Award-winning filmmaker Kevan Funk on creating more audience engagement in cinema, his dislike of the hierarchal process of auditioning, and hearing first-hand experiences of the ramifications of Canadian colonialism.
Tracy: We were talking about the Q & As festivals you've been doing, and why you enjoy that process. Explain how they help you discover things about your own work that you may not otherwise think about.
Kevan: Yeah, it speaks to something larger that I really like about the process of talking about work. I love the process of actually doing interviews and Q & As at film festivals not because of the inherent narcissistic element of talking about your own work (well, there's probably a certain type of pleasure in that), but I think it even goes back to being in school. The thing that is so exciting about that space at school - and the thing that I really miss about that space - is how much time you're given to reflect upon and really interrogate your own work, which doesn't exist very often on a day-to-day basis. You can have really close friends who you discuss work with in that sort of way, but I still think that with friendships, no matter how honest people are it gets insulated a little bit. I think because there's a certain perspective already and there's also sort of an innate kindness to friendship that no matter how critical you want to be - which I know for myself and for my friends is important because that's a certain level of support. But there's an innate kindness that even if people are being completely honest, I still feel that they're sort of hedging somehow, being too kind perhaps. So that's what I mean about the Q & As. I think it may be different when you reach a level of being a feature-film figure. But even then you have to be a bigger feature-film maker who exists in a specific world - a more arthouse world to actually have your work discussed a lot. There are still a lot of feature-film makers who will make work in that world but they're not big enough, and so you do one interview about that work, ever. By nature a lot of my work is actually about conversation and sparking conversation, and I think it's actually a fundamental way -- like a formal quality of the way that a lot of the work works.
Which is where we began talking about a more 'conversational' interview style.
Yeah so that's what I mean in terms of a more conversational element. In my work there is a lot of subtlety and ambiguity that has an active function that is trying to engage in a conversation. And I don't mean conversation in the context of a political statement or anything like that, I mean it's just the relationship you have with the viewer. I don't really like cinema to be a passive experience, which is just because of my own taste. I want it to be something that is an engaging experience that you are asked to be engaged with. So there's an expectation that the audience kind of needs to engage with the work to be satisfied with it.
So you essentially want them to walk away with questions in their minds? Where they'll discuss among themselves what they may have interpreted differently?
Yeah, and any type of discussion really. However I guess talking about a 'discussion' is probably the wrong terminology because that automatically lends itself to this idea of activism or the like, when to me it can be more of a thoughtfulness that you spend engaged with the work yourself.
Certainly. Discussion can also be emotional --
-- Yeah definitely, for sure.
You could have apathetic people who are still able to discuss the way a film made them feel: whether they were personally offended even not knowing much about why it would be offensive politically. Or they could leave inspired even though it didn't inspire them on a partisan level.
Exactly. The goal for me is having work that operates in a way that when the film ends, that's not the end of the experience. That's what I'm really interested in. And I think that's probably the most simplistic way to articulate it. [Laughs] So sort of respecting that. Because everyone's going to have a really different experience, and a lot of the times my expectation of what their experience will be is dramatically different - in negative and positive ways. The most horrible outcome you can have (for me at least as a filmmaker) is that it's something that just washes over people, and that's it. That the experience doesn't even stick with them. I'd way rather have them hate it than to be indifferent about it.
Absolutely. Your parents were quite political, quite active. Why do you prefer making films that aren't necessarily political?
