imagineNATIVE 2016 Review: The Sun at Midnight

The debut feature from writer and director Kirsten Carthew, The Sun at Midnight, casts rising star Devry Jacobs (Rhymes for Young Ghouls) as Lia, a sullen, artistic, fashionista teenager disgruntled with her dads decision to send her to live with her grandmother in the subarctic while he takes off on a two month contract for work. Not fitting in and finding herself bullied, she attempts to run away in a boat to something close to civilization. Once that doesn’t pan out, she finds herself stranded in the wilderness about a four week walk from anywhere. It’s in this dire situation – and following a harrowing encounter at a hunter camp – that she befriends Alfred (Duane Howard, best known from The Revenant), a caribou tracker who agrees to watch over and protect her.

It’s pretty much a bog standard tale of a spoiled teen learning something from a wizened sage until it’s time for her to repay the favour and he learns something from her in return. Carthew’s tale is formulaic and basic, rushing perhaps a bit too quickly through her first act while we’re just getting to know Lia. Nothing hits as too much of a shock, and yet it still feels like things escalate quicker than they should.

Possibly the hurry in the early going is to get to the bits with Jacobs and Howard together, since the chemistry the actors have together is effortless and genuine. They bring The Sun at Midnight to roaring life whenever they’re allowed to bounce off each other, and the film flounders whenever they aren’t on screen together. Thankfully, that’s much of Carthew’s film, so the results are a minor success. It should also go without saying that Carthew captures the beauty of the Canadian North in summer to gorgeous effect.

ImagineNATIVE 2016 Review: Bonfire

In a Yakut village in the Sakha Republic of Russia, Ignat lives a simple life with his son. However, when his son kills another man in a drunken accident, he’s taken away and Ignat’s simple life is ruined. Saddened and alone, the elderly Ignat finds hope in a local vagrant boy, hoping to impart the lessons to the boy that failed to help his son.

It’s uncommon for low-budget feature debuts to have as sharp a visual style or as sympathetic a voice as Bonfire. Not that Bonfire escapes all the shortcomings of low-budget indies, but it still manages to be a quietly confident drama about remote life and familial guilt.

Director Dimitrii Davydov keeps the pace slow and the emotions muted. His camera is often impartial, observing the rhythms of Ignat and the other villagers. For instance, we often see Ignat praying to an icon of Jesus or patiently carving boxes out of wood. These rhythms are important because they keep Ignat focused on work and help him resist the lure of alcohol, which seems to torment the majority of the villagers, including his son.

Alcohol and its ill consequences provide most of the drama in this film. It incites the plot and plays into the tragic ending. Otherwise, dramatic conflict is mostly absent in Bonfire. Characters go about their business and Davydov never injects artificial tension. In moments, it almost seems like he’s filming a documentary, which keeps the film honest, if a little timid. In the end, Bonfire is interesting in its particularity, but mildly unambitious.

ImagineNATIVE 2016 Review: Born to Dance

For Tu (Tia-Tahoroa Maipi), dance is his ticket away from a life in the army. When K-Crew, the country’s premier dance group, puts out an open call for new members, Tu jumps at the chance of stardom.

If you’ve seen any contemporary dance film, you know exactly how Born to Dance is going to turn out. Director Tammy Davis has not set out to reinvent the wheel. Instead, he has focused on making an enjoyable, if predictable film.

Davis has collected a group of young attractive actors who also have mad dance skills. Born to Dance brings a different flavour of hip hop than its North American counterparts. Overall, the film has a less polished and more organic feel. This comes directly from the dance style, which retains a strong connection to hip hop’s African roots.

Born to Dance gives its audiences exactly what they expect. Sure it’s cheesy and emotional manipulation, but when we reach the inevitable conclusion it’s hard not to smile. There may not be any surprises but that doesn’t stop it from being uplifting, leaving you with a warm, happy, fuzzy feeling.

imagineNATIVE 2016 Review: The Land of Rock and Gold

A single Cree mother named Rochelle (newcomer Charity Bradford) from rural Saskatchewan finds herself amid a major crisis at the start of Daniel Redenbach and Janine Windolph’s subtly suspenseful character drama The Land of Rock and Gold. Her boyfriend (Barrett Thompson) has gone missing without a trace after setting out on a hunting trip. After a few days of her boyfriend not showing up for work at the local mine, Rochelle starts panicking when child protective services come by and threaten to take her son (Dimitri McLeod) away thanks to her current state of unemployment. Rochelle sets out one day into the woods to get some answers, but what she discovers only raises more questions and leaves her feeling even more helpless.

