Docs Head North to Available Light Film Festival

In the Name of All Canadians

By Pat Mullen

After seeing the relationship between the Great White North and our love for movies last year in Dawson City: Frozen Time, docs are heading north for the winter. This year’s Available Light Film Festival brings a roster of strong documentaries to the Yukon. The mix includes an Oscar-nominated crowd-pleaser, a healthy crop of Canadian content, and an impressive range of Indigenous cinema from documentary, drama, and animation.

Available Light’s opening gala is Melanie Wood’s powerful documentary Shut Up and Say Something about Yellowknife-born spoken word poet Shane Koyczan. The artist drew national and worldwide attention with his Olympic ode “We Are More (Define Canada)” and with his poem “To this Day,” which became a viral sensation. The film follows Koyczan as he tries to repair his relationship with his estranged father. “If it was just a performance film or a tour film, that’s not as interesting for me,” said director Melanie Wood while speaking about the film with POV. “I wanted to do Shane the courtesy of making the film about him as meaningful and transcendent as his poetry is. Otherwise, it’d just have been another art piece that only speaks to people who are already fans.” Shut Up and Say Something screens with the short documentary Dear Hattets by Yukoner Kerry Barber.

The Hot Docs anthology film In the Name of All Canadians fortuitously finds its strongest segment in the northern vignette by Vivian Belik. This chapter, “Last Resort,” chronicles a landmark case in which the people of the Ktunaxa Nation bring to court a challenge against the appropriation of their sacred land for a proposed ski resort. The short is beautifully shot and provocative, and easily the best chapter in the anthology to tackle the conundrum of celebrating Canada’s sesquicentennial on stolen land. “As Last Resort shows the first case in which an Indigenous land claim case stands on grounds of religious belief, the litigation asks us to protect Indigenous beliefs and culture with the same care to which rights extend for all non-Indigenous Canadians,” we wrote in our review of In the Name of All Canadians. Belik’s film tackles a central problem (if not the central problem) to the Canadian ethos, which is the settler mentality that struggles to adapt to the needs, rights, and land claims of the original inhabitants of the land.

Another film with local character and a strong voice for Indigenous rights is Fritz Mueller’s Journeys to Adäka. The film follows seven Indigenous artists as they converge on Whitehorse’s Adäka Cultural Festival and as they prepare for the celebration of their heritage, they reflect upon the strong bond and sense of responsibility they feel towards their land. Journeys to Adäka shares with audiences the practices, crafts, dances, and rituals that ensure the survival of culture and heritage. The doc is well paired with the NFB animated short Mountain of SGaana, which vividly brings to life a Haida legend about a young woman who rescues who friend from the spirit world.

Marie Clements gives power to the Native voice in the festival sensation The Road Forward. The stylish doc-musical chronicles the unsung history of the Native Brotherhood and Native Sisterhood, which forged an independent press to represent, report, and document the concerns and experiences of Indigenous communities. Similarly, arts heal the living in Carmen Pollard’s For Dear Life. This intimate film observes Pollard’s cousin, James, who learns that he has terminal cancer at the cruelly young age of 46. James, a theatre producer, decides to use his final days to mount a production that will immortalize him and be a lasting legacy. Read more on The Road Forward and For Dear Life in this feature on B.C. filmmakers.

The Road Forward (Trailer) from NFB/marketing on Vimeo.

Finally, every movie lover—no, every person in the world—simply must see Agnès Varda and JR’s Faces Places (Visages Villages). This Academy Award nominee for Best Documentary Feature is guaranteed to put a smile on one’s face and lift any troubles being carried on the shoulders. Varda, at 88 years old, guides this poignantly life affirming around the French countryside to use her dwindling eyesight to see and document the people of her country. The youthful filmmaker and her young protégé take portraits of village residents and plaster them around the towns, canonizing unheralded faces in overlooked places. “The (im)permanence of the pictures that are produced – as photographs, as murals and as moving digital images – raises issues about the value of photography and film as evidence of the real world and the spirits that inhabit it,” we wrote in our review of the film. “Faces Places ensures the immortality of ways of life, ways of being, and ways of seeing.”

Other docs at the festival include, but are not limited to, the timely A Better Man, which chronicles one woman’s effort to make peace with the ex-boyfriend who abused her years ago; Charles Officer’s festival circuit champ Unarmed Verses, Chris Kelly’s eye-opening A Cambodian Spring, Matthew Heineman’s powerful Syrian war portrait City of Ghosts, and the radically political docs Let There Be Light and A Moon of Nickel and Ice.

Available Light runs Feb. 3-11. Please visit their website for more information and showtimes.