Continuing Toronto Film Scene’s week-long series on the National Parks Project , opening today at Royal Cinema, we talked to Peter Lynch, director of Paahtomahsikimii , the NPP short on Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta. His short includes music by Laura Barrett, Mark Hamilton, and Rollie Pemberton.
How did you get involved with the project?
One of the producers, Ryan Noth, who a number of years ago worked as an assistant editor with my wife, Caroline Christie, told me about the project when it was in its early stages of planing. He then mentioned it to me every now then. Then he rang me up a few months before we shot and I was thrilled it was a go. He introduced me to Joel and and Geoff and they told me it was a go and to think about which park and musicians I would like to work with.
Had you been to the park you shot before the film?
I had been to Water Lakes Park on two occasions: One time for a few days concerning my wife, Caroline’s (who is also the editor of the film) father’s ashes, which we spread in the region. The location had significance to her family her dad grew up close by to the park in Cardston. Her granddad was the veterinarian for the region and her uncle who was a writer wrote about the area and she used to go as a young girl.
I also went for a second time just to hike and enjoy it a year before we filmed there.
Did you have a treatment or idea, or did you just attempt to respond to the park?
I had a fairly involved shooting treatment based on story ideas, images and musical ideas. I also knew I wanted to work with the Blackfoot [Nation]. Also there was one song I had the musicians respond which was Don’t Fence Me In .
That said I also was very open to responding to the park on an improvisational level and nature has a way of telling you what you will be doing that day in any event.
What was your personal experience of the park and how did it translate into the film?
The first number of days we filmed at Wateron we received a lot of rain and we were complaining a lot about the rain out. When I told this to Narcisse Blood (who is Blackfoot) he told me, “You guys see the rain as an inconvenience, but we pray for this rain. Water defines the park and sustains the animals that we eat.” He told me you have to ask nature what you want.
The cinematographer, Steve Cousins, decided to leave everyone behind and just stay out all day in the rain filming and everything started to all of a sudden present it self to us. It starts off as vast landscapes then when you look more closely and get up closer to life, it’s there. You start to see life below the surface image the details things are being born things are dying bones and fossils appear and these contain the mysteries of life and death.
National Parks often get postcard treatments in nature specials. These, often post whiteman’s history, miss major narratives by over looking paths of the people who lived there much longer, but they fail to look at the 10,000 years of history. For instance in this film, the presence of the Blackfoot was everywhere. We wanted to honor that history and their relationship to the buffalo, which was once the biggest species on earth. The extermination of the buffalo actually change the landscape and the human relationship to the region.
The day we filmed all day in the rain we captured a small animal dying breathing its last breath on camera. This moment seemed so intimate and profound and gave scale and a heart beat for the film. The film also contains a secret heart one of the lakes, where part of Caroline’s father’s ashes are spread started to take on the form of her fathers body for us when we were editing the film and it was a profound experience for us to see nature and life and death become such an personal evocative expression.
Tell us about the process of putting together the music and the film.
The Blackfoot used to call the mountains in there “the backbone of the world.” The park shows different markers of time, mountains, etc, caused by geological events. There are also the bones of animals and fossils – a range of records of different times of existence. Wanted to use the bones totemically. The shamanistic.
Wanted to get Laura Barrett to play piano, but the hotel wouldn’t let her play because it was to late but instead she ended played with bones we found that day on the piano bench and with the keys covered, as if she was a giant playing with the landscape to form a new portrait. I approached it as if everything in the park is alive; it’s all part of a narrative. It was like we were channeling John Cage playing the park.
I had the musicians listen to Narcisse Blood, a Blackfoot elder, about the creation myth, which then informed them in their songwriting process. For instance, Rollie Pemberton sampled some of the Blackfoot drums and some of their story and worked it into his own song.
Each came up with their own song, but they were all collaborative.
Mark Hamilton made a song that referred to this thunder myth.
The deer were invading a camp one night, Barrett ended up making a portrait of the deer who live close with humans in the song “Humble fawn” So it was a very dynamic organic responsive collaborative process.
Are you more of an urban or rural person?
I am definitely ‘Mr. Urban-man’ more of a city person, but I also love nature. It scares me. I almost don’t want to leave it once I am in it it has such a pull for me.
What was left on the cutting room floor? What didn’t make it into the short?
We did interviews with the Blackfoot and tried to layer them in to the film but they seem to make it feel too conventional, documentary-wise and kind of weakened the underlying power of the imagery. Their words played better in the songs and in some cases in text.
What was the message you were trying to convey with your piece, both visually and in working with the musicians?
The name of this film is Paahtomahsikimii “The place where the lakes go into the mountain”. How it is pronounced Bahk too Mah ksii kii me.
On one level I wanted to work in the tradition that has taken place with national parks and the history of photography in North America such as Muybridge & Ansel Adams work, etc. They where documenting the reality of the times, beyond the typical postcard of mountain scenes. In this film, I actually use Muybridge plates, which were also proto-cinema, moving toward motion picture. This was how Americans in cities mostly discovered their own land — like sleeping dreams. I wanted to work very freely where there wasn’t a line between documentary and creative photography. I was interested in making an epic short with a quantum approach to narrative. This narrative of the land has evolved over several thousand years. The Blackfoot don’t perceive time in a linear way “” what we perceive as distant past is very present for them, therefore when he speaks the language now, he is speaking through his ancestors. I wanted to try to have the images and music speak for me in a layered fashion personally, spiritually and universally.
The language of the Blackfoot has been taken away, so when you speak Blackfoot you’re speaking the story, the history of that place. They where our guides and they handed us a gift to tell this story. Music can be abstract and poetic and I wanted the music to form part of the portrait as well as power up the narrative. This film aims poses a complex radical portrait of a national park that teases and engages with the boundaries of art and cinema. It subverts the conventional idea of the national park and its position in our national consciousness. It revolves around the most significant new world tragedy the massacre of the buffalo and decimation of our first nations culture. It draws this through the frame of geological time, the Blackfoot culture the history of photography of national parks and landscape painting. It also delves in to art history, the notion of the “western” the mythic totemic and shamanistic. This story is also deeply imbued with my own personal obsessions and family history. I made this film with an eye to traditions of artists like Muybridge, which it directly quotes. I am also drawing of the inquiries into nature by Beuys; Cage, Nauman, O’Keeffe, Stieglitz Smithson and Viola within this tradition.