Gorgeously photographed and deftly balancing sadness and suspense, Redenbach and Windolph have created a multilayered look at how desperation can arise from a crisis while pointedly starting a discussion about how hard it is to be a single First Nations mother. Their depiction of Rochelle combined with Bradford’s bracing performance is one of a woman who is sometimes hard to like or sympathize with. She makes poor decisions and acts out of anger often, but when one steps back from the situation, it’s sadly easy to realize that she’s trying to stave off any further tragedy in her life.

The Land of Rock and Gold switches gears a bit around the halfway mark once Rochelle takes an under the table gig as a housecleaner for a woman that might be connected to her boyfriend’s disappearance, but even though things look like they’re ramping up to a conclusion, it’s worth sticking with the film to find out where it goes. It’s a strong first feature for the directorial duo.

imagineNATIVE 2016 Review: Angry Inuk

Since the 1960s, animal rights organizations have effectively argued against the commercial seal hunt, crippling the once-thriving industry through advertising campaigns and the implementation of trade bans. Angry Inuk is director Alethea Arnaquq-Baril’s personal argument against banning the commercial hunt. The film argues that the hunt is traditional, humane, environmentally-sustainable, and essential to the economy of the Inuit.

Angry Inuk is as articulate and personal as an activist documentary can get. Well-structured and deliberately paced, Arnaquq-Baril’s film effectively counters every argument currently used in favour of banning the seal hunt. It roots the argument in the traditions of the Inuit and draws on Arnaquq-Baril’s life and the lives of her friends and neighbours to personalize the effects the ban has on Inuit life.

Angry Inuk argues that the hunt is sustainable (seal populations are large and the Inuit don’t over-hunt), humane (they kill them quickly and efficiently), healthy (seal meat is the primary food source for the Inuit and is high in iron), and economically and environmentally necessary (mineral extraction is the only other industry option in the North). Most cunningly, the film depicts the ways that environmental and animal rights organizations have furthered colonization of the Inuit. They paternalize the Inuit while destroying their economy and tradition and refuse to engage in dialogue with them about issues that affect them.

Angry Inuk is intelligent, illuminating, and practical. It informs the viewer while never succumbing to self-righteousness or empty ideology.

ImagineNATIVE 2015 Review: Prison Songs

Prison Songs is something you’ve likely never seen before and will want to see more of going forward. It’s, as the title vaguely suggests, a musical documentary featuring real-life inmates at an Australian prison. Taking place in Berrimah Prison in the Northern Territory, Prison Songs is a unique study of some of the prison’s inmates—with an emphasis on those with indigenous blood—and the experiences and events that brought them there as well as their own feelings both as inmates and as indigenous people.

The inmates helped to create the songs they perform, which were all recorded at the prison and deal with topics like domestic violence, alcoholism and racism. The topics are something that are shown to be experiences common to indigenous people.

Prison Songs gives viewers a look at inmates and shows them as humans rather than as bad guys who deserve to be in jail. (In fact, one of the inmates featured is actually truly innocent and it’s devastating to hear her story.) The filmmakers aren’t trying to justify the criminal acts, but are saying that maybe these were all preventable if only the Australian government would treat the indigenous people with more of the respect they deserve.

In a quirky, unique and wildly entertaining way, Prison Songs cleverly reveals the seemingly unending adversities faced by indigenous people all over the world and not just in North America.

ImagineNATIVE 2015 Review: Catalina Y El Sol

Catalina Y El Sol (Catalina and the Sun) is a short film from Argentina based on an old legend from the province of Jujuy, Argentina. The film centres around a young girl named Catalina who comes to understand that in order to see things clearly, you must close your eyes. According to her grandmother, in order for the sun to continue to shine, a story must be offered every day to the Sun God Tata Into.

Directed by Anna Paula Hönig, the short premiered at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival and will be having its North American Premiere at the 16th ImagineNative Film Festival.

