At the opening night of the Yellowknife International Film Festival, the epic feature Maina depicted an Innu and Inuit conflict, pre-European contact. It ends with a sense of deep foreboding as settler ships sail into a bay. We all know what comes next.
It was a great setup for the next three days, which admittedly left me feeling uneasy. The dark themes surfacing included racism, addictions, recidivism, and, not infrequently, suicide. People new to the North got a crash course in the lingering effects of colonialism, while some young northerners just got angry as the films chipped away at the struggles of their forefathers and mothers.
Presented with an array of artistic styles and voices – from John Walker’s somewhat old-school NFB documentary Arctic Defenders, chronicling the Inuit rights activism of Tagak Curley and John Amagoalik, to Mi’kmaq director Jeff Barnaby’s irreverent revenge fantasy against residential school abuse, Rhymes for Young Ghouls – there were few moments of levity. Young Ghouls’ supporting actor Roseanne Supernault even advised viewers to stick around for a Q & A after the film as a way to decompress from its heavy subject matter.
Quebec filmmakers excelled with two documentaries on Friday. The first, cinematographer Steve Patry’s De Prison en Prison, followed three ex-cons as they attempted to reintegrate into society upon release. Their care and attention and desire to beat their demons led me to believe they’d succeed, but two of the three were pulled back into the abyss and I slunk down into my chair with disappointment.
Then Quebekoisie marked a turning point in the festival. Olivier Higgins and his wife Melanie cycle through Oka and other parts of Quebec trying to better understand the complex relations between aboriginal and non-aboriginal peoples. They reveal that most Quebecois in fact have aboriginal blood, and that there is much power and healing in forgiveness. I sat up in my chair, brightened.
Come Saturday’s packed house for the NWT Shorts, the mood was decidedly upbeat, starting with Michelle Swallow’s darling animation Prince of the Buffalo Hunters: A Story by Jim Green, and Andrew Silke’s offbeat romantic comedy Matt & Messy. The breadth of our local film gene pool was on full display, from aRTLeSS Collective’s Conibear, a surreal meditation on the life of a trapper, to the skillfully shot and edited Rattlesnake, Kelvin Redvers’ story of a young girl alone in the desert after her father dies. And Mason Mantla’s Breaking the Silence, an exploration on the impact of sexual assault, and yes, suicide, shows the power of youth telling their own stories.
But what stood out the most for me that day was Mohawk Midnight Runners, Zoe Leigh’s adaptation of Richard Van Camp’s short story Dogrib Midnight Runners.
While it too wrestles with suicide, it brought something to the once taboo subject that no other film did. Laughter. The death of a close friend is not funny, but streaking in his honour is. In classic Van Camp form, the midnight runners are exposed, in every sense of the word, for who they really are: sensitive, vulnerable, caring, determined, resilient, and naked, men.
Healing through laughter
It is a rare gift to be able to tackle such heady subject matter in a way that heals through laughter and shines a how-to light on positive life changes. Van Camp has made it a goal to not only entertain, but help unravel some of the tangled weave that has wrapped itself around indigenous peoples in a post-colonial era. You can see similar messaging in his stories about positive and healthy sexual relationships amongst couples.
The last film I watched near the festival’s close was Tony: Back from the Brink. Tony Kalluk of Clyde River, Nunavut has spent 20 years in prison, but he’s out, and trying to overcome his anger and violent past. Through interviews with his family and friends we come to understand the horrendous childhood that moulded him.
He describes how he tried to provoke an RCMP officer to shoot and kill him, and how grateful he is to have only taken a bullet to his leg. The officer’s humble account is a rare glimpse into the power of human compassion, and the audience is left thinking that surely, after all that, Tony will triumph.
Tony suffers a few setbacks, and as the film was screening, an RCMP officer in Igloolik was recovering from a gunshot wound he received Saturday from a man on a shooting spree in the community. Art, as in life, does not come wrapped in a tidy bow with happy endings.
But Tony doesn’t give up in his rocky quest for redemption. And that, ultimately, was my takeaway from this excellent film festival.
Winners of the 8th Annual Yellowknife International Film Festival
Best Feature Film: Maina
Best Feature Documentary: Tony: Back from the Brink
Best Short: Mohawk Midnight Runners