The Yellowknife International Film Festival began October with the first of its series of short film collections. For their first presentation, we get a series of documentary shorts, which come in a wide variety. We get subjects as close as the Yukon (The Klondike Viking) and as a far as the Eastern Himalayan border (ADI: At the Confluence). We meet people ranging from a late soldier who’s language helped win WW2 (Cree Code Talker) to a loving couple keeping an ancient medium alive (Barbarian Press). What is consistent is each one has an interesting real life tale to tell.
The Short Documentary Program begins with The Klondike Viking, which are the first in two documentaries to focus on a person who provided a major contribution in history. The title person is Bill Hakonson, a Norwegian outsider who found his calling after his family immigrated to the Yukon. After moving to Dawson City, Hakonson takes advantage of the gold rush to start a series of successful businesses. Through this business, he was able to find the stability he couldn’t find with his family.
Then we go from the a business underdog to Charles “Checker” Tomkins, one of 600 aboriginal soldiers who used their native language to pass codes to allies during World War Two. In Cree Code Talkers, director Alexandra Lazarowich presents Checker’s experience during the war through a combination of interviews with his brothers Frank & James Tomkins and Checker’s own 2004 interview with the Smithsonian. Checker’s presented as a modest man who grew up in a town without concrete and was content just from his duties. There are a couple of memorable moments in this film. In a heartbreaking moment, Checker talks about how he finds himself unable to return to his hometown after all these years; “There’s too many memories.”
We go from an aboriginal war hero to the tribal Abi people of the River Siang in Adi: At the Confluence. “My mother always sang the folks song of the Adi people” recalls director Joor Baruah “It made me curious of the people up in the hills.” So he sails to one Adi village across the Brahmaputra River. Adi is among the underappreciate type of documentary that brings us into the world of lesser known subcultures. Along with similar documentaries like Baraka and Samsara, we are shown the beauty of their cultures. The Adi people combine ancient and modern in their lives. Many still hunt Buffalo and Goats with bows and arrows, but others prefer guns. They have gates to border the roads, but they consist of trees believed to keep spirits away. Like the aforementioned films, we get some beautiful images, whether it’s a boat sailing across a river or a ceremony where women chant Adi tales.
Unfortunately, the Adi find their way of living under threat. First, the elders grow concerned as their youth forget to speak the traditional language. The youth are leaning more to modern life, leaving their traditions behind. The next problem is the conflict between India and China’s battle over rights over Adi’s land. This has being going on since the Indo-China War of 1962. Now China’s building a Dam that threatens to destroy their homes. We are left with uncertainty of their fate.
It’s a reminder of the role documentaries play in calling attention to overlooked issues, especially when it comes to oppressed people. It’s joined by Pinch of Salt, a look at the salt miners of Gujarat, India. Despite providing 70% of salt production in India, the residents get little pay for their hard labour. In fact, they are so poor, they have to travel 300 km just to send a letter. To make matters worse, the endless exposure has caused most of the town to suffer from Skin conditions and ulcers. Director Tanmay Shah calls for the importance for these people to receive basic medical and access to education, especially when it comes to business.
But the type of documentary we see the most in YIFF focus on passionate people who thrive on activities/careers outside of the norm. The first example is Dogpower, which travels around the world to showcase sports where athletes race alongside their best friends. These sports range from dogsledding to scooterjoring. Through these races, the racers express the bond they share with their little racers. It’s especially true for athletes with disabilities.
This section concludes with a look at one of the most passionate couples to run a business in Barbarian Press. Meet Jan and Crispin Elsted, a loving couple of bookworms who’ve made a career print books through their title business. What make their work unconventional is their techniques. They print press using printing presses from the early 20th century, requiring Crispin to arrange the page letter by letter and Jan to turn the lever to press ink to paper. It may seem weird to continue an already dying industry using outdated devices, you can feel their passion in the way they arrange particular fonts to emphasis the mood of Shakespearean verses, accompanied by Jan’s beautiful illustration. The words practically come to life on the page.
Director Sarah Race brings the audience into the passion these two feel for literature and each other. “When they open a [beautifully printed] book” exclaims Jan “they think this must be special for somebody to put all of this effort into this.” They are aware they’re time will eventually end, but they live with the hope they’ll find a couple who’ll share their passion and keep this business going when they’re gone.
Passion breathes in all of these documentaries. No matter the subject, every director has something to say, which they deliver with heart and brain. We encounter many fascinating people, whose worldviews are presented in a clear voice. We enter foreign worlds, with the beauty expressed through enchanting cinematography. To watch these documentaries is to gain a sense of perspective.