This short is a thoughtful addition into the Next of Kin Programme at ImagineNATIVE. It is presented in a way that powerfully communicates much about the legend while at the same time is beautifully shot with the mountainous landscape of Argentina. The natural environment and the elements of the earth play a key role in the film and is also a main player in the legend.

ImagineNATIVE 2015 Review: The Grandfather of All Treaties

In 1613, the Iroquois Confederacy signed a treaty with Dutch settlers in North America known as the Two Row Wampum, which became the basis for all subsequent treaties between the Haudenosaunee and European settlers, laying out sovereignty rights and agreements to share and respect the land. The Grandfather of All Treaties examines the importance of this vital treaty and how the American and Canadian governments’ refusal to honour it has fuelled the Idle No More movement and shifting attitudes inside and outside of Iroquois culture.

Candace Maracle’s The Grandfather of All Treaties is a documentary of right spirit but unfocused structure. Scattering its focus between the original Two Row Wampum treaty, the Idle No More movement, and the lives of ordinary Iroquois folks, the film is trying for a visual collage of modern Indigenous life. Sadly, it doesn’t achieve such poetry and instead plays as simultaneously meandering and scattershot.

The film comes to life when it lets members of the community speak to the history of the Two Row Wampum itself, becoming a visual record of this culture’s strong oral tradition. But even then, the film never clarifies the details of the original treaty, nor strongly captures the tension between past and present.

Although intended as a rallying cry for all treaty peoples in Canada and the U.S., The Grandfather of All Treaties ends up confounding the message of Idle No More instead of clarifying it.

ImagineNATIVE 2015 Review: Ellos Sápmi

Norwegian history comes to life in the funny, quirky short Ellos Sápmi. Telling the real-life story of the formation of Norway’s first Sámi Parliament, it follows a womanizing leader who is robbed of his control and eventually betrayed by his own people.

Staying true to history, the short’s dialogue is Norwegian and tells the history of the formation of the Sámi government in a tongue-in-cheek satirical way. The formation of the government ended up being used against the people who initially helped to form it and thus took power away from them rather than allowing it to them.

The movie is quick, beautiful and full of characters who are halfway between caricature and reality, but who are seamlessly developed from the beginning thanks to the dialogue and acting, all of which work together marvellously. You can walk into this movie without knowing a damned thing about Norwegian politics and still walk away with a fairly clear understanding of what the indigenous people there have to deal with.

ImagineNATIVE 2015 Review: The Price of Peace

Kim Webby sheds light on the years-long ordeal Maori activist Tame Iti faced when he and fellow activists were accused of terrorism. This documentary follows the events that led to his arrest, the trial that followed and the eventual clearing of Iti’s name and reputation as well as that of his small village.

Webby’s documentary decides to tell Iti’s very interesting story in a very uninteresting manner. With lots of talking heads and voiceovers atop vintage footage of the Maori people, the movie threatens to bore the audience rather than educate it.

Iti’s small town of approximately 300 residents was raided by 100 police officers who had been illegally surveilling the town’s “training camps.” These surveillance videos were used to arrest Iti and a number of other residents, out of whom only four saw trial (and went on to be known as the Urewera Four), with Iti being among them.

The story is an interesting one that needs to be told not only to shed light on the unfair treatment of indigenous people by the Crown all across the commonwealth nations, but also because the tumultuous relationship between indigenous people and the Europeans who colonized their land is one that is not just limited to North America—something we often fail to realize.

The Price of Peace ends up bringing forth just the facts and nothing else. The most interesting parts are listening to Iti speak about his childhood and the Maori community in his mother tongue and the documentary seems to be torn between making Iti the star of the film and fairly showing the tribulations of the Maori in New Zealand.

ImagineNATIVE 2015 Review: Dancing the Space Inbetween

On Pinkie Road near Regina, Saskatchewan lies an unmarked cemetery where children from the Regina Indian Industrial School are buried. Dancing the Space Inbetween is powwow dancer Lacy Morin-Desjarlais and Regina arts producer Michele Sereda’s tribute to these children: a short dance film meant as a prayer for their spirits and a remembrance of their legacy. Sadly, it is also Morin-Desjarlais and Sereda’s final contribution to the Regina arts community as both were killed in a car accident this past February.

