Portraits from a Fire lights up the 35th annual Edmonton International Film Festival

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The 35th annual Edmonton International Film Festival makes its bold, hybrid return this Friday with Portraits from a Fire chosen to open the 10-day event.

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A harrowing, yet hilarious coming-of-age story directed and co-written by Tsilhqot’in filmmaker Trevor Mack — playing in person at 6:30 p.m., while also available online — it’s seriously great.

The movie’s initial charm is almost delightfully overwhelming, centring on longhaired, teenage protagonist Tyler (William Lulua), an earnest and quirky rez kid shooting D.I.Y. sci-fi films with cardboard space marines and a rickety videocamera. He soon has his first, truly underwhelming film screening in a summertime outdoor rink to an audience of three … one of whom is, well, asleep.

As a storyteller, Mack is clearly drawing on his own early experience; but never mind the filmmakers, anyone who’s ever staged a party no one showed up to will feel this one. Tyler curses the fact he foolishly chose bingo night to world-premiere his creation.

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And while the narrative soon starts to unearth devastating, almost supernatural trauma for Tyler and his dad Gord (Edmonton-born North of 60 star, Nathaniel Arcand), Mack is quite careful to balance this with not only authentically demonstrated healing, but repeated moments of pure joy that make this whole film special. This is often thanks to Tl’etinqox Elder, Sammy (Sammy Stump), who does his laundry on screen in a mobile, makeshift tarp-and-clothesline washer-dryer in the back of his pickup in just one standout moment.

A personal approach

Making the film, 29-year-old Mack thought deeply about how to tell a story with a lot of pain injected, but without exploiting said trauma. Its central tragedy, the titular fire, indeed came from one of his grandmother’s worst-ever tragedies, but I’m being careful with spoilers here on purpose.

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“In the film,” Mack explains over the phone from the Kootenays, “there’s nothing about residential schools, there’s nothing about colonialism. It’s actually a universal story that can happen to any family. And, you know, how a family reacts to tragedy, and how that ripple effect, how far that goes — and how to break that cycle.

“It’s super important with the images that we’re showing back to our people, what are those images and sounds that we want to create, right? Are they going to be tragedy porn and domestic violence? Because perhaps that’s real, true reality for a lot of people, and it’s really raw.

“But then what are those little, literal images doing to our youth, psychologically?”

Tyler’s endearing artistic expression inside his amateur filmmaking and Sammy’s hope to be in his movies are the heart of the film.

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“Sammy’s a character in our community that everybody knows about,” says Mack. “In real life, he really does make baby baskets.

“I was like, ‘Hey, Sammy, you want to be in my movie?’ And he was like, ‘Do I get to shoot a white man?’”

This joke ends up written into the film, Sammy encouraging Tyler to make a Western where they’re the gun-slinging good guys.

“And so,” Mack explains, “a lot of what was occurring in the movie was just coming naturally from the community and, you know, day by day things would change.

“And we would just go, ‘Whoa, yeah, let’s do this!’”

Of course, this is just one of dozens of features and short films in EIFF (pronounced “aif”) this year, playing at the otherwise painfully stagnant Landmark Cinemas 9 City Centre, with yet another truly dazzling set of posters by FKA.

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Local productions

The Edmonton-made features alone include the innovative Kyle Armstrong’s new one, Hands That Bind; Rosvita Dransfeld’s dog-show documentary Dogsville; Christopher Donaldson’s new horror Ditched, shot in the Edmonton area; and the awesome Heather Hatch’s Site C Dam documentary, Wochiigii Lo: End of the Peace, fresh from premiering at TIFF.

Some of the short films with Alberta connections include Annette Loiselle’s COVID Collections; two by Colin Waugh — Chamber and Sled; Harmen Van Andel’s Hope; Neil Chase’s Boneyard Racers; Stan Papulkas’ Highway 13; and two by Edmonton ex-pat Niobe Thompson, The Time We Have Left and The Long Today.

The shorts, incidentally, will be running online from Oct. 4-31.

The entire schedule — with documentary and narrative film topics ranging from the band A-Ha to pig anthropology to a psychotic family cat — is up at edmontonfilmfest.com.

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We apologize, but this video has failed to load.

For those interested in watching these films from the comfort of home, many of the films are rentable through Eventive. When you’re digging around the schedule, just click on each film and the page will tell you if it’s available in your living room or not.

For example, local directors’ Frederick Kroetsch and Tom Robinson’s short film Blind Ambition: The Story of Wop May is playing in a package with three others (the two Thompson films and the star-studded animation, Back Home Again) at 5:45 p.m. Sunday, and will also be available online that day for $10.

International narrative feature Arthur Rambo by director Laurent Cantet, meanwhile, plays Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday nights next week, but is not available online.

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Inside scoops

As well, a number of features will have in-person Q-and-A sessions afterward with their filmmakers, including from Hands That Bind, Ditched, Wochiigii Lo, All-In Madonna, Attick Trunk, Invisible, Dogsville, the closing-night feature Holy Frit and, taking us back to the top, Trevor Mack from Portraits from a Fire.

Because of the extenda-play pandemic, there are no passes this year, and most films ticketed individually through landmarkcinemas.com are $15 a pop. And a housekeeping note: proof of vaccinations is required to attend all in-theatre events.

Reviews of EIFF films will be running in the paper this weekend, and in the Journal’s Arts section online for starting tomorrow.

Ok, it’s in your hands now — head to edmontonfilmfest.com and start browsing the 35th annual cinematic buffet. As the official poster says, after all: “Films from around the globe. Flat Earthers still welcome.”

fgriwkowsky@postmedia.com

@fisheyefoto

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