It’s that time again for the Yellowknife International Film Festival (YIFF) and I’m the man reviewing the films previewed at this festival. This time, I got a chance to pre-screen the films so I can post the reviews before showtime. From a satirical take on the Standing Rock protests to a documentary of the Tragically Hip’s final concert, we got a wide variety of films this year. We get that variety in our first screening with two hour-long films that couldn’t be more different. Journeys to Adaka is a documentary about a festival dedicated to Indigenous artists. The Last Walk is a collection of short films sharing a premise of a sister’s journey to forgive her exiled sister.
Let’s start with Journeys to Adaka, a short documentary centered on the Adaka Cultural Festival. Every year, indigenous artists and performers gather at Whitehorseâ€™s Kwanlin Dun Cultural Centre to showcase their work and celebrate their culture. The film introduces us to seven of them; Gary Sidney Johnson (Tagish & Tlingit) the drummer, Chantal Rondeau (Northern Tutchone) the fashion designer, Diyet Van Lieshout (Southern Tutchone & Tlingit) the musician, Dennis Shorty (Kaska) the carver, Carmen Baker (Northern Tutchone & Tlingit) the teacher, Wayne Price (Costal Tlingit) the canoe designer and Ann Smith (Tutchone & Tlingit), the weaver. As they prepare for the festival, each artist reveals the passion that drives them and how their work connects them with their culture.
This documentary is the first among a few YIFF movies to share a common theme; the revitalization of indigenous cultures. Since itâ€™s beginning, YIFF has hosted movies about indigenous peopleâ€™s efforts to reconnect with their cultures, and Journeys to Adaka keeps that tradition. When it comes to these types of movies, you can feel the passion flow through the silver screen. You can certainly feel the passion that drives each artist. From Shorty carving artwork on antlers to Smith weaving using the ravenâ€™s tail technique, thereâ€™s a beauty to how Directors Fritz Mueller and Theresa Earle film these artists performing their trades. And then there are the interviews, where we come to understand the role their culture plays in each life. Each person is so compelling itâ€™s hard to choose one. Take Baker, who started passing on her teachings to the younger generation when she realized no one was drumming in her home of Pelly Crossing. In a way, their work helps them reconnect with their ancestors. As Shorty would say, â€œI used to say I carve it, now I say we (him and his ancestors) carve it.â€
Now we get to the Last Walk, which is quite an interesting experiment. In 2015, Indigenous filmmakers gathered in Toronto to workshop a series of short films with a common subject matter. The result is three fifteen-minute short films about a womanâ€™s journey to forgive her sister whose been exiled after accidently killing a loved one.
The first one comes from the Northwest Territories. Emma (Kayley Mackay) is exiled into the unforgiving frozen wilderness after accidently killing a kid in a drunken stupor. When a threatening spirit (George Kregnektak) comes a knocking, Emma’s sister Anna (Tiffany Ayalik) begins a desperate search for her sister. This short had a lot of potential. Cinematography Pablo Saravanja showcases the beauty of the arctic landscape. The film’s fortunate to have two great actresses in Mackay and Ayalik, who give subtle yet compelling performances. But the film fails in delivery. The film expects us to root for Anna to find Emma, but we can’t because we never get a sense of their relationship. Sure, we get flashbacks of them as children, but what is their relationship NOW? The first thing a film should do is answer the question “why should I just give a shit about these characters?” and you can’t just say “because they’re sisters” or “because she’ll freeze to death.” The audience needs to get to know them first.
For that matter, the film hurts itself by not revealing what Emma did until after the story’s pretty much over. Mackay certainly does make us care for Emma through her subtle yet heartbreaking performance, but knowing what she was feeling guilty about would have connected us more with her and revealed why Anna was forgiving her for. One more problem is with the mysterious figure himself. A little mystery is good, but his character is way too vague to be interesting. You don’t even know his name until the ending credits, which calls him Tulugak. This leaves more questions. Considering this is the name of a raven spirit, does this mean this guy’s a raven spirit? No matter what mythology you portray, it’s best to consider audience members who know nothing of the culture.
The second film comes from Alaska. When her nephew drowns during a fishing trip, the guilt-ridden Violet (Polly Andrews) exiles herself to a distant cabin. When Violet takes her own life, her littler sister Jessie (Marika Cockney) returns to the cabin to forgive her sister. “Maybe one day I can truly heal,” Jessie says in the opening monologue, “but I have to learn to forgive myself for turning my back on you.” Writer/director Anne Hoover makes the case of forgiveness as a tool for healing. Jessie’s not only forgiving Violet but herself. Forgiveness is the only way either can move on with her life.
Though an improvement from the last film, this one still has a major problem with delivery. This time, it’s because this film has a bad habit of delivering information through forced exposition. It breaks the basic filmmaking principle of show, don’t tell. Surprisingly, I don’t find a problem with Jessie’s narration. Usually a lazy way of delivering exposition, the film makes it work by portraying it as a conversation Jessie wished she had with her sister.
The third one resides from Greenland. This time, a woman (Nivi Petersen) must find a way to save her sister (Ulu Petersen) from an enchanted prison. This one is the best of the three. Not only does it have the best storytelling and beautiful images, but it presents its mythology in an enchanting yet accessible way. The film balances realism with the fantastical with near perfection, going from a horrifying image of a housefire to a beautiful scene of Ulu Petersen in a dress, surrounded by a green field with effortless grace. Directors Pipaluk Jorgensen and Johannes Lynge have a lot of potential.
Talk about contrasts in artwork. We go from real life stories of artists passing on their talents for the world to three unique tales of sibling forgiveness. While different in genres and styles, these films have one thing in common. These films portray people applying their culture in their everyday life. Whether it’s to create artwork and to guide themselves to the right path, their unique cultures have improved their lives. Hopefully, any of these films encourages some audience members to apply their own cultures in their lives, personal or professional
 Just to be clear, I won’t be able to review all of them due to circumstances beyond my control. I’ll get to as many as I possibly can.
 South Tutchone for “Coming in the Light.”