From the opening moments of Dancing the Space Inbetween, dancer Lacy Morin-Desjarlais evokes the image of prayer. We first see her kneeled over in a golden field, head bowed towards the grass, the camera above her head. She starts to dance, hands together or outstretched towards the earth as if she’s encouraging the spirits in the ground to take flight into the sky above.

The entirety of Dancing the Space Inbetween plays to this tension between the ground and the sky, between the dark and the light. Aaron Bernakevitch’s cinematography emphasizes this purgatorial state, using shallow focus to make Morin-Desjarlais appear as a spirit, fading in and out of our physical world and drawing contrast between a dark dance hall and the golden light of the prairie field.

With its ethereal music and Morin-Desjarlais’s passionate movements, Dancing the Space Inbetween captures spiritual significance beyond its aesthetic pleasures.

ImagineNATIVE 2015 Review: When the Darkness Comes

Minik (Qillannguaq Berthelsen) and Hans (Martin Brandt) have been friends since they were kids, but their lives in Greenland have become stale. Minik is feeling depressed because of a woman he is in love with who doesn’t return his feelings, and Hans just wants to cheer him up. At a party one evening, they start talking about finding a haunted house to spend the night in. A young woman overhears them and tells them about a house her aunt has just left when her husband disappeared. Excited for something different to do, Minik and Hans head to the house for an evening with cameras to try and capture some supernatural activity. What they find is more terrifying than they could ever imagine.

Malik Kleist writes and directs this stunning and frightening film that gives a unique look at the haunted house genre. When the Darkness Comes starts off a little slowly, not only in the pace of the film, but the pace of its characters too. Everybody speaks and moves a little slowly, giving off the impression that they really have nothing better to do. There’s no reason to be in a rush when there’s nothing to actually get to.

Once the two friends head out for the haunted house, the film quickly picks up and barely stops until the end. It’s a terrifying ordeal and the film is surprisingly scary. It’s easy to startle someone with a jump scare, but When the Darkness Comes manages to get under your skin. The effects are well done, but when they’re combined with the completely unnerving soundtrack, the effect is increased substantially. You’ll be leaving the lights on after this one.

ImagineNATIVE 2015 Review: The Secret

High schooler Jonnie Sacobie tackles a topic that has many tongues wagging lately: mental health. In her succinct short film The Secret, Jonnie takes us on a journey of her mental health deteriorating into clinical depression. It’s a story that many teenagers are likely familiar with, but Jonnie shows what a difference it can make to have a support system who is preoccupied with the well-being of a loved one.

Jonnie describes the initial changes in mood, which eventually led to her completely dropping out of school and resorting to self-harm as a coping mechanism; she then tells of her supportive family who immediately sought out help for the fifteen-year-old and helped her get to a place where she was once more in control of her life.

It’s a story we’ve heard over and over again, but that doesn’t mean it’s hackneyed or over told. Jonnie’s story is one of many and it’s a story that needs to be told and told again if we are ever going to totally break down the stigma behind mental health.

imagineNATIVE 2015 Review: Mekko

After serving 19 years in an Oklahoma prison for killing his cousin, Mekko (Rod Rondeaux) finds himself homeless upon release when his surviving family makes it clear they want nothing to do with him. Mekko finds himself taken in by a close-knit community of fellow First Nations homeless people and cared for on the side by a kindly waitress (Sarah Podemski) from a local diner. But upon his arrival, he finds certain members of the community—especially his closest friend—living in fear of a brooding, possibly not even homeless, loose cannon drug dealer named Bill (Zahn McClarnon) who acts as the group’s “protector” and alpha dog. When Mekko stands up to Bill it causes a horrific tragedy that will force the former inmate into confronting his true spiritual nature.

The first fictional effort from filmmaker Sterlin Harjo since 2009, Mekko (which also recently played TIFF) finds Harjo drawing heavily on his years spent making documentaries in the interim to deliver a haunting and gritty tale of loss and redemption that boasts an authentic sense of community. Outside of a small handful of moments that utilize slow-motion poorly, Mekko feels like a lived-in, on-the-ground experience, an unfiltered depiction of what it’s actually like to be homeless in America and the communities and fears that arise out of necessity. The low key, but smouldering Rondeaux and the almost hypnotically demonic McClarnon give performances so fully realized and befitting of the material that they feel animalistic and primal.

