Marie Clements knew her dramatic feature film debut – the story of a Gwich'in soldier captured by the Taliban in Afghanistan – had to be filmed in the NWT.
Clements, an Indigenous filmmaker with connections in the Sahtu and Mackenzie Delta, described the land of the Northwest Territories as extraordinary, unique, and the "heart of the story."
She believes the severity and beauty of the land challenges, and shapes, the people who live there.
"I think that's what rooted the story to the land, and to the idea that where we come from matters in the world," Clements told Cabin Radio. "How we carry ourselves in the world, and how we survive in the world, is often from the land we came from and the people that raised us."
The movie is Red Snow – nine years in the making, rooted in the languages and cultures of the Gwich'in and Inuvialuit peoples, while also featuring Afghan language Pashto.
Those languages, Clements hopes, may bring the film all the way to the Oscars as a foreign-language submission. "That's every filmmaker's dream," she said. A deal with a movie distributor is reportedly being finalized.
Red Snow follows Gwich'in soldier Dylan, played by Asivak Koostachin, as he is ambushed by the Taliban in Kandahar, Afghanistan. As he is being interrogated by a Taliban commander, memories of the love – and death – of his Inuk cousin, Asana, surface. He escapes along with a Pashtun family.
The idea for the film, which Clements wrote, directed, and produced, began when she happened upon a photo essay of Afghan soldiers. She was struck by how some of the soldiers, at certain angles, looked like Indigenous people in Canada.
"It got me thinking about these two very, very different Indigenous cultures that had survived so many wars. And yet the people had survived with grace, and we're still here," she said. The idea of a dialogue between those peoples began.
Clements' mother was born in Fort Good Hope and her family spent time in the Mackenzie Delta and Aklavik. Family ties in the Delta remain.
Deciding her lead character should be Gwich'in, Clements said she could begin "really investigating how strong people are in the North [and] how that makes them survive; how that brings them into this world in so many different ways."
Inuvialuktun, Gwich'in, and Pashto
Languages feature prominently in the film: Gwich’in, Inuvialuktun, Pashto, and English. Clements began with a script in English, then worked with William Firth to translate to Gwich'in and Lillian Elias to translate to Inuvialuktun. Both served as cultural keepers, overseeing on-screen representations of the Gwich'in and Inuvialuit peoples, and spending tine on-set alongside Pashto cultural advisor and translator Bashir Jamalzadah.
To learn the language, Red Snow's actors took tapes of their lines recorded by Firth and Elias and used them to essentially learn the language from scratch. They had four months to prepare.
"It's a real challenge and a real accomplishment for actors to take on a language that's not theirs, and learn it and also be able to act in it in conditions that were outside for most of our shoots," Clements said.
Using the languages was like "being let into another world," she added, using the rhythm and inflection of each to guide how scenes were shot.
"It was often very emotional to hear languages from the North, an actor speaking it, because we don't always get to hear that," Clements said.
Jay Bulckaert, of Yellowknife-based production studio Artless Collective – which helped to produce Red Snow – described the rarity of a film incorporating Indigenous language in this way. "It's cool to see that happen on such a large scale," he said.
'A major win' for NWT filmmakers
The film was shot over 20 days, including around a week in the NWT plus scenes in the interior of British Columbia. Scenes in the territory were shot in the community of Dettah, which was used to double for Aklavik.
However, Clements said filming in the territory was "quite the operation." A 60-person crew from the south relied, she said, on the "open hearts and can-do attitude" of the northern cast, crew, and community.
"Filming the NWT portion of the story in the NWT is a major win for our industry, and it was definitely not a given," said Pablo Saravanja, also from Artless Collective, by email, while attending the Reykjavík International Film Festival. In most cases, he wrote, films would shoot only a selection of exterior shots in the North with minimal crew. That all northern shots were filmed in the NWT is a testament to Clements, "an artist in the truest sense," he said.
Clements first came north to scout locations a decade ago.
Saravanja recalled an NWT film community that, at the time, was just getting going. There were none of the currently available rebates, incentives, or infrastructure.
"At the time," said Saravanja, "if you called the government phone number listed for NWT Film, you were instantly directed to a voicemail that nobody would ever listen to."
Saravanja and Bulckaert were line producers on Red Snow, helping to manage day-to-day aspects of the northern shoot. They are among a catalogue of well-known northerners who played some part in the movie.
In front of the camera, Elias – the Inuvialuktun translator – also played one of Inuk character Asana's aunties, alongside Leela Gilday and Reneltta Arluk. Sadetło Scott appears as Lilly, a character encountered by the soldier, Dylan.
Photographer Pat Kane was the NWT location manager, playing a "huge role" in locking down Dettah as a backdrop according to Bulckaert. The community of Dettah itself, Bulckaert continued, deserved a credit for the way in which it welcomed the production.
"There are now people with actual high-level industry experience here in town," Bulckaert said. "That's the thing that's always been hard. It's like, we want our local filmmakers to be able to get hired in meaningful capacities."
The Red Snow shoot in Dettah.
"Dettah played a huge role in being super-welcoming," Bulckaert said. "A film production at this level is a big, chaotic thing that happens. It's like the Tasmanian Devil, how he rolls through a town."
On location in Dettah, in March 2018, the cast and crew got a real taste of winter. Clements recalled a stunning beauty – but temperatures of "literally minus-51."
Not all moments on the set were memorable for their beauty, however.
Clements and Bulckaert recalled shooting a scene in which Grandmother Ruth, played by Tantoo Cardinal, remembers having to kill a wounded bear. In order to simulate life leaving the bear's body, a prop had been created with an air bladder inside a taxidermy bear's stomach – and a hose leading from the air bladder out into trees behind the scenes.
"You ran this line under the snow and into the forest, and there's Pablo and I off to the side, breathing into the tube that is connected to this bear's nether regions," Bulckaert said, describing the scene.
"I remember standing back and telling Pablo, 'We have the weirdest jobs.' How would I explain to my mother what I do for a living?"
At one point, Clements said, the air became so cold that no matter how hard Saravanja and Bulckaert blew, no air was reaching the bear. "We were laughing so hard. Here they were, these producers, blowing air up a bear's butt."
Shooting the 'dying bear' scene in Dettah. Video courtesy of Artless Collective
Since its world premiere at the Vancouver International Film Festival in late September, Red Snow has been touring across the country. Accolades garnered to date include 10 nominations at the Leo Awards, which recognize excellence in British Columbia's film and television industry.
Red Snow is also opening the American Indian Film Festival, in San Francisco this Saturday, where it holds nominations for best film, best director, best actor, and best supporting actor, among others.
To accompany the feature film, an interactive media project – called the Book of Snow – is collecting submissions from people across the world for words describing snow.
The film's NWT premiere will, fittingly, be in Dettah. The movie will be shown in the community on November 5 as part of the Yellowknife International Film Festival.
Clements said that will feel "like coming home."