Yeah they're probably less so today than they were, I guess as a result of a mellowing out in their age. But yeah they were very dedicated activists while I was growing up. They ran a not-for-profit environmental theatre company that did environmental activism through theatre. And that is definitely not a money maker at all [Laughs]. I always marvel at how they were able to pull that off while raising four kids - it's pretty insane to me. My whole childhood up until when I was probably in junior high - Presimis (the theatre company) was what they did pretty much full-time. One thing that I also have a lot of respect for about this, is that it was a very different time when environmentalism wasn't a trendy thing. Especially in Alberta. That was in the 90s when the majority of people didn't feel that "climate change" was something that existed in the popular way we see today. I think that has shifted in Alberta now though. I remember during the provincial election two elections ago, the leader of the Wildrose party (which is the furthest right-wing party) mentioned something about how the science was still out on global warming and she got booed by the crowd. To me this marked a pretty distinct shift there. But back in the 90s there was a lot of hostility when Presimis would tour in certain places. And you would just face it because it was seen as this hippyish thing. It was family theatre, it was meant for everyone, but it had a message of activism in terms of environmental awareness, and that was perceived as threatening to a certain contingent of people.
Yeah there'a a huge stigma there. So did you do any theatre with them?
Yeah, yeah certainly. For myself there's the practical implication that my parents are raising kids while running a not-for-profit, and so when you tour a play during the summer, the kids are just along for the ride, you had to be. So yes, I started acting at a very young age - I was quite literally born into theatre. [Laughter]. So we always acted in plays and I did a lot of it because I was the oldest. For a long time - especially in those early years - I thought I wanted to be an actor. That was what I wanted to do, and I guess that's probably what led me into film and into my interest in cinema at a really young age. I didn't grow up with cable, I didn't have a TV. We watched films and of course I watched some TV at my friends' houses, but we didn't have it in the home. We would watch movies, so again I think you'd have a certain attachment to that medium, and I was always interested in story telling. My brother Tyler and I (who's a year and a half younger) had very active imaginations; we would do this thing where we would be hiking - or even just in the yard - and spend hours going in circles playing these imaginary games creating these worlds in our heads imagining all sorts of characters. And then we would spend hours walking and talking together explaining all the things that had happened. So it was like we created these weird imaginary mini-movies. And we did this just to pass the time [Laughter]. So these are all things that grow towards the penchant for story-telling, and in grade 6 I shifted to thinking, "I want to be a filmmaker".
-- Rather than an actor.
Yeah, rather than an actor. And I never really looked back. Which may have actually been a massive advantage in the fact that I've had a singular focus of what I wanted to do since that age. I also never had to deal with feeling like that was an unrealistic expectation because I came from an artistic family. Actually it was really funny in first year art school when people were talking about their backgrounds in some introductory classes - many people had the same story where they were the black sheep, and when they decided to go to art school, there was the struggle of how you justify that, and how you survive in that field. Which to me that was just never even on my radar, so I was a bit taken aback by that.
You just knew it was a possibility.
Yeah I've never had a back-up plan after being a filmmaker, which I think is incredibly valuable because I think if you do have a plan B, then that becomes plan A quite quickly, because it is difficult. So that's something I'm really grateful for. There's also the fact that if you start when you're 12 years old, by the time you get to University you've already had a very different type of experience. I probably ingested way more cinema and read way more fiction through high school than I ever did through University because everything's new, everything's fresh. But I was pretty obsessive. I just loved cinema at a young age. When I was 12 years old the American Film Institute released their list of top 100 greatest films of all time (and they've kept revising it ever since) but I would pin it up on my wall and check-off films one by one as I saw them. And it was an exciting time. Now I've seen so much stuff that when you know the mechanics of cinema, it's hard to get particularly excited about things. And when you do it's really great, but you see a lot of stuff that is interesting but you know it's been done before, or is not as good as other stuff you've seen. But at that earlier stage, I think part of why you have that hunger that's just so rabid, is because you're watching work that is so innovative, so legendary, and so important for that time. You watch them over, and over, and over again because you burn through that list of classics. You can watch ten films in a week and all those films are huge, huge landmark films. But then you get to a certain point where you've gone through it all and it becomes much harder to find others like it. So it was easy to be that enthusiastic, and that crazy about it.
[Laughter] Touching back on what you said about not having a plan B, I find that most people who are successful have that same story: that there was no fallback plan. That this was their only vision or obsession.