Eventually in the final third, Mekko becomes a subdued and nuanced revenge thriller of sorts, but one with grander spiritual consequences, not only for the main character, but the community as a whole. Normally, such twists would cut a film’s subtext off at the knees, but Harjo turns it into a thoughtful meditation on what it means to be a part of one of the most disenfranchised peoples in the world.

imagineNATIVE 2014 Review: The Pa Boys

Danny (Francis Kora), Tau (Matariki Whatarau), and Cityboy (Tola Newbery) are members of Wellington-based reggae band, who set out on a tour of northern New Zealand. Tau is a relative newcomer to the group, who is deeply rooted in his Maori heritage. This results in some conflict with Danny, who has grown up unfamiliar with his roots. Throughout the course of the tour, the three friends bond and learn the importance of learning one’s heritage.

One element of The Pa Boys that immediately stands out is its many reggae musical performances. Lead actor Francis Kora is a member of the real reggae band Kora and the songs that are performed in the film are definitely the highlight. However, the songs seem separate from the plot of the film, which almost seems at times as a way to segue between the different performances.

The main dramatic arc of The Pa Boys involves Danny, who was adopted and has no knowledge of his Maori heritage. This makes him a bit of an outsider among the rest of the group, particularly Tau, who’s extremely knowledgeable of his origins. Danny also has to deal with the presence of his ex-wife Puti (Juanita Hepi), who has come along on the tour.

While the plot of The Pa Boys is a little uneven at times, it still has its moments.

ImagineNATIVE 2014 Review: Among Ravens

A group of friends and lovers meet at an idyllic cabin for a Fourth of July weekend. Among them are Wendy (Amy Smart) and Ellis (Josh Leonard), who are going through marital problems. Wendy’s ex, bestselling author Saul (Russell Friedenberg), still has a crush on Wendy and is trying to keep a secret about his work under wraps. Meanwhile, Wendy and Saul’s daughter, Joey (Johnny Sequoyah), is unnerved by the dysfunction happening all around her. She quickly grows fond of a young nature photographer, Chad (Will McCormack), who hopes to rescue her unpleasant holiday weekend.

Among Ravens features a very strong debut performance from young actor Johnny Sequoyah. She gives a moving turn as a pre-teen absorbing the chaos of her family drama. With the exception of her performance and her subplot with Chad, though, Randy Redroad and Russell Friedenberg’s film is hollow, clichéd and unpleasant. The characters, for the most part, are vague sketches of real people. The actors try to inject personality into characters whose actions and motivations often go unexplained.

Meanwhile, the film features bird symbolism that becomes increasingly obnoxious each time Joey speaks about ravens. When she does, she relates it to the struggles of the characters. Sadly, their comparison to those black birds is often the most interesting facet about them. Finally, Among Ravens suffers from a muffled sound mix – some scenes are harsh and loud, others could have used dubbing to clear up the mumbled, hard-to-hear dialogue.

imagineNATIVE 2014 Review: Sol

In September 2012, 26 year old Inuk man Solomon Uyurasuk was found dead in an RCMP jail cell. Sol’s death was deemed a suicide, though his family does not believe that is the truth. Sol’s death relates to a larger social issue in the territory of Nunavut, where the suicide rate is thirteen times the national average, with many of the suicides being committed by youth, who have issues with their cultural identity.

Sol uses the story of Solomon Uyurasuk as a bridge to address the very high suicide rate in Nunavut. Even though the territory has a population of only 35,000, the RCMP receives over a thousand calls a year for suicides or attempts. Many of these suicides, committed by those as young as 11,  are the result of identity issues among the Inuit, who are stuck in a limbo between the traditions of their culture and the increasingly modern world.

Solomon Uyurasuk was actually a circus performer, who helped speak out against suicide. As such, the fact that he apparently hanged himself in an RCMP jail cell raises a lot of questions. In fact, his friends and family remain convinced that Sol’s death was actually a homicide. However, with suicide considered to be a normal fact of life in Nunavut, the authorities did not question the circumstances of Sol’s death.

imagineNATIVE 2014 Review: A White Day

A group of strangers travel together on a desolate frozen road in Siberia during the night. When the driver refuses to stop for an elder, the evening takes on an ominous feel, leading to the group being stranded in the barren wilderness in bitter cold.

