NFB Haida Language project:

🕔Jun 04, 2009

The ancient cadence of the Haida language mingles with animation and digital film in six videos recently created in collaborative effort on Haida Gwaii. Youth from Old Masset wrote and directed short films that were then translated into Haida by elders in the community. A crew of professional filmmakers and animators from the National Film Board of Canada visited the remote island community for a week of intensive workshops and filming, resulting in six expressive pieces that are both youth-oriented and connected to the community as a whole.

The National Film Board (NFB)’s Our World project is an on-going initiative designed to teach First Nations youth the skills to use modern filmmaking technology, as well as encourage them to express thoughts about their world in a First Language. Catrina Longmuir, Our World’s Associate Producer and one of the project facilitators, says the project has evolved from its original configuration, which initially involved one to two day animation workshops for youth in remote northern communities, but without the First Language component. “At one community screening in Teslin, in the Yukon, a [Tlingit] elder spoke up and said, ‘This is great, what you’re doing, but one of the most urgent things we’re dealing with is the loss of language,’” says Longmuir.

At that point, the project was fine-tuned to integrate more storytelling into the pieces being created, as well as adding the language factor. “The challenge is that they have to create their piece in a First Language that they’re generally not familiar with.” To that end, the Film Board connects the students with elders and other language experts in their communities to assist with the job of translating the stories from English into the local indigenous language.

On the verge of extinction
Like most aboriginal languages in Canada, few fluent speakers of the Haida language remain—and most of those are in their 70s. Through the efforts of the Haida Language and Culture Program, many resources and programs have been implemented to encourage interest in their indigenous tongue. “There is no other language like it, and it is close to extinction right now,” says Lucille Bell of the Xaad Kihlgaa Hi Suu.u (the Speak Haida Society), “so getting more young people involved in it is so important.”

Nate Jolley, an experienced and dedicated filmmaker and a Haida Gwaii resident, has been working for several years to connect First Nations youth with their culture through the medium of film. Through his company, Autonomous Productions, he developed Project CONNECT, which aims to empower young people with digital video training, link them to their elders and their traditions, and facilitate First Nations stories being documented by First Nations people. Jolley and Longmuir worked together to bring Our World to Haida Gwaii.

The NFB held a session in October 2008 for those interested in learning about Our World, and got started on the story-writing process. Kristy Bell, Brandon Brown, Curtis Brown, Kiefer Collison, Gwaliga Hart, and Tao Stocker were the six young people from Old Masset who signed up for the challenge. Longmuir credits Jolley with being able to link the Film Board with talented and involved individuals. “It’s much better to be part of a continuum,” she says, “to know that when we leave there’s someone keeping it going.”

During the first session of the project, two NFB team members travelled to Old Masset to help the six young filmmakers develop their ideas for their pieces: Lisa Jackson, a story mentor and documentary filmmaker, and Associate Producer Catrina Longmuir spent two days assisting the youth to solidify their storylines and pass along tricks of the trade.

“There was a lot of talking and discussion,” says Kiefer Collison, a 20-year-old who has been one of the most dedicated participants of Jolley’s workshops over the last several years. “They were great teachers: there was constructive criticism and suggestions, but overall it was our decision at the end, because it was our piece, our vision.”

Professional package
For the next stage of the process, Longmuir, Technical Director Lisa Nielsen, and animator Elisa Chee arrived in February 2009 with a full package of computers, professional software, and digital cameras for a week of workshops and hands-on video shooting and editing. “We all had our individual computers and headphones, the complete gear,” says Collison. “We never had to wait for a camera or anything.”

Between these two sessions, the youths’ stories were translated into Haida by elder Ts’inni Steven Brown. Although some of the young videographers were brave enough to speak in Haida in their pieces, Ts’inni Steven did most of the narration, and even played a starring role in two of them.

Each of the six videos is unique, a direct product of the young person behind it. Some tell personal stories, while others are passionate statements about Haida culture and the future of the nation. Kiefer Collison produced a forthright video called Our World which asserts the readiness of youth to step up and take leadership roles. Brandon Brown’s piece, The Power of the Haida People, is a simple but powerful depiction of the need for Haida to practice their cultural arts. Gwaliga Hart’s video, Grounded in Tradition, tells the story of a young Haida boy who visits an elder to hear a story, falls asleep, and experiences a supernatural world of Haida language and tradition.

In a more personal vein, Kristy Bell generated a ‘poetic’ video called We Are Not Alone, consisting of playfully collaged images about her search for community and belonging, while Curtis Brown recounts his own search for his Haida roots in The Lost Raven Finds His Way. Tao Stocker spliced together a series of surreal, manipulated images and an original ambient soundtrack for his piece on the elements of change, Untitled.

For most of the young filmmakers, the project was the most in-depth immersion in the Haida language they had ever experienced, and has left a lasting impression. During the translation process, the young filmmakers were brought face-to-face with the intricacies of their native language. “The Haida language is complicated,” says Collison. “For my story I wanted the phrase ‘We are the future,’ but there is no Haida phrase for that.”

Collison took up the challenge of speaking Haida for his video’s narration, as did Kristy Bell. “The project really exposed me to the language and gave me the opportunity to get closer to it,” says Collison.

Community screening
At the end of the week of shooting and editing, the videos were screened to a packed crowd at the Tluu Xaada Naay Longhouse in Old Masset. Although most of the project was funded through the NFB, a significant grant from Northern Savings Credit union allowed for the rental of high-quality projection equipment. “It was the best community response we’ve had,” says Longmuir. “We really felt the community support for the youth.”

“The energy in that place was amazing,” says Jolley. “There was so much recognition of what they were doing.”

Longmuir plans to submit the finished videos to film festivals such as imagineNATIVE—an international festival that honours aboriginal filmmaking—and also hopes to formally compile a DVD collection at the NFB that will be properly distributed. For the moment, however, the films will be available for viewing on the Haida Nation website and the NFB website.

At the end of it all, the project organizers hope that the youth-produced Our World videos accomplish two things: enhance the profile of Haida traditional culture and language, and spur some of the young filmmakers to continue their participation in the medium.
“The end dream, for sure, is that some of the kids really take this on seriously as a career,” says Longmuir.

Kiefer Collison, for one, has been deeply affected by his experiences with filming. “I’m definitely looking at schooling,” he says. “I’ve got my heart set on filming for the rest of my life.”