A Haida artist animates an old fable

Christopher Auchter, creator of the brilliant Haida short film The Mountain of SGaana has strong words of gratitude for his Auntie Shelley, who gave him the opportunity to attend high school in Victoria. For medical reasons, she had moved to the city from Haida Gwaii, where Christopher’s secondary school had only 145 students. His aunt’s invitation to move in with her led to graduation from Oak Bay High School, where he’d advanced his art and woodworking skills and gained admission to Emily Carr University of Art and Design in Vancouver. There he focused on hand-drawn animation techniques. A year in the computer animation program at Sheridan College in Oakville, Ontario gave him the 3D digital skills that the market was then looking for.

Auchter got a foot in the door with the National Film Board when he was hired to do the charcoal drawings for the short animated film How People Got Fire (2008) directed by Daniel Janke. His career was launched.

Completed in 2017, The Mountain of SGaana is a wordless depiction in delightful hand-drawn imagery, of a Haida tale told to a fisherman by Mousewoman, a favourite Haida creature from the spirit world. Mousewoman knits a blanket that illustrates the story of sea hunter Naa-Naa-Simgat and his beloved Kuuga Kuns. SGaana (Haida for killer whale) captures the hunter who has been taking his prey and takes him to the underwater world. Kuuga Kuns dives in to save him.

“In the original tale, it is the wife who is captured and Naa-Naa-Simgat who saves her. “I switched the roles,” says Auchter, “because I was surrounded by so many strong Haida women, especially my Auntie Shelley. I wanted to show that strength in my telling of the story.” Having made the choice to eliminate dialogue from his film, Auchter brought in music. Another of the strong women in his life, his sister Nikita Toya Auchter, sings a Haida song to accompany the animation.

What makes this short so distinctive is the incorporation of Haida motifs. Auchter is the great-great-great grandson of Charles Edenshaw (1839-1920), the carver most associated with the preservation of Haida art forms, which had nearly disappeared after European contact.

The Mountain of SGaana has done well on the festival circuit and on Wednesday at the Capital 6 cinemas in Victoria it is coming home. Through an arrangement with the NFB, the Capital 6 Indie Film Series will present a short ahead of its feature film. Auchter’s short will precede a screening of This Mountain Life, a documentary directed by Grant Baldwin.

The Mountain of SGaana

Drawn and directed by Christopher Auchter

Screening Wednesday, November 14, 7 p.m. at The Capital 6, Victoria, BC

Morphing in amazing ways

The scenes you see in Metamorphosis span the planet and are at once devastating, in the record they provide of global warming’s destruction of the environment, and heart-lifting, in showing the ways that the human imagination drives survival.

Metamorphosis is the term for a biological process — an animal’s growth and maturation — during which time the creature’s physical structure can radically change; from egg to butterfly, for instance. Velcrow Ripper and his co-director and life partner Novi Ami, gave that name to their extraordinary film, now on the western leg of its Canadian launch, because when they started thinking about this film, they were inspired by the life cycle of a monarch butterfly.

Their documentary, shot on a grand, cinematic scale, charts the ways in which humans and other life forms are adapting to their changed environment and undergoing a kind of metamorphosis.

“We can move this paradigm,” says Ripper, speaking of losses due to climate change. “But we have to figure out how to live in a symbiotic relationship [with changed conditions on earth]. And part of that shift is a cultural shift, a psychological and emotional shift and artists are part of that shift.”

Scientists, thinkers, writers, artists and architects became their collaborators and provided the narrative heard in voiceovers.

“Something going from one state to another that you couldn’t have anticipated,” says Sue Halpern, author of Four Wings and a Prayer, about metamorphosis. “We actually have a choice about what that metamorphosis looks like.”

Robert J. Lifton, psychiatrist and author of The Climate Swerve, reminds us we are capable of redirecting our imaginations to confront climate truths, thus replicating a form of metamorphosis in the service of human evolution.

On a budge of just under $1-million (“We use our resources wisely,” says Ami), the couple embarked on the project as co-writers and directors around the same time their son Phoenix was conceived. Now three-and-a-half years old, the little guy accompanied his parents through some of the most challenging shoots of the project.

With curiosity as their guide, Ripper and Ami made some amazing discoveries, as they travelled from the Philippines, where Typhoon Haiyan had struck, killing more than 6,000 people, to Milan, Venice, Toronto, where Alpha school students were working on a project to provide plants for migrating butterflies to stock up on, to several locations in North and Central America.

In the American southwest, they met Dennis McClung, founder and CEO of Garden Pool. He and his helpers are converting swimming pools that no one can fill anymore because of drought, into backyard biospheres, where with the right tweaking, plant and animal life can thrive.

“We wanted to offer the film as a poem,” says Ami. Seamlessly integrated into the film, is the work of artists such as Jean-Paul Bourdier, photographer, painter and performance director and creator of an arresting scene near the opening of the documentary, shows painted bodies on a sandy beach.

Sculptor Jason DeCaires Taylor sinks his statues in the ocean, so they become the sites of coral gardens and other marine life colonies.

