Growing up on the Tl’etinqox reservation in British Columbia, Trevor Mack could tell when something bad was happening. The adults switched from English to tsilhqot’in – so that the children could not understand.
“We only associated the language with bad things, because it was the only time our parents spoke it”, explains Mack, whose first feature film Portraits of a fire was shot in part in Tsilhqot’in – a language Mack is now learning to speak. The film has its world premiere at this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival.
Turning in place on the reserve – one of six Tsilhqot’in communities located in the interior of British Columbia – Mack was telling the artists (many of whom were not professional actors, but people from the community) this that he wanted them to say. And he had “a great total confidence” that they were doing that. It was a critical element of the project which he knows will find an echo.
“For our young people to hear the language in the film, just for our elders to speak it, these are the vibrations that we create. The crew hear that language, ”Mack says. “Whatever effect it will have, who knows what it’s going to be? “
We often hear how important it is for the audience to be able to see themselves on screen. But hearing the language of your people can also be transcendent. There is added weight to this for indigenous peoples, whose languages have suffered catastrophic losses due to racist colonial policies. Many children who were forced to go to residential school arrived without knowing English, but were prohibited from speaking their own language. Some were afraid of it, even long after leaving school.
Indigenous filmmakers, many of whom barely speak these languages themselves – the result of what happened to their parents, grandparents, and other relationships – may not know the words, but they understand their power. And they use it.
“There is an element of representation in seeing the language reflected to you,” says Sean Stiller, a 37-year-old filmmaker who is Secwepemc on his mother’s side and settler on his father’s side. “I guess the word that comes out there is ‘pride’. “
Stiller’s first feature documentary, Go home, tells the story of Phyllis Jack-Webstad. She was six years old when she was sent to St. Joseph’s Mission boarding school. Her grandmother wanted to give her something special to wear. Phyllis chose a bright orange shirt, but when she got to school, she explains in the movie, she was stripped down and the shirt was taken away. “So I wear it today as a symbol of the ongoing healing,” says the founder of the Orange Shirt Society, in the film.
“I lost everything in this school: my identity, my culture, my language,” another survivor, Esk’etemc First Nation Chief Fred Robbins, told the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. “All of this was taken away when I was six years old. “
The documentary – Canadian Geographic’s first feature film – interweaves two Canadian disasters: the residential school tragedy and depleted salmon stocks.
The film opens with a prayer of thanks in Secwepemctsin – a language that is in “extinction territory,” as Stiller describes it. It is one of many Indigenous languages - others include Cree, Mi’kmaq, and Tsilhqot’in – that audiences will be able to hear at this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival.
“I think it’s an amazing role that film can play in supporting the strengthening and, in some cases, the rebirth of Indigenous languages. That we can provide a story in its context, in the language and how that language relates to the story, ”said Kyle Forstner, executive director of VIFF. “It’s part of a global boom in native cinema that’s just amazing. “
The science fiction parable of Cree-Métis filmmaker Danis Goulet Raiders of the night arrives in Vancouver after Goulet received the Emerging Talent Award at the Toronto International Film Festival. In the film, which takes place in the near future, the elders strategize in Cree. They try to defend their children and their land against terrifying colonizers using drones who swear “one country, one language, one flag”.
In Mi’kmaq filmmaker Bretten Hannam’s film savagery, Link (Phillip Lewitski) and his half-brother Travis (Avery Winters-Anthony) run away to escape their abusive father and search for Link’s mother, who is Mi’kmaw. Along the way, they meet Pasmay (Joshua Odjick), a powwow dancer with a strong connection to culture. In Link’s journey, healing comes from being true to his two-spirit self and culture. He learns a few Mi’kmaq words from Pasmay: “mother”, “son”.
Bootlegger, which has its world premiere at VIFF, was filmed in French and Anishinaabemowin by first feature director Caroline Monnet. In the film, Mani (Kawennáhere Devery Jacobs) returns to the community where she grew up, who are wondering if she should stay alcohol-free. Mani, there to complete his thesis, faces obstacles that include a conflict with the local smuggler, a white woman.
Monnet, originally from Ottawa, who is Algonquin and French, does not speak Anishinaabemowin. “It’s my grandfather’s mother tongue, but because of everything that has happened, he never taught his children. My mother doesn’t speak it. It is therefore the responsibility of my generation to relearn it and reappropriate it, ”says Monnet, 36, from Montreal, where she is now based.
Like Trevor Mack, she was supported by community elders who played the roles. She also hired translators and a language coach.
“We now have the tools to be able to make and create films and become the storytellers that we are,” she says. “And with that comes the responsibility to show our communities and tell our stories. And often it comes with the language, because it is an integral and important part of our cultures. And we know that to keep them alive, we have to keep talking about them, showcasing them, and being proud of them.
In Vancouver, Mack, 29, began to consider Portraits of a fire in 2016, following a violent assault in the city center that left him bedridden with his jaw closed. Fast forward to 2019, about three months before production began, and Mack started to have serious doubts. He felt that the story needed to be radically reworked.
“The images we should present to our people should be positive images of our native men, positive images of our native women, something to inspire young people,” said Mack, who dropped the original script. “We rejected a portrayal of our people who focused on what needs to be healed rather than the healing itself. “
The film stars the incredible young actor Tsilhqot’in William Magnus Lulua as Tyler, a teenage filmmaker whose mother died as a baby and whose father was moved emotionally. Tyler shows his home movies to a small audience on his storeroom. At a crucial point in the film, Tyler speaks in Tsilhqot’in – the young actor’s idea.
Before its world premiere at VIFF, Portraits was shown to the community of the reserve where it was filmed.
“We actually screened him in the old overgrown arena which is the exact same location Tyler shows his films in the movie. So it was this great meta experience that couldn’t have gone better, where we were surrounded by exactly the same environment that he was surrounded by in the movie, ”says Mack, who is now learning Tsilhqot’in.
At the end of the movie, there’s a scene that comes straight from something one of the elders that appears in the movie said when Mack asked him to be in the movie. The scene received a crazy reception during this screening.
“It was the biggest eruption of laughter. And that’s something that came out of the magic of working with the community, ”says Mack. “Hearing the laughter of my people was a remedy. “
VIFF runs from October 1 to 11.
Plan your screen time with the weekly What to Watch newsletter. Register now today.