“With the whole world moving so fast, when you have the dugout in your life, it gives you the chance to slow down,” says Wayne Price in Voices Across the Water. This NFB documentary invites audiences to slow down with the Alaskan Tlingit carver as Price teaches his young apprentice, Violet Gatensby, the art of constructing a dugout canoe. Director Fritz Mueller takes a two-paddle approach to this story as Voices Across the Water crosscuts between Price and Gatensby’s construction and a second narrative thread, which follows Francophone artist Halin de Repentigny as he endeavours to fashion a handmade birchbark canoe. The doc goes swimmingly as it observes an earnest effort to preserve a way of life.
The film chronicles the journey of these two boats from standing in the forest to floating in the water. Mueller follows the artisans into the forests as they select the raw materials for their projects. For Price, it’s a matter of finding a cedar tree with a circumference large enough to facilitate the carving. (And, of course, to hold the paddlers.) Once the tree is cut and lowered, it’s dragged off to a worksite where Prize and Gatensby will whittle away until it’s complete.
For de Repentigny, the process of selecting the trees with which he’ll create the canoe reveals an intricate process. The artist employs the help of a few hands as they find the perfect trees. Knots, branches, and cavities need consideration. Any anomaly in the bark threatens a potential canoe because de Repentigny requires a smooth bark for a clean cut. Once they find the tree, they chop it down, make an incision, and cautiously peel away the bark. The hunters depart with rolls of fresh birch as their canvas. (And, apparently, leave the rest of the tree there…)
Favouring the Artisanal
Voices Across the Water makes a relatively mundane and methodical practice dynamic while observing the artists at work. Mueller captures the physical commitment of the labour as they build boats from scratch. Price shares his wisdom with Gatensby and teaches her an elder’s insight. He even gets down into the belly of the boat to help her hack away at the cedar’s meat and to carefully chip at the final, onion-skin-thin layer that separates the scraps from the boat. De Repentigny, meanwhile, creates a shell and carefully sculpts the birchbark around it. Both processes involve patience and precision. So too does Mueller’s approach, which takes a cue from the creators by favouring the handcrafted and artisanal. This is old-school filmmaking with an eye for detail and character.
Voices Across the Water captures traditional methods for craftsmanship that risk being lost unless artisans pass on their knowledge to new generations. The film situates the complexity of the building process within the cultural ties being repaired. Price and Gatensby, for example, invite their community to gather and participate in the final steps. They meet at the site of a former residential school and defy the settler state by joining in a healing circle, paying tribute to lost ancestors, and resurrecting a tradition nearly lost to the violence of colonialism.
There is ample sweat to be observed in Voices Across the Water and it’s well-earned. The film offers a painstaking look at the process of keeping culture alive.
Voices Across the Water screened at the Available Light Film Festival and streams online to Feb. 19.