Michael Reynolds, a New Mexico architect, is interviewed at the site of one of his Earthships, passive, self-sufficient, solar houses, designed to look as if they grew out of the earth they sit on. “If we could make it so that every human on this planet has everything they need, without anything centralized,” he says, “. . . . all of a sudden, stress is gone. Humans would morph into their next phase of evolution.”

Metamorphosis opens with a caterpillar (“we’re like that,” says one commentator, “eating everything in sight”) and then we see the chrysalis, the emerging butterfly. At the end of the documentary, some very tricky photography captures the thousands of monarch butterflies at the end of their winter migration to Mexico. The words of Homero Aridjis, Mexican poet and environmentalist, are subtitled on the screen. Layered one on top of another on a big tree trunk, the butterflies, he says, “are like a single organism,” trembling with life.

Metamorphosis screenings with Nova Ami and Velcrow Ripper presenting:

June 20, Globe Cinema, Calgary; June 22, Metro Cinema, Edmonton; June 24, Cinecenta, UVic, Victoria; June 26, Vancity Theatre, Vancouver

Photo of work by Jean-Paul Bourdier courtesy of the National Film Board

 

 

Must-see pageant of excellence in dance

An important project, Solo Dance Xchange brings together 22 performers — on screen and live – from a broad spectrum of dance disciplines.

Introduced by producers Karen and Allen Kaeja, the show combines a film in which each of the dancers improvises a dance in the location of his/her choice and a staged segment when the dancers do two-to-three-minute solos accompanied by live music from Eric Cadesky, Laurel MacDonald and Phil Strong.

The outcome? Some predictably fine performances, some merely predictable and a few quite surprising delights.

Allen Kaeja’s 30-minute film, XTOD: Moments in Reel Time, is a nicely edited panoply of 22 dancers doing minute-long improvised solos in locations of their own choosing. Using only natural light, DOP Hernan Morris captures some lovely movement, but the footage lacks the finesse of a studio dance film. By virtue of the subject matter, the HD video reels feels improvised.

Many performers chose water settings, and even long-time Toronto residents will be surprised by the natural beauty found within the confines of Hogtown. Some are romanticized: Jasmyn Fyffe walks a watery concrete pier in a flowing robe; Claudia Moore goes pagan atop the giant rock in Yorkville; Karen Kaeja gyrates on the foredeck of a yacht, the CN Tower looming over her shoulder.

Some, such as Nova Bhattacharya posing on the rim of the fountain pond amid bank towers, opt for high contrast; Delicate-boned Hari Krishnan goes gangsta under an expressway. Two indigenous performers partner with nature, Brian Solomon enraptured in the branches of an old maple tree, Santee Smith, in a long blue gown, dipping into the waters below the Scarborough bluffs. Allen Kaeja charges into a wild tumble off a bicycle down a grassy ravine slope.

As the lights go down on the Streetcar Crowsnest stage, a few dancers, who will sometimes double as stage hands, sit in a row of chairs facing the audience, the trio of musicians set up stage right.

Solo Dance Xchange is in no way a competition, but mastery will out, and can’t help but draw an audience closer to the stage and inside the dancer’s moves, if only we could. The magnificent Peggy Baker in sleek jeans and grey t-shirt grasps a stick like a baton across her upper chest. In a few exquisite minutes, she strikes out with it like a warrior, uses it as a pivot point for a series of graceful floor manoeuvres, crawls hand over hand, then rises up free and strong with her mast held high.

Robert Desrosiers is electric: arms spread or held tight; tiny rapid steps accelerating to the beat of drums, sculpting the air with measured, vocalizing from whispered breaths to almost silent howl.  And Robert Stephen, bare-chested in blue tights, executes a breathtaking pas d’un that is all about virtuosity without showing off.

Others in this category are Bhattacharya, androgynous and fascinating in a barely Bharatanatyam, modern dance progression and William Yong in long black straight hair, holding a daisy, simpering from farce to dignified, balletic beauty. Shawn Byfield taps like a genius in white pants, adding his own rhythms to the tradition of black tap dancers.

Unexpected delights of Solo Dance Xchange include: Esmeralda Enrique, girlish in a short black dress and shocking red flamenco shoes, clacking her castanets along a diagonal path of light; Ben Kamino, in nothing more than his tattoos, comically hefting a heavy folded table like frail, trembling muscleman in need of more strength; and Emily Law, who partnered with her costume, a full-length, diaphanous, kimono-like gown, its sleeves fluttering banners in her stately procession toward and away from us. Also, versatile Michael Caldwell in an Asian pointed straw hat, face obscured to the percussion of gongs and bells, moving with control toward a deliberate crumbling of his own spectacle.

So go see Solo Dance Xchange – tonight’s the last – no matter what you fancy in the way of dance. You can’t be disappointed.