Yeah I've come back and talked to students a few times at Emily Carr [University] and one of the only things I can offer as advice (filmmaking is a really irritating thing to get advice on) is that. When we did Canada's Top Ten in Toronto this year, we got the worst question you possibly could get at a Q & A: "How do you make a successful film?" It's just an impossible question to answer. But I tried in ernest to answer it the best I could because it got directed towards me. I remember it being a really frustrating thing back then [as a student] when you're on the outside looking in - to this industry especially. I felt like everyone was sort of hiding; sort of secretive. It feels as though everyone is holding information back from you, and that's really frustrating. But now I realize the reality of why that is. There's just no particular path, no specific advice, or perfect equation to give. If you want to be a veterinarian, or you want to be a firefighter, or an engineer, there's a set path. I'm sure there are still a ton of detours that people take on that route, but you know the things you have to be able to do. But the route to get into filmmaking is so much more convoluted. And if I had some sort of revelatory piece of advice, I'd be happy to share it. What I really think it comes down to is a sense of trust in yourself paired with persistence. And it helps if you feel like there's no other option because that type of drive then becomes an innate and intuitive thing. It's just there.
That way obstacles are simply things you must deal with. Not impossibilities or warnings that you're not going to be good at it. They're just bumps in the road.
Yeah they just become the reality of the landscape, and you deal with them, rather than have them ruin it for you.
So what led you beyond just writing scripts or screenplays? Was it a desire to have creative control on every aspect of the story - to not wring the towel after the writing process? Because you do everything from choosing the actors, taking part in production, location scouting, editing, etc..
Writing is an interesting thing because it's still my favourite and least favourite part of the process. When I knew I wanted to be a director at a very young age when I still had a pretty vivid imagination, I actually used to imagine that I would meet some brilliant writer who would be the person I was paired with [Laughter]. I sort of had this fantasy about that because I never really thought of myself as a writer or anything like it. So coming into writing for me was just something that was born from necessity as opposed to passion. It was just a natural evolution based in the fact that I knew the stories I wanted to tell - pretty specifically - and I knew the type of films I wanted to make. I knew what I was interested in, but I didn't know where to find stories like them, so you just have to go do it yourself, you know. So really just born from necessity. But now it's definitely one of my favourite parts, however frustrating it can be. The most exciting thing about filmmaking is that process of ideation - I think. Ideas are the things that excite me about cinema; putting ideas onto screen and exploring them. It's a really unique ability that cinema has, because of how it uses so many different forms of art to share those ideas. So that part is really exciting. But then there's the actual process of writing that I still can't say I love. It's a slow process and I'm a real binge worker so I'll procrastinate like crazy and then work like crazy, so I don't think my writing process is particularly healthy. The studio I work out of -- do you know Randy Gerscavitch?
Haven't heard the name, no.
Okay so he's a visual artist from Vancouver and he moved to Toronto. I have a studio with him and a couple other people in Toronto. And over the last year I quite literally have had a number of times where I'll work 24 hours straight. I'll be at the studio when they leave and then still be there working in the morning when everyone comes in - all doggedly tired which must be quite a sight. But it just seems to be the way I work lately. I will definitely need to adjust that because it's a horrible practise, but it just happens.
[Laughter] It's not the healthiest but I understand, because when you catch that fire, you go. And you keep going with little thought of anything else. I'm the same.
Exactly. And then you have the burn-out effect. But it's a weird high that I get from it, so it's a bit of an addictive cycle. But the other thing about writing that's so exciting is that you haven't yet had to deal with any limitations of the process. I never write thinking about what the limits of anything are. What's so nice about it is that anything's still possible there, because when you get into production, and editing, and all those other things, you're dealing with the realities of the circumstance that you now have to negotiate. Before that process, when you're writing, everything's a blank canvas and there's just a fresh sense of possibility. Production is my least favourite part of filmmaking generally, even though there are a lot of aspects of it that I can like. Ben [Loeb] who I work with all the time - we've tried really hard to make production fit the way we like to work, as opposed to us fitting into the traditional sense of production.
