Maker of Monsters: The Extraordinary Life of Beau Dick
(Canada, 91 min.)
Dir. LaTiesha Ti’si’tla Fazakas, Natalie Boll
Beau Dick makes one heck of a mask, but he doesn’t wear one. The late Kwakwaka’wakw carver speaks plainly and truthfully in the documentary Maker of Monsters: The Extraordinary Life of Beau Dick and, for a man celebrated for beautiful wooden masks, Dick refuses to hide. This portrait of the late artist and activist from Alert Bay, British Columbia, honours the legacy of a man who inspired his people to wear their faces with pride. The doc situates Dick’s life and work within the greater cultural movement that provided the climax for his career. The film leaves little doubt that the spirit inspired by his work will last for generations.
Directed with an affectionate eye by LaTiesha Ti’si’tla Fazakas (who hosts much of Dick’s work at her gallery in Vancouver) and Natalie Boll, Maker of Monsters offers a fine profile of a creative figure who might not be known to audiences outside Vancouver. The doc features extensive interviews with Dick, who died last March, as he reflects upon the mastery of his craft and his experiences growing up in colonial Canada. Dick is a fun subject for a doc portrait with his playfully mischievous spirit during both interviews and candid observational moments.
The subject of the film embellishes the persona of the artist. His hat tucked low above his brow to cast a shadow from his brim, Beau Dick inhabits an air of mystery. Slightly dishevelled and bearing a wily spirit, he speaks softly and slowly as he carves a portrait of his childhood for the filmmakers. His stories have notes of everyday rebellion as he tells Fazakas and Boll about staging protests at school, while his eventual celebrity challenged the western canon. In this context, each stroke of his blade along the wood carries significant weight.
Fazakas and Boll let viewers watch Dick in his element as he carves his masks from large blocks of wood. A chisel here and a chainsaw swipe there bring these masks to fruition as Dick scatters wood chips all over the floor and cuts through the legacy of colonialism in Canada by making visible the heritage of his people and culture. This aspect of the film is where Maker of Monsters excels. Dick’s masks are simply stunning works of art and they’re perfectly tailored to the screen. The masks, which bear faces, carvings, and symbols that one might see on a totem pole, are marvellous works of haunting beauty. The film explains the significance of the range of masks rather well, but more importantly, Maker of Monsters lets audiences appreciate how these works aren’t merely objects to hang on a wall for visual fancy.
Part of the reason these masks are so inherently cinematic is because Dick makes them to catch the firelight at a traditional potlatch. Billows of smoke and flickers of shadows evoke the spirits of generations past as Dick and company gather to share and display these fine masks before casting them into the fire. Maker of Monsters explains how the Canadian government banned potlatches for their purportedly wasteful use of property, yet the film shows the event’s significance as a marker of resistance.
The footage of the dances, feasts, celebrating, and, ultimately, sacrificing of masks at the potlatch gives way to Dick’s most radical act. The film sees Dick roused by the spirit of the Idle No More movement as Indigenous people of the land refused to stay silent on the abuse of rights and land claims in the wake of then-Prime Minister Harper’s stagnant pledge for reconciliation. Footage shows Dick as he leads a crowd of supporters on “Awalaskenis,” a journey of hope and unity that marched along Vancouver Island. The march ended at parliament where Dick performed the long dormant act of breaking a shield of copper. This tradition is an Indigenous ritual offering a direct challenge to authority and Dick’s resurrection of the act after it was last performed over 100 years ago signaled a demand for change. As the crowd works together to shatter the copper shield and, in turn, the shackles of settler oppression, Beau raises the shield to his face like one of his masks. His best work yet, it’s a defiant expression of art and activism.
Maker of Monsters digresses into environmentalism and perhaps takes on too much in a series of false endings that highlight Dick’s causes like a series of post-scripts. His final act as an eco-warrior responds to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s own series of false promises. Dick rallies final stroke of activism to challenge Canada’s complacency by performing a second copper cutting ceremony—this time at centre stage on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. Maker of Monsters doesn’t really need this final act since it includes numerous voices of peers whose lives were shaped by Dick. He might be known as the maker of monsters, but by carving a new mask out of copper, he summoned another generation of rebellious spirit.
Maker of Monsters: The Extraordinary Life of Beau Dick screens at select Cineplex theatres on March 29 and April 1 in select Cineplex theatres.
Read more about Maker of Monsters in the The Lives of Artists!