.

But sometimes it takes a pair of fresh eyes, or two pairs, to bring all that talent into focus.

Toronto filmmaker and producer P.J. Marcellino and American co-director and cinematographer, Hermon Farahi premiered a 35-minute rough cut of their documentary Way Up North: An Arctic Symphony during the 9th annual YK Film Festival Sunday night. It lived up to its billing as a road movie and a genealogy of the indigenous music renaissance – Buffy Sainte-Marie, Tanya Tagaq, A Tribe Called Red and Susan Aglukark all make appearances – in one, even though it had its roots in a more finite, albeit no less ambitious, northern project.

The pair began documenting Listen Up! NWT, the biggest arts outreach program ever in the territories, in which Canadian classical music ensemble The Gryphon Trio collaborated with schoolchildren in six NWT communities and a host of northern artists and sponsors last year to culminate in an inspiring live performance at NACC in May. That journey, which weds breathtaking cinematography with enchanting, behind-the-scenes glimpses of school children attempting musical compositions, poetry and song, is still largely the backbone of the film.

But a chance meeting in Inuvik afterward with Dene-Inuvialuit songstress Leanne Goose outside the Mad Trapper bar prompted the filmmakers to decide not to let the curtain fall just yet. At the film festival gala Friday night, and again at NACC’s screening on Sunday, Marcellino and Farahi credited Goose with helping them reboot their project to include indigenous artists outside of the Arctic, as well as northern artists, reflecting on the origins of their music and the issues that infuse their identities and careers.

Avoiding the dark

The land. Displacement. Residential Schools. Racism. There’s ample room for the film to get sucked up into the darkness that has been the hallmark of Canada’s colonizing relationship with indigenous peoples. The filmmakers certainly have the chops to tackle such shadows – their first feature film effort, a self-financed documentary, After the War: Memoirs of Exile, is about untold psychological traumas lingering from the Second World War… and both are anthropologists and social justice advocates. But apart from a walk down Vancouver’s East Hastings neighbourhood with hip-hop artist Jerilynn Snuxyaltwa, whose voice quivers as she acknowledges the poverty there, the directors didn’t go down that road, to their credit.

Way Up North is infused with so much positive energy, it practically bursts off the screen. It’s evident that the participants – northern artists such as Leela Gilday, Godson and Carmen Braden, the 75 students in the choir, the Gryphon Trio – are pumped about the project, but it is the filmmakers themselves who seem unable to bridle their enthusiasm for the experience of being in the North surrounded by established and budding artistry. The pace is fast, the edits practically trip over themselves, giving the film a sense of urgency, or at least making you sit up and pay close attention – there’s a lot coming at you and you don’t want to miss a beat.

There are a few places where I hope the film will linger a bit longer in the final cut, such as the actual performance, and the ice sounds that Carmen Braden records with her microphone immersed into an augured hole. 

But this is not a music video. You won’t leave the theatre feeling as if you’ve got a solid understanding of any one artist’s repertoire. It’s a story about the power of music, the ability for creativity to inspire and overcome adversity.

You’ll see it on the youths’ faces after their performance, and when one exuberant participant from Fort Simpson repeats “amazing” over and over… unable to quite comprehend how they pulled off such a monumental feat.

“From this moment on their sense of possibility for themselves expands in a way none of them thought possible,” comments conductor Rob Kapilow.

“I understand the power of being part of a huge piece like that and I would really like to see some of the northern kids get a chance to do something on that level,” Leela Gilday says in the film. “Those little critical moments you have when you’re a kid… it could really change some kid’s life.”

While the participants had to pack in a powerful effort for the show, making a film of this scope was not without its own obstacles. Were it not for the sponsorship of Canadian North Airlines, there’s no way the filmmakers or the students and artists could have ever traversed the vast distances required. Marcellino and Farahi say their “unrelenting DIY ethos,” which included crowdsourcing, helped them overcome the odds, along with financial support from the NWT Film Commission’s pilot film rebate program, a strategic partnership with Folk On The Rocks, and institutional support from Raindance Canada, Western Arctic Moving Pictures, NACC, the Chamber Factory and a host of others along the way.

Marie Codere, artistic and executive director of the Northern Arts and Culture Centre (NACC), says the centre fundraised for two years to raise $200,000 for the Listen Up! NWT project, which was an equal partnership effort with the Gryphon Trio. NACC – which was not involved in the financing of the film, itself a $350,000 effort – also approached Yellowknife’s Susan Shantora to create the youth choir and funded it for a year, as well as gathering support for all the partners, artists, schools and communities.

In true northern style, people up and down the Mackenzie River were touched by the infectiousness of the two determined filmmakers and the inspiring project they were chronically, and lent a hand.

The finished version of the film will screen in Yellowknife next spring.

“Way Up North: An Arctic Symphony” Production Trailer 3.0 from Circle Group on Vimeo.