Your mention of Ben brings up another question. You see a lot of successful filmmakers who work with a set team: they have their same choice of actors, they produce films from the same set of screenwriters, etc. Does having a partner or the same team offer a huge benefit? Do you think of it as similar vision and trust, or adversely, limiting ability to try new things?
Yeah it's a level of trust. So we do work with a similar number of people; the main consistency is definitely Ben and I because we grew to know each other through film school at Emily Carr so we developed a lot of our style together. And we've worked together ever since. There are a handful of projects that Ben hasn't shot of mine, but the majority of stuff - certainly all the narrative stuff, Ben has shot. With actors it comes down to a level of trust that is just so important in the process - and of course comfort too. The traditional unionized way of making film has a real hierarchy to the process and there's a very strict set of rules. I have a certain level of disdain for that process for a lot of reasons - some are just philosophical reasons, but some are actually process-based reasons. Ben and I operate in this way where we try to work as strip-down as possible. We try to use hardly any lighting, we do a ton of location scouting so we can get places that work as places as opposed to having to create places. And we work with a really small crew. A lot of it has to do with how I like to work with actors, because I want my actors to feel like we can drop them into a setting and they can really respond to the environment. And maybe this is a little bit influenced by coming from the theatre. The process of traditional filmmaking is very stop-and-start which I think breaks the rhythm of acting, which also comes from my experience with theatre, so I try to bring that into how I create film. So for example we just did this music video and the majority of the music videos we do are like the short films that we do. We had these producers come over from the UK to help with it because they had gotten us the gig, and they were just shocked by the way that Ben and I work. They were pretty flabbergasted.
[Laughter] Why? Because of how little lighting was used and how rarely you stopped rolling?
Yeah, we don't use shot lists, we don't do a lot of things that people usually do throughout the process. Because I know the work really well and I think that's really important, I can plan out the important thematic beats of our work and what we need to get. And I think as long as you know that, you're kind of anchored in, and it gives you the flexibility to be a lot more free when you're actually on set. It's a process of working a lot faster and actually being able to respond to things as they're happening on the day, as opposed to during the whole process of filmmaking, which just seems pretty dead. There's still a lot of control in that for some people, but I like to feel like the filmmaking process is one of love as opposed to not. A lot of filmmaking is kind of like building Frankenstein - just assembling dead parts and then shooting electricity through it. You've already planned out everything beforehand so there's no sense of spontaneity or even a sense of discovery. I'm a pretty intense control freak when it comes to content that really matters to me, but there's a certain level of detail that I think you need to discover when you're actually shooting, especially when it comes to the more human elements like character. For example, when I'm writing dialogue for actors, I'm still always speaking from my own voice, even though I want to transform it. But it's a hard thing to separate because even if you want to speak truthfully about something, you're still always coming from your own experience, no matter how good you are at masking that or transforming it.
Everyone's outlooks are the product of their surroundings and experience. I read this great book called Thinking Fast and Slow that mentioned how your associations are only what is closest in your nearest memory or recall. Everyone's biases are so specific to their experiences that even if you recognize them it's hard to act in opposition to them.
Totally - and there really is a certain voice that you speak, even just the way you choose to say things, as much as you can try to transform the things being said. And so that's why I want that process to be really collaborative and to be able to hand actors a real sense of agency over their characters, just to find a sense of authenticity that really feels a lot more natural in the moment for them.
Do you ever have an actor in mind that you know you want on a film so you almost write from how you know them? What you know they really might say in a situation?
Yeah often - very often. I try to do that and if I don't, I try to cast people who fit a lot more than trying to find actors who you have to force to fit. I work with non-actors as well as with actors, so you have to do that, right? So I don't do the traditional auditioning --
-- Why do you have to?
