imagiNATIVE: The Witching Hour Shorts Program Review (Paolo Kagaoan)

NiiPii

Directed by Jules Arita Koostachin

Eahparas

Directed by Anne Merete Gaup

Retaliation for a Greater Good

Directed by Per-Josef Idivuoma

It seems that I won’t spend time at Toronto After Dark with my colleagues here on the site but thankfully, imagiNATIVE has its own slices of horror and cinema of dread with the midnight screening of The Witching Hour Shorts Program. And the crowd I watched these shorts with was a great one.

The program includes NiiPii, a short about a Cree woman who dreams about her ancestor’s past footsteps. However, her new footsteps also expose her to the contemporary problems that First Nations people are facing. The program also has Eahparas, taking the visual perspective of a Sami child haunting her warrior-like mother, who tries to kill the spirit away. The actress in it bravely defies conventions of female depictions in movies. Both are female-driven narratives that in their own way remind me of Germaine Dulac’s creepy and dusty aesthetic. Finally, there’s Retaliation for a Greater Good, a neo-noirish cat and mouse movie that maybe focuses too much on metaphor instead of delivering a good story. Now I’ll spend more time talking about shorts with longer running times.

The 6th World

Starring Jeneda Benally

Directed by Nanobah Becker

My favourite short film is the first one that the series screened, which is Nanobah Becker’s The 6th World. It starts out with a weird dream that seems to be set in a Southwestern desert, where lonely individual corn stalks stand, eventually dying because of that land’s parched nature. The woman (Bedally) having this dream wakes up and goes back to her reality, which happens to be a spaceship, hoping that corn can emit oxygen that humans need for a long space travel. Their destination is Mars, a planet that hopefully can sustain Earth’s life forms. What ensues is non-comic dysfunction between her and the other crew members, although the ship’s general comments about the huskless corn. I can think of two historical events to compare this science fiction short to, but importantly, its tone resonates to stand out simply as a warning against the risks that overtly ambitious people might take in the far future.

Trapped

Directed by Joshua Mark Yesno

Joshua Mark Yesno’s Trapped has three young people who are…trapped on a nighttime road trip. A young woman is visiting her aunt, who is stuck on a road trip with her boyfriend and her ex-boyfriend, the latter being relegated as the group’s reluctant driver. Oh, there’s a fourth member of the group inside the car, who manifests as the ex-boyfriend’s bipolar self. And all of them have dark make-up spread around their eyes, a decision that seems distracting in its incomprehensible presence until the last five minutes. Loosely based on Yesno’s familial experiences, I don’t want to be overtly critical towards this short. However, the actor playing the ex-boyfriend and his ‘devil’ is better at being the latter than the former, while the rest of the cast are just downright amateurish. Nonetheless I still feel a potential within Yesno and there is something confident about touching such controversial subjects.

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imagiNATIVE: The Tundra Book Review (Paolo Kagaoan)

Photo from http://www.imaginenative.org

imagiNATIVE Film and Media Arts Festival 2012

The Tundra Book

Directed by Aleksei Vahkrushev

In choosing to organize his movie within chapters, director Alexei Vahkrushev’s The Tundra Book reminds me of Dogville, but without a sinister turn of events affecting a young stranger, obviously. Instead of that plot, we see a few Chukchi families ride their deer-run sleds into the Russian Arctic Circle. I’m still trying to figure out fully why Vahkrushev organized his movie this way, as each chapter just denotes one or two events in the tribe’s lives. But the title cards do, in their own way, deconstruct the audience’s stereotypical expectations of the shaman-worshiping, environmentalist, history-obsessed Native. ‘Spirits’ are just fur patches that the Chukchi patriarch Vukvukai keep on their person. Rituals are simple actions while the spiritual beliefs driving these said actions are internalized and not explicitly talked about. Nature isn’t an eternal living entity but an everyday constant place where the tribe survives. There is no excessive instrumental ambient soundtrack to exaggerate the purpose of the tribesmen’s actions.

We can also see this straightforward approach in Vahkrushev’s visuals. He knows that nature is beautiful and so are his subjects, and he lets these elements speak for themselves. The arctic snow sometimes glistens without glowing. He rarely uses long shots, a scope used in other films set in harsh climates, and instead focuses on its subjects and the structures in which they live. We see Vukvukai, fully aware that the camera is watching him, teaching his grandchildren in both Chukchi and Russian, or his deadpan banter with his wife and sons. We see the blushing children trying to learn from their elders or play in the snow. Even after the tribe members move to summer pastures there’s still this closeness and rawness to the brown grass and to the children fishing in the waters nearby.

The only times he would use long shots is when he wants to show the majestic herd of (rein)deer. He makes the men look small compared to the herd. Their strong bodies harness the deer that they need for their food and livelihood, the numbers of both sides prove the tribe’s adequately regenerative self-sustainability.

My Dogville comparison is strange, I admit, but both movies are about small communities facing whatever it is that’s invisibly looming from the outside. As many scenes as there are devoted to watching these children play, a chapter later in the movie shows a helicopter arriving to fly the Chukchi children into a compulsory residential school. The phrase ‘residential school’ triggers memories of national trauma here in Canada, where teachers abused First Nations children. Vukvukai and Vakhrushev’s worries are more subtle yet sincere. We automatically empathize with him, telling Vakhrushev that taking away someone’s children is always a strange concept. The former ends his monologue with exclamatory remarks about the ‘stupid law’ without being preachy about it. Movies about any way of life are always presented with that way of life being threatened, but again, Vahkrushev knows to document his subjects behaving in an instinctual way, engendering this idea that native cultures are not just a part of the past but are equally strong today.

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imagiNATIVE: Where We Were Not Review (Paolo Kagaoan)

imagiNATIVE Film and Media Arts Festival 2012

Where We Were Not, Part 1: Alexus’ Story

Directed by Alexus Young

Alexus recounts what we assume is a typical snowy night in Saskatoon. There’s a doodley quality to this animation. Its colours, instead of a block with careful gradations of shade, seem penciled in, but it still has a luminous effect. We also occasionally see her drawing of her own well-structured face, her long hair swept on her right side with different streaks of brown and blond. Her face expresses resignation, blinded by foggy shroud of police lights. This effortless quality of animation also conveys a loss of innocence that fits Alexus’ titular story about being stopped by the Saskatoon police before the latter was involved in a controversial incident that has led to a First Nation man’s death.

For a six-minute short it’s loaded with information and arcs and movements. In a short time we see a complex person and not a label, Alexus being honest about her own imperfections despite declaring her innocence. There’s also an interlude about the Saskatoon bridge that her police car passes by, expressing such controlled poetry despite the fear she must have felt during this brief time of her life. The title, of course, implies that there should be more stories to tell and I’m excited to see them when they come out.

Where We Were Not, Part 1: Alexus’ Story is one of seven short films included within the imagiNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival’s Turning Points: Shorts Program. It’s a program that explores the personal power struggles that First Nations individuals of all genders and sexualities face.

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