Director Michail Lukachevskyi brings the fairy tale like story of A White Day to life, but can’t quite make it compelling enough to maintain interest. This incredibly quiet film instantly makes viewers think of stories that are told between generations. When the group won’t stop for an elder, their journey suddenly becomes tragic, so you can see how respect for our elders plays into the story. By ignoring them, we risk missing out on their knowledge, which could save us from suffering through some of the mistakes they’ve made.

Although the film looks fantastic, very little actually happens, which causes the film to drag. There’s too much time spent watching the group in the car, driving along while barely talking to each other. It just doesn’t draw the viewer in. When things begin to go wrong, the film picks up a little, as we wonder if the group will survive.

TFS Festival Quickie: Shania Tabobondung, director of My Story

Shania Tabobondung is a 17-year-old Anishinabekwe from Wasauksing First Nation. Her short, My Story, is a moving and personal animated film. It screened on Friday, October 18, 2013 with the My Secret Identity: Youth Shorts Program at imagineNATIVE 2013. We had a chance to speak to her about the film.

Describe your film in 10 words or less.

This film is my own self reflection my struggle with anorexia, self harm and loss of identity.

What inspired you to make this film?

It was a story I needed to tell, I was at a part of my life where I wanted to heal. This provided a great opportunity to start my own healing and open up the conversation. This part of my past is very important to me because it taught me a lot about myself.

What prompted you to use animation to tell this story?

It was fun, and fluid. There were virtually no restrictions on what sort of symbols I could use to represent certain elements in my story. I love art and this was a great creative outlet.

my story

You chose to tell a personal story. Was that a difficult choice for you?

No not really, I was absolutely sure I wanted to tell this story. I think the hardest part of this whole thing was telling people my idea, I thought they would judge me because it’s a really hard and serious subject to talk about.

What are the biggest challenges for you as a young filmmaker in Canada?

Stepping out of my comfort zone. This time last year I would never even think about talking on a radio show or even introducing my own film. I’m a really shy person and I’ve never even talked in front of a big group of people before. I’m just very nervous.

What’s the one thing you want people to know about your film?

Everyone struggles with these issues and it’s important to know you’re not alone. Although only you can decide to get better, there’s always people who want to help you along the way. Talking about it helps, any sort of outlet creates a big difference.

What are you working on next?

I definitely like story telling, writing is one of my passions. I also have a lot more ideas for videos, so when I can scrounge up the money for a decent camera and editing software, one of my goals is to make more stories.

What are you most excited about seeing/doing this year at imagineNATIVE this year?

Meeting new people. Exploring.

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imagineNATIVE 2013 Review: Iron Men – Shorts Program

Described as bringing “bromance to the big screen through stories of mischief, mayhem and camaraderie”, the Iron Men: Shorts Program at imagineNATIVE 2013 combines five shorts from all different areas of the world that span the range of emotions from fun comedy to contemplative tragedy.

Før Hun Kom, Etter Han Dro, directed by Marja Bål Nango, is a Norwegian film about Christian, who goes back to his home village with his fiancée to supposedly look at churches to get married in. Christian goes to a funeral by himself, however, of a man who he used to be friends with as kids, yet he doesn’t seem to want anyone to know of their relationship, lying to his fiancée and even the priest who knew him as a kid. Everything is kept very subtle, with the nature of their past friendship hinted at, but never explained. The film looks great, taking advantage of the gorgeous Norwegian winter to capture endless shots of snow blowing against people’s faces. Christian is a hard character to sympathize with, however, when we know little about him and he’s so remote. Unfortunately, the story just isn’t fully there, a common case of a young filmmaker trying to impress with visuals while skimping on the script.

Other shorts include Motika Graveyard, about two boys in the Australian outback; Derby Kings, about two brothers colliding at a demolition derby; Mohawk Midnight Runners, about a few guys who run naked through the streets as a tribute to their recently deceased friend; and Alaska is a Drag, about two outsiders who find friendship in a backwoods town.

Is Iron Men: Shorts Program essential imagineNATIVE viewing?

It’s a mixed bag, so you’ll probably find something you like but it may not be worth the ticket price.

Iron Men: Shorts Program screening time

More About Iron Men: Shorts Program

Iron Men: Shorts Program gallery

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