You realize quite quickly that there are exceptions all the time, but from my own experience as soon as you ask a non-actor to act, they really shut down. They become incredibly self conscious and self-aware. Of course actors do that too (often) but it's so much more pronounced with non-actors. But the beauty of using non-actors is that you find someone who has this special quality that you don't think can necessarily be acted; that is so specific and singular to that individual that you can't ask it of an actor. We've done it on films before where I've asked someone to deliver just a simple line, but it just wasn't something that they would necessarily say and it just comes off so awful and out of place [laughs]. And so with non-actors you need to make them as comfortable as possible, removing any sense of self-awareness. That rule can apply to actors as well, even though they have an expanded skill set because this is what they do. But I think that your job as a director is similar to a coach with an athlete: you can't ask someone to go out and score a certain amount of goals, you have to find a way to help them do it. They have the skill set and then you have to create an environment where they can succeed.
Agreed. Or a good boss as well. So you were saying no traditional auditioning rooms..
Yeah I don't like doing a traditional audition process where you have people come into a room. I've stopped doing it pretty much entirely.
There's a philosophical element to it where I hate the power dynamic that exists when you have someone coming in to try to impress you. Automatically that relationship to me is bizarre; I'm actually just uncomfortable with it. It's such a weird way to start a relationship with someone that you want to collaborate with because you're automatically in this position of power, and very distinctly. So usually when I'm interested in a person now, I'll just sit down and chat with them. Especially in independent film, you get a way better idea of who they are. And you actually start to understand that there are actors who are just great at auditioning. They're good at wowing you in an audition but maybe they're not necessarily that interesting, or that strong as an actor. And conversely there are actors that are brutal at auditioning but are way better when they're actually asked to perform on film. And so not only do I have that philosophical issue of the power dynamic that I really dislike, but I also find that it can be a really deceptive process where you're not really getting a full understanding of what you're going to get. And to be fair, sitting down and chatting with people is an incredibly time-consuming process, and you're not always afforded that luxury. But I try to do it as much as possible just because it works for us. It's how you find people who fit those roles in a way that you would never be able to fully understand if you were just brining in someone and meeting them for five minutes and that's it.
Going back to the idea of people being comfortable in front of a camera, obviously confidence and feeling comfortable is key to being caught on film, and so the best photographers I've worked with will start a discussion with something I care about first. And on the other side the most awkward photos are when they try to give too much direction but without breaking down that coldness, or that barrier to real connection; that power dynamic.
Yeah that makes so much sense. And the funny thing is that in acting, words like 'truth' and 'authenticity' are tossed around a lot. But I don't think they're actually considered all that much, which I think all stems from the relationship. The reality is that you need to actually develop some sort of real relationship with people if you expect them to feel comfortable, and to get to a point where they're going to be giving you what you want. Unfortunately there's sort of this 'macho' type of directing that has appeal for a certain group - young men in particular. You have this really strong, powerful, exploding ego type presence where they're directing actors in the way that they almost bully people into their performance. Of course it does work for a handful of people; Lars von Trier is famous for it. Do you know his work very much?
I'm not familiar with it, no.
No that's cool. He's a quite famous Danish director and he's incredibly good - he's one of my favourite directors. But he's also notorious for bullying his actors into these insane performances because people are so broken down emotionally. And that idea of breaking people down emotionally has this fantasy element of you as the director being able to really just pull this performance out of people. And that can work but it's also a really destructive way to operate. And unless you are a bit of a sociopath I don't think you can get away with doing it. And by that I mean it has to be the type of person you already actually are. If you're not, you just come off as an asshole. I've seen people do it and fail miserably, and they just seem like a prick. For me it's just a horrible way to work with people, because even if I got good results from that, why would I want to spend my time having relationships like that with people when I'm doing something I love? It would just feel very strange.
And that's the beauty of being good at what you do genuinely. If that's actually his personality, he's going to do well with it. But if people are reading about how one actor gets into their role, it's hard to just copy that. You have to do it how it works for you.