Solo Dance Xchange

Dancers: Mi Young Kim, Roula Said, Robert Desrosiers, Santee Smith, Michael Caldwell, Roshanak Jaberi, Esmeralda Enrique, Nova Bhattacharya, Allen Kaeja, Ofilio Sinbadinho, Jasmyn Fyffe, Pulga Muchochoma, Benjamin Kamino, Emily Law, Karen Kaeja, Shawn Byfield, Peggy Baker, William Yong, Claudia Moore, Robert Stephen, Brian Solomon

Soundscore: SDXtet Eric Cadesky, Laurel MacDonald, Phil Strong

At Streetcar Crowsnest, Toronto, Feb 1 through 3 at 8 pm

Photo of William Yong by Aleksandar Antonijevic; Peggy Baker by Chris Hutcheson; Pulga Muchochoma by Allen Kaeja

Gallery

Indigenous achievement on screen

 

“How many have to die before you say, Enough? ENOUGH!” So says one of the Maori women in Waru, a film made in New Zealand by eight Maori female directors, each of whom contributed a 10-minute segment to a feature telling how a community comes together over the killing of a boy by his caregiver.

Tomorrow, Waru will open the 18th imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival, running from October 18 to 22 in different downtown Toronto locations. imagineNATIVE, now the largest festival of indigenous screen content in the world, is this year presenting 130 works, including 116 films and videos, five audio pieces and nine digital media works. Almost three-quarters of the works (72%) were made by women.

Powerful imagery about powerful women, Waru is composed of eight shorts, each made in one continuous shot that, strung together, tell the story from many points of view of a boy named Waru, revealing the pain of child abuse and looking to ways of healing.

The festival closer, screening Sunday at TIFF Bell Lightbox, is The Road Forward, a Canadian-made musical documentary created by Marie Clements, a Métis/Dene playwright and filmmaker from Vancouver. The National Film Board production is based on a stage show employing first nations singing and dancing to tell the story of protest and activism by indigenous peoples in Canada from the 1930s to the present.

Sweet Country, another searing feature from Down Under, is a western directed by Australian filmmaker Warwick Thornton. Set in 1929 in the Northern Territory, the movie is based on an actual event: the murder of a white rancher by an Aboriginal bushman acting in self-defence.

This year’s festival is an occasion to mark the 50th film made by Alanis Obamsawin, Our People Will be Healed. The Quebec filmmaker, whose works go back to 1971, when she made her first film with the NFB, Christmas in Moose Factory, has this time turned her lens on the Helen Betty Osborne Ininiw Education Resource Centre, a Cree school near Norway House, 800 kilometres north of Winnipeg. As the 85-year-old Obamsawin told reporters in September at the time of the Toronto International Film Festival, “if you want to start talking about (native) problems, start talking about them in a positive way.”

Indictment: The Crimes of Shelley Chartier, is a documentary from CBC Docs POV. “I was stupid, I was bored, I was lonely – that’s the truth,” Chartier tells the camera of her catfishing exploits. She relates how simple it was to impersonate celebrities and their fans online from her home in a remote reserve in Manitoba, Easterville. When an NBA superstar falls for Chartier’s online pose as a model who sends him nude photos of herself, the player is entrapped with the revelation the pictures were of a 17-year-old. Chartier’s extortion efforts took RCMP on a trail that led to the Playboy Mansion and other celebrity locales, before Chartier was indicted and sent to prison for 18 months.

Among the 102 short films screening at the festival are many directed by emerging indigenous filmmakers. Razelle Benally (Diné) is an alumna of the Sundance Film Institute Native Filmmakers Lab. Her 10-minute drama, Raven, screens in the shorts program Mother + Child. Beautifully shot, Raven is the wordless, heart-breaking story of a teenage suicide that derails at the last minute.

Terry Jones, a Seneca artist from the United States, has made untitled & unlabeled, a three-minute experimental documentary that uses a video-game format to tell the story of how as a small boy he learned just how “different” he was.

Inuit filmmakers Carol Kunnuk and Zacharias Kunuk are represented at the festival with the world premiere screening of “Bowhead Whale Hunting with My Ancestors,” the first episode of a seven-part television series, Hunting With My Ancestors.

The festival’s new headquarters at 401 Richmond Street West will be the site for much of the industry component of the festival, including the imagineNATIVE live pitch sessions, workshops and panel discussions on such topics as, “Breaking the Mould: Developing Indigenous Narrative Models.”

Friday night, starting at 5 pm at the Onsite Gallery, is the festival’s Art Crawl, a bus tour taking in shows and talks on contemporary indigenous art at seven gallery spaces.

Partnering with Hamburg’s A Wall is a Screen, the festival presents an urban walk at 7:30 on Friday from the Art Gallery of Ontario featuring shorts projected on various wall spaces.

Last but not least, imagineNATIVE presents The Beat, hosted by Jarrett Martineau at the Horseshoe Tavern on Saturday night, showcasing live performances by Mob Bounce, Kayla Briët, Ziibiwan and DJ Kookum and screenings of music videos.

 

imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival

Oct. 18 to 22 at various venues in Toronto

Go to imaginenative.org for details and schedules

Photos, clockwise from top left: Sweet Country, Indictment: The Crimes of Shelley Chartier, Raven, Waru