Documentaries are set to brighten up the marquee with northern lights at the Available Light Film Festival (ALFF). The Whitehorse festival returns this week with a doc-heavy slate that includes a mix of local, Canadian, and international programming. Screenings will be in person and online with the festival running February 9 to 19. They are playing All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, if you need a reminder for the umpteenth time that Laura Poitras’ film is the best documentary of the year, as well as her fellow Oscar nominee Navalny, directed by Toronto’s Daniel Roher. On the VR front, attendees in Whitehorse will also be able to step into the world of This Is Not a Ceremony, Ahnahktsipiitaa’s unique portrait of healing and oral storytelling that premiered at Sundance. Other favourites from the circuit include Geographies of Solitude, Revival 69, Sam Now, Framing Agnes, Okay! (The ASD Band Film), Scrap, and Doug, the Slugs, and Me.
But for audiences looking for a special taste of the ALFF experience, here are 10 POV picks for this year’s Available Light Film Festival.
Opening Night: Eternal Spring
No festival from coast to coast would be complete without Canada’s Oscar submission, Eternal Spring. Jason Loftus’s animated film about artist Daxiong and his fight against censorship by the Chinese government will kick things off on February 9th. The ALFF opener caps off a yearlong run for Loftus’s film, which got its start at Thessaloniki before winning the Audience Award at Hot Docs and playing pretty much every festival across the land. Eternal Spring marks a notably collaborative turn for documentary filmmaking as Loftus works closely with Daxiong to recreate the events that brought him to North America, using animation to tell the story in the absence of archives, verité, or witnesses who remain to recount the event. Read more about Eternal Spring in our review and interview with Loftus.
Loftus will also appear in ALFF’s Industry Spotlight on Saturday, Feb. 11 with a master class on animation and virtual reality in non-fiction storytelling. The talk will focus upon Loftus’s work with Lofty Sky Entertainment and creative approaches to storytelling.
The Call of the North: Ever Deadly
Is there any setting more appropriate to see a Tanya Tagaq film than the Canadian North? Audiences at Available Light might find Tagaq’s full-throated self-portrait especially invigorating amid the winter chill. Directed in collaboration with Chelsea McMullan, Ever Deadly is a hypnotic concert documentary / artist biopic hybrid that crosscuts between footage of Tagaq performing in Toronto and living day to day up North. Full of the fiery anger that pulses through her music, Ever Deadly offers the context that informs the passion and rage of Tagaq’s signature throat singing. Read more on Ever Deadly in this POV profile.
From the Archive: Picturing a People: George Johnston, Tlingit Photographer
This year’s festival marks a landmark anniversary for Yukon film. ALFF hosts of 25th anniversary screening of Picturing a People: George Johnston, Tlingit Photographer. While stories of the Yukon have been staples in Canadian film with classics like City of Gold, this documentary directed by Carol Geddes was the first major Yukon production about a local subject by a filmmaker from the area. Tlingit filmmaker Geddes followed her work with the NFB’s Indigenous production unit Studio One with this portrait of a photographer who documented the early life of their tribe. Picturing a People offers ample freeze frames of Johnston’s photographs that captured Tlnglit life, but the film looks beyond the frame of his images to consider the stories and histories that need to be remembered. The film is significant as a work amid a new wave of Indigenous self-representation at the NFB.
Audiences who can’t screen the film in person at ALFF can watch it below:
Picturing a People: George Johnston, Tlingit Photographer, Carol Geddes, provided by the National Film Board of Canada
Local Voices: Voices Across the Water
Another story of Tlingit art and culture comes in the ALFF selection Voices Across the Water. Directors Fritz Mueller and Teresa Earle follow Alaskan Tlingit carver Wayne Price and his apprentice, Violet Gatensby, as they carve a canoe using a single cedar tree and traditional methods. In another thread, Francophone artist Halin de Repentigny makes a canoe from birch bark by hand. This NFB doc considers the histories and legacies that endure through crafts and practices that keep them alive as they’re handed down over time.
Here and Queer: The Empress of Vancouver
Sashay your way to the red carpet with this audience favourite from Toronto’s Inside Out and the Vancouver International Film Festival. The Empress of Vancouver is Dave Rodden-Shortt’s lively portrait of veteran drag queen Oliv Howe. The film offers a fly-on-the-wall glimpse of the ageless beauty’s ability to captivate audiences, but it’s also a striking essay about the fight for LGBTQ+ rights in Vancouver. The film drops viewers into Oliv’s kingdom as she celebrates the 40th anniversary of her reign that gives the doc its name.
The Call of the Wild: Part of the Pack
POV readers who helped make the review for Netflix’s Island of the Sea Wolves our most popular read of 2022 might want to check out Part of the Pack. This nature doc directed by Isabelle Groc and Mike McKinlay examines the relationship between wolves and humans. The film considers how one animal thrives as part of the pack while the other favours a society of individualism, at least in the western culture and urban sprawl that radically shapes the wolves’ way of life. Part of the Pack also screens at the Victoria Film Festival on Feb. 10.
The Wild One: The Ballad of Caveman Bill
He might be as shaggy as a wolf, but audiences will have to see if he howls like one too. The story of a Klondike caveman overlooking Dawson City from his hole out yonder by the Yukon River is the stuff of local legend. Bill Donaldson is something of a living fable in the Yukon, having called his cave near Dawson City home for 20 years. However, this portrait by David Curtis observes how “Caveman Bill” adapts contemporary life to the pull of the wild.
One for the History Buffs: Unarchived
If drawings left on cave walls were the earliest archives of human history, there’s still a long way to go. Unarchived, directed by Hayley Gray and Elad Tzadok, considers the politics of archives and the elements of erasure entailed within curation. Drawing upon perspectives from diverse archivists, the documentary shows how a new generation preserves the stories of LGBTQ+ communities, South Asian Canadians, and Indigenous tribes, but also how these groups repatriate elements of the archive and make them accessible to Canadians who hunger for the ability to connect with their history.
Stories of Resilience: The Klabona Keepers
A gripping verité documentary from the frontlines of the fight for Indigenous land rights, The Klabona Keepers captures the Tahltan Nation’s efforts to preserve their land from the interests of miners. Directors Tamo Campos, Jasper Snow-Rosen, and Rhoda Quock offer an urgent portrait of this years-long struggle, which includes blockades, standoffs, and tense stare downs. The film also situates the fight for land rights amid a larger history of cultural genocide and battle for sovereignty.
Industry Beat: DOC Talks
ALFF’s extensive industry programming features several sessions with a documentary focus. Two online events, both running Thursday, February 9, tackle the biz of non-fiction filmmaking. The DOC Ignite Market Intelligence session features Hot Docs’ Julian Carrington in conversation about trends in the business that should guide filmmakers to deliver market-ready films, like what docs grab buyers’ interest or what sources of funding can be tapped as distribution models and consumption habits shift amid COVID. Meanwhile, From Treatment to Screen engages attendees with the work of Dan Ashby and Lucy Taylor to learn how best to break down their work across stages of pre-production to realize their vision. Finally, Sarah Spring, executive director of the Documentary Organization of Canada, will sit down with members of the northern documentary community to learn how DOC can help filmmakers outside urban centres access the tools they need to succeed. The intimate session draws upon a 2022 survey of DOC’s Yukon members.