Totally, totally. I think that's something that happens to a lot of people and they struggle with it. Just reading or hearing about the way someone works and then trying to duplicate it -- which of course can be a natural process when you're a young filmmaker or artist of any kind. You're going to go through that emulating, and imitating and so forth, but I think if you're going to survive or succeed beyond that to actually have a career, you need to be able to get to a point where you identify what is unique to you. Find what your own specific skill set is.
Well said. Want to explain a bit about your involvement and your experience with Toronto International Film Festival [TIFF]?
The film festival has been amazing to me in terms of the support we've gotten from them. We've had three (and a half) films that have screened there in the last four years, which is amazing especially because it's such a massive platform. We're really lucky in Canada to have that platform exist to share films and to have films noticed. So I had A fine Young Man screen there in 2010, and then in 2012 I did the Talent Lab which is where they pick 25 or so 'up and coming', or, emerging filmmakers from around the world. They'll do a four day seminar session with some of the biggest filmmakers from around the world. It's an awesome, awesome experience. In 2013 Yellowhead played there along with Destroyer which was done as part of the emerging filmmaker competition, which was open to people who were in Talent Lab the previous year. So that's what I mean when I say "half" because Destroyer was not in the main selection, but it was part of that emerging filmmaker competition. And then just this past year we had Bison play there. Yellowhead and Bison were also selected for Canada's Top Ten in 2013 and 2014 respectively, which TIFF puts on as well.
I wanted to ask you about Bison. So that was filmed in Northern Saskatchewan?
It was filmed in east -- I guess east central Saskatchewan. It feels northern but technically it's still central Saskatchewan. So on a cattle ranch up there, and there are a number of large reservations around that area. The film for me was something I had been interested in making for a long time. Our last three films were all very much interested in looking at Canadian identity and especially Canadian cultural identity, which is something I never really thought I would be particularly interested in but now is the thing that I'm incredibly captivated with. There's this strange thing - especially in English-Canadian cinema - where people seem terrified of being Canadian, or terrified with identifying as Canadian. And that's a big problem. We have this whitewashing of anything that is distinctly Canadian in a lot of English-Canadian cinema, as if somehow that's going to make it more accessible to an American audience and thus give you a chance for a broader appeal - which doesn't even make sense.
And sounds like a terrible thing thing for Canadian film. From what I remember, you wanted to deal with the bottled up Canadian 'guilt' over the treatment of our indigenous peoples when you started writing Bison?
Right. So that interest has been something that in the last few years has really captured my attention. For me the biggest thing if you're looking at ideas of Canadian identity is looking at colonial history and the idea of reconciling that history and the violence of that legacy. But I've found that it's also a really difficult thing to approach. It's the most significant thing if we want to look at what it means to be Canadian, but it's a very divisive issue. And I think it's difficult to approach on both sides: on the more conservative side, or on the Right, there's a certain level of disdain and resentment for First Nations. This rhetoric that they get a 'free ride' and that type of thing, which is insane. Frankly it's just blatant racism on that side. I think it's so bizarre that we don't acknowledge that there is such blatant racism in this country, and which exists in a very real way. It's really, really disturbing.
I can recall some atrocious things from some adults, and not only them but their children as well. That type of harsh racism gets taught down the line on impressionable children. I remember overhearing how the 'people on the reserve' would kidnap children and put spells on them - a serious flip of the actual history.
And that is something that is pretty deep in terms of the way it has permeated culture. It exists as a pretty insidious thing in a broader cultural sense, not just in people who are far off the deep-end. It is something that is very, very real but is just not looked at at all. In a similar way that there's inherent racism towards African Americans in the US with people who don't even consider themselves to be racist, the same thing exists very much in Canada when it comes to First Nations. So there's difficulty on that side, but a unique thing about looking at this subject and talking about this subject is also looking at the complexity of it on the Left. Because there is this sense of handing over agency to First Nations to let them tell their stories, which I totally think is incredibly responsible and important, but it also creates this strange handicap in terms of discussion. There are too many people who are way too politically correct and way too timid on the Left that they just don't want to engage on the issue at all. I think they're too afraid of being put in the position where they seem like they're being culturally insensitive, or feeling like they have no authority to speak on the issue. So I think that's just as problematic because then you can't really expect to have any further engagement because you're silencing yourselves. There's this strange liberal gag-order that has been put on it.
