Haida Gwaii Film Fest

🕔Apr 07, 2010

One of the connections that organizer Dafne Romero made in her quest to develop the Haida Gwaii Film Festival into the best remote festival in the country played like a scene out of a black-and-white movie.

While in Montreal last summer she found herself at a dinner party with the cultural attaché from Mexico. Impressed by Romero’s schedule from last year’s festival, the ambassador suggested she connect with Dr. Alberto Becerril Montekio, a professor and filmmaker at the University of the State of Morelos. One quick phone call, then several days later a black car with two men in the front drove up to Romero’s door. The sharp-dressed woman who emerged from the back seat handed her a plain brown envelope.

From the looks of it, it could have been contraband—but instead Romero found inside one of the most poetic movies she has ever seen. In his documentary film, Atl, (“water” in the indigenous Náhuatl language) about the lives of indigenous people in the southern part of Mexico, Montekio brings the life-giving element into visual form. The movie flows from the life force of corn to the harmony that emerged between Catholicism and indigenous cultures when the church began recognizing ancient gods as saints. Since this year’s festival theme is the elements of life—Water, Earth, Air and Fire—Romero is offering the film its festival debut on Haida Gwaii.

Dr. Montekio, who teaches visual anthropology (the use of film and other imagery in the study of world cultures), will give a seminar at the Islands’ second annual festival, running from April 30 to May 2 at the Haida Heritage Centre in Skidegate. Romero also hopes this event will kick-start an exchange with the University’s faculty of arts. Not only does she hope people will be able to go to Cuernavaca to do film studies with Montekio some day, but she wants to bring more of his students here.

“We will bring filmmakers from there to curate their films here, and also send filmmakers from here to show their films over there,” she says.

Filmmaking is more than just blockbusters, and a career in the industry can take people to many different levels, she says. “It’s not just about Hollywood. There are other doors to explore.”

Funny features to fine art
To showcase this she has invited several other filmmakers to show their work and give workshops. From funny feature films to fine art video installations to stop-motion animation to powerful documentaries produced by the indigenous people of Mexico, film aficionados will have a huge selection to choose from, and wanna-be filmmakers will have amazing opportunities to talk with industry creatives.

The connections she’s made over the last year will take the festival to another level, she says. Not only has the small-but-dedicated group attained its non-profit-society status, it’s exploring a deeper relationship with indigenous cinematic themes too.

One of the films she’s excited about honours deeper cultural relations. The Skidegate Project began in 2002 when choreographer and dancer Karen Jamieson started a creative collaboration with the community of Skidegate. The focus of the work was to create a dance memorial for Percy Gladstone, a Haida elder who was very close to Jamieson’s family in her formative years. After a three-year process of cultural dialogue, the project’s crescendo was a performance in January 2005 at the annual clan dinner of the Kaahdaas Gaah K’iiguwaay, Raven Wolf clan of Tanu. About 50 people performed and 200 people witnessed the event. Another incarnation of the project took place that summer at the Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver, fusing contemporary dancers with Haida dancers and featuring new Haida and western music compositions.

Jamieson, along with Haida videographer Tanya Collinson collected footage over the three years and produced a film (with mentorship from Ken Smith), The Recollector, documenting the collaboration and the expression of spirit and place.

Award-winning Tsilhqot’in director Helen Haig-Brown will also attend the festival and show her 2009 short dramatic film, The Cave. Set in 1961 in the Chilcotin Territory of Western Canada, The Cave recounts the story of a bear hunter who discovers a secret portal to the spirit world. Ms Haig-Brown also connected Romero with the Indigenous Independent Digital Filmmaking Program at Capilano College in Vancouver, so she is looking at bringing short films from there too.

Preserving ancient ways
And turning back to Mexico, Romero has also invited Cristina Boiles from Montreal to present a set of short films from the National Indigenous Institute of Mexico. The films document the tales and celebrations of native Mesoamerican communities, especially as they relate to music, song and dance. Boiles will discuss how film is used to preserve and commemorate ancient practices and empower the indigenous filmmakers who create them.

Offering hands-on opportunities for young and old in film is also part of Romero’s mandate. Building on the success of last year’s youth workshops, she’s hoping to engage more young people with a free stop-motion animation workshop for children as young as four on the Friday of the festival, with the creative results showing on Sunday. Kevin Element, the coordinator of Multimedia and Animation Production at Confederation College in Thunder Bay, Ontario, is coming for this.

She’s also working on bringing film editor Abraham Lifshitz to the islands to offer film-editing workshops. His film about the tsunami in Sri Lanka, Ants and Elephants, will also be showing. His wife Lysette Yosolevitz is a visual artist who works with video installations. Romero says her pieces, also showing at the festival, will provide a look at another type of film practice—high art.

Taking the festival to another level has meant other important changes for Romero. She is working at becoming an “official” film festival in the eyes of large funders like the Canada Council. To receive grants from this federal arts agency, she has to pay CARFAC (Canadian Artists Representation) fees to all filmmakers whose pieces show on Haida Gwaii.

Last year she showed over 100 films, but if she paid all the fees for those, she’d have had to come up with tens of thousands of dollars. For such a small festival, that’s impossible, so she’s in the process of fundraising. So far she is grateful to Pacific Coastal for providing several round trip airline tickets.

She is also happy to report that Barbara Chirinos, who has worked with the Vancouver Folk Festival and the Vancouver International Film Centre, and is on the board of directors of the Haida Gwaii Film Festival, will come to help manage the three-day festival.
For more information about the festival check out www.haidagwaiifilmfestival.org or email haidagwaiifilmfestival@gmail.com.