The Book of Distance | NFB

Report on Sundance Documentaries – Part 8

Our final report from Park City.

7 mins read

A selection of three works, programmed in the New Frontier and Shorts section of Sundance 2020 brings POV’s reporting on the festival to a close. It showcases the innovative storytelling of three artists who explore new formats to tell old stories.


Małni – towards the ocean, towards the shore

(dir. Sky Hopinka, New Frontier)

A dashboard mounted smartphone streams a video of a drum circle. Who needs a GPS when you have elders to guide you? The ceremonial drumming returns at regular intervals throughout Sky Hopinka’s debut feature Małni – towards the ocean, towards the shore, accompanying the peregrinating images of the Ho-Chunk Nation filmmaker and descendant of the Pechanga tribe. The lyrical travelogue revisits the Chinookan myth of the Origin of Death where the Talapsus (Coyote) and Lelou (Wolf) debate human life, existence, and its (im)possible circularity: does one spirit come back when they die?

“Perhaps it’s not exactly as I told it,” says a narrating voice. At times seemingly told from the point of view of the visiting spirits, the film transfers a piece of oral history onto the semi permanence of the screen. In doing so, Hopinka’s narration is generous, nomadic and fluid. It comes and goes with the bodies of water that connect the two protagonists, Sweetwater Sahme and Jordan Mercier. They share their thoughts on ritual and traditions and the place those have in their lives. In a park, the camera halts at a picnic table: Jordan explains in chinuk wawa (an indigenous language of the Pacific Northwest) why he wears his hair long. His words are subtitled in English while Sahme’s English gets chinuk wawa subtitles when she talks about her difficult youth. As Hopinka puts down and then picks up his camera, we follow the streams of water to the oceans in swaying movements. To Sahme, the water is cleansing in the form of a waterfall. To Mercier, it carries as a river. As she’ll soon be a mother and he already is a father, the subjects of afterlife and rebirth are discussed while hiking or in the warm presence of Sahme’s granny sleeping in the background. Images of powwows and of the Museum of Archeology in Vancouver accompany and deepen the roaming and intuitive journey into contemporary Chinookan culture.

The importance of the film’s exploration of Indigenous language, representation and storytelling is echoed by the current Wet’suwet’en protests against the Coastal gaslink pipeline and their international solidarity actions. With Małni, Sky Hopinka finds new and resilient ways to tell stories that have too long been silenced.


(dir. Lisa Jackson, Shorts Programs)

A symbiose of algae and fungi is how Trevor Goward, a self-taught lichenologist from British Columbia, describes lichen. Anishaabe filmmaker and writer Lisa Jackson (Biidaaban: First Light) was inspired by his research and adjusted her magnifying lens accordingly. Through her images, shot in 3D and commissioned for an IMAX screen, we explore microscopic pieces of lichen as if they were the surface of other planets. Accompanied by a hypnotic soundscape, this topographic study of the organisms results in a contemplative and captivating short.

The pieces of lichen are reminiscent of the forests and landscapes where they originated. Placing the species on the pedestal it deserves, Jackson’s short and its indigenous subtext open the door to a philosophical metaphor for environmental change and our (dis)connection to nature. Considering lichen are also edible, a chef’s kiss seems an appropriate, if imaged, show of appreciation for this succulent short.

The Book of Distance

(lead artist: Randall Okita, New Frontier Exhibitions)

In this remarkable NFB produced VR piece, Okita has created a 25 minute animated immersion into the life of his grandfather Yonezo with memories that could be held in a shoe box. The Book of Distance is a generational journey that starts with Okita’s grandfather leaving Hiroshima as a teenager to start a new life in pre-World War II British Columbia. He settled down as a farmer but was soon forced into a Japanese internment camp with his family.

In the “Meet the Artist” video he made for the Sundance festival, Okita explained how he sees his grandfather as a hero. This admiration is palpable throughout The Book of Distance: both the grandfather’s life experiences and Okita’s storytelling choices bring epic proportions to the story. It starts with the actual book, a thick leather-bound Book of Tales that you flip open to start the story. The narration is pulsed forward with each user-based interaction: pressing the button of a camera or flipping through family pictures and documents activate vignettes of the family history. The user is literally standing in the story. One moment you’re standing next to Randall Okita’s silhouette—he occasionally pops up as the narrator of the story and then disappears in its shadows again—and in another, you enter a scene reminiscent of an 18th mechanical theatre set. Handing your passport to the officer, you follow the grandfather through the immigration process and over the border.

This intimate and deeply personal voyage reads as a diary, though spaces are left for an historical layer and the exploration of painful chapters in Canadian history. The interactive space blends personal, documentary storytelling with the fictionalization of the stories in-between, the tales not told. In Okita’s own words: “The Book of Distance is my attempt to recover all those things my grandfather didn’t say – including certain moments that may have been too painful for him to remember.”



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