It really is tough to feel like you have any right talking about it, but you just have to. The other night we went to a talk by respected Sliammon Elder named Elsie Paul. At one point she discussed her frustration with hearing that comment about getting a 'free ride'. She said how often the trauma is left out of the picture and that, "If we can't even address what trauma does to people, how are we supposed to begin the healing process?" And she's right. If you look at the research, when a person has been neglected or abused in their developmental years (in this case the physical and mental abuse inflicted by the residential schools), that experience is stored in the limbic system. So it stays to prepare your stress response to flee if in that danger again. Biochemically, you can't override it. That physical reaction to abuse - spikes of cortisol and other stress hormones - actually keeps coming back up over and over, even if they tell themselves they're "over it" in their minds. So not only are they dealing with all the responsibilities and challenges of a capitalist society - careers, rent, social competition, etc, but they're doing so while this trauma response keeps resurfacing. So they are absolutely not getting a free ride.
Totally I think that that is so entirely applicable. That misconception is what is so profound on both sides of the right and the left. And that idea of trauma also applies it to a larger cultural context. This is one thing that I've felt since I was a little kid, and that's always made me feel like I don't understand, because to me it seems like a painfully obvious thing. I'm always so surprised that it's not just a more generally accepted thing. How can I as a political leader or decision maker possibly understand what's it's like to be a part of a culture that was colonized in a way that would make me feel like I could just say these people are 'lazy'. Especially when you apply the very real effects of trauma. This is not generations and generations ago in our history, this is hardly even one generation ago. So it seems so dehumanizing that this is not part of the larger discussion.
One of the most human examples that I experienced of this was when I was doing work up at the Banff Centre. I was asked to come in to help make these small documentaries with a group of young aboriginal leaders who were chosen 'stand-out' individuals in their communities from Western Canada. It was this pilot program with these individuals who were all between 20 to 30 years old, and they each had their own project that they'd been working on for the past two years. We sat down at the start of it - they were all really bright, bright people - and we did this simple name game where you talk about the origins of your name. It is supposed to end up being a way to talk about your family history to get to know each other. But it was mind-blowing. I was one of the first people up and I didn't really know that much about the origin of my name, so I talked a little bit about my history. But out of 20 other adults there, except for two of us, they all had significant stories of abuse in their background. Those kids all had some sort of struggle, and struggle that was just jaw-dropping to me. What they'd all been through in terms of abuse, or alcoholism in their family, or sexual abuse, and all sorts of truly horrible things. So that's not just coincidental. That comes from the systemic structure of a reservation system, and the way that we treated our First Nations. So to me, in order to overcome that is a profound challenge. And that's a very realistic thing.
Systemic on so many levels - look at alcoholism. Mrs. Paul also said that being in her 80s, she's seen people in every generation deal with alcoholism. And again you have to look at the context: when you take a child away from someone they deal with a terrible loss. If you ask any parent who has lost a child, it's the deepest sadness you could imagine. But if you throw a liquor store right there on every corner, what do you expect? Especially knowing that liquor releases endorphins which light up the 'reward' centre of the brain, and also happen to be the same neurochemicals activated while hugging your own child. So of course they're going to find solace in alcohol when it's all they have left. So I don't buy the genetic debate of alcoholism.
I mean I think that the genetic argument is just --
-- it's a cop-out. Because then you don't have to deal with what actually happened to them.
It certainly is a cop-out. I also think it's insane and just repulsively racist to be frank. But I think that's something that has been told to us over and over, and when you repeat something enough it sticks and people believe it.
So going back to this issue in context of your film Bison.
Yeah so with Bison, I knew I wanted to speak to this issue and I felt like it was incredibly important. I don't even want to say "issue" because that categorizes it in a weird way, so speak to this history and what I thought it meant to the identity of Canada in the broader, more general sense. But also to my own feelings about it and what it means to me as a Canadian because I would absolutely say I have a certain sense of colonial guilt, and how do you reconcile that? If I think I'm someone who has a pretty balanced understanding of the issue, how still do I reconcile that and how do you make a positive change? For a long time I was thinking of stories that were focused on First Nations - First Nations stories, and First Nations characters, but I really struggled with that because again, that's not my experience. There's also this understanding that I'm coming from the most privileged position of being an educated, middle-class, white male. I'm entirely aware of the position I'm coming from and so it was difficult to look at how you then speak about this. So for me Bison became this thing that was a bit different. When one of the actors and I were talking about it, he mentioned the branding weekend which at this point was not at all associated in my mind to the film. But I was fascinated by the branding weekend because it's such an incredibly visceral experience. It's something to me that is so cinematic because it's so intense, and the idea of branding just seems so ripe for metaphor.
I see. How does branding tie into the picture?
So it was something that was in the back of my mind for a while, and I started to think about it more and more. Around the spring is when I became interested in the idea of the 'Western', in terms of cowboys and indians and the history of that, but more specifically I loved this idea of branding in terms of when you're talking about a legacy of violence, and a history of colonialism. Branding I think is just this fascinating metaphor in terms of something that leaves a mark on another being for it's entire life. And the fact that it's almost like the 'cowboy' figure that is leaving this mark, translated well. Also what does that mark mean when you're looking at "organizing" and controlling? So I was really interested in that idea of this mark of branding. I was also interested in the idea of cattle themselves because if you think of the prairies, cows are an iconic symbol of that region, but they're also a colonial artifact that replaced bison on the prairies. And so that started to get me really interested in it as well. So I thought, "Okay all of this sets up an interesting framework to look at the idea of colonialism." Having a scene focused on the actual branding was really the most important scene. I wanted to show it for what it really is, which is a pretty violent process and always has been. Another part of the branding that I thought was really interesting in terms of metaphor because it's come up a lot in the writing that I've read about First Nations (and any type of minority, especially with African Americans in the US) is that males get castrated because of the way that they want them to develop. And this cultural castration of a lot of minority males is one of the most powerful tools of repression in colonialism. So the idea of branding was so ripe with all of these big, big ideas. It also provided this shocking thing with pure emotional impact right in the middle of the film. At the same time, it's also just something that is so normal to certain individuals. It's been normalized in the context of "This is just what happens." The climax I'll say, of the film is when, after the branding, they're hanging out and shooting guns off into the woods. Then the boys wander into the woods and happen upon this bloody mess.You can sense that they have this feeling of worry or guilt that maybe it had something to do with them shooting into the woods, but they convince themselves that it couldn't have been them. There isn't an actual body there, there's nothing there other than the suggestion of violence as opposed to the actual evidence of violence.
And here's where that idea of leaving the viewers with a conversation plays out. Metaphors do that wonderfully, and this metaphor in particular carries so much weight.
Exactly, and this was important in terms of speaking to my own experience of understanding a history but also thinking, "Yes, I'm implicated in this." But I also know it's useless for me to go around carrying a sense of white, liberal guilt because that doesn't add anything to the conversation. So this is where I think it becomes a discussion. The film doesn't really have an answer for you, so yeah this is what I mean in terms of the way you want things to operate in a conversational way. To me it's really about investigating a feeling that I have on something that I feel is significant about our own identity as Canadians. So that's a way to summarize the film and maybe explain that history.
Well thank you Kevan - I think everyone should see this film. Great talking to you and I'll be sure to watch out for you future work.
And nice to get to talk about these things as I mentioned before. I like the conversational element to the interview, so thanks again.
Capture Queue is a one woman team, so it's always greatly appreciated if readers feel inclined to bring my attention to any typos or corrections.