Yellowknife director brings dystopian Arctic to Montreal festival
“There was an all-female cast. There was real emphasis on the environment. There were lots of moments created that – even in this harsh world – felt really soft.”
KC Carthew debuted her newest feature film, Polaris, last week in the opening slot of the Fantasia International Film Festival in Montreal, Quebec.
Carthew, raised in Yellowknife, sets Polaris in the harsh, frozen tundra and wilderness, lending a raw, fantastical feel to a dystopian future.
An all-female cast, down to the sled dogs and even the polar bear, Polaris is described by critics as an eco-feminism action thriller that follows a girl, 10-year-old Sumi, on her quest to be reunited with the polar bear that raised her.
Last week’s screening for a 700-person audience was also the first time many of the cast had seen the finished film. Carthew, though, said she was more nervous when she screened The Sun at Midnight, her earlier feature, for a hometown audience in Yellowknife.
Below, read Cabin Radio’s full interview with Carthew about her experience at the Fantasia festival, shooting Polaris, and bringing the movie to life.
The following transcript has been edited for clarity.
Laurissa Cebryk: Polaris was the opening film for the Fantasia International Film Festival, which is a huge compliment to your work. How’d it go?
KC Carthew: Honestly, it was awesome. We have such fans at the festival and in the programming team, which is curated by a number of programmers, but specifically two [Carolyn Mauricette and Mitch Davis]. Mitch gave us this super rockstar introduction – like really rockstar, where you’re like, ‘Ugh, just scale it down a little so that we have room to be other than awesome!’ You know? But it was great.
Basically, nobody had seen the film before and that specifically includes our cast and crew, so it’s a really exciting and nerve-wracking time, especially for the cast. You see your work on the screen and you’re like, ‘Ahh, will I suck? Will I be awesome?’ Those kinds of jitters. And then you have to experience it in real time with 700 people, so you’re just hoping for the best. We had a great turnout: it was a full house in the theatre itself, which is awesome, but we had a great turnout from our cast and from our crew, so it was so great to have kind-of a reunion.
I’m feeling very tired, but also just grateful and glad, and grateful again to have been able to work with this team, to be able to share this experience of seeing the film and seeing it as an opening-night film – having that status and being able to be proud of it and enjoy it. You can be humble, but also at the same time enjoy it while you can, because good times are good only for so long. So, I think that’s what we were trying to do, and I think we achieved that.
This was a pretty challenging film at times to make, and you never know – when you’re making a film – how it’s going to turn out. So I’m really glad to be at this finish line, so to speak. It’s sort-of the start of a new cycle for the film as it goes out into the world. But to celebrate this moment while we can is important.
Did you get to talk to any of the cast – were they happy with the outcome?
I was sitting next to Viva Lee, who plays Sumi, who carries 90-plus percent of the film, and next to her were her mother and her brother. I was paying attention to the film but at one point, out of the corner of my eye, I saw her mom crying and I thought it was because it was a scene where the character gets a pretty big ass-whooping, and I thought, ‘Oh no!’
Obviously, her mom knows it’s a movie. Her mom was on set, obviously it was safe, all of these things. But it’s kind-of intense and I thought she was crying about that. Then the film ended, and I was waiting for Viva to have her reaction and she kind-of didn’t have one right away, so I was thinking ‘Oh… uh oh.’ And she was just looking at her mom. It turns out that her mom was crying because she loved the movie and Viva is also really proud of her work and all that good stuff. That, to me was a relief and heartening to hear. We also had some cast from the Yukon join us and other cast members – some are from Ontario, and some are from Quebec – and they were there, and all were really proud of their work, which to me is like, ‘Good job, director.’
What is it about shooting in the North that intrigues you and why is that a challenge that’s important to you to keep tackling?
Well, I’m from the Northwest Territories, so that’s where you’ve got to film if you want to film stuff, and of course it’s a challenge. There are a lot of challenging things about living in the Northwest Territories but there are also wonderful opportunities, and I love being out in nature. The landscape of the North is spectacular and that’s what you want to see on camera.
A friend of mine who unfortunately has passed away told me, ‘The definition of finding your passion is always to do something you love, but you want to share.’ It was the sharing part of his definition that I love, and I think that when you see a place and you love it, you just want other people to see it. I think there’s something, too, about being a filmmaker. You can frame that way of seeing things. If somebody comes to visit Yellowknife, they’re not going to see Fish out of Water – it’s a genre film. But in a genre film, you get to see it and kind-of capture a bit of the imagination there. So I think there’s something really spectacular about the Northwest Territories, and for me, that’s why I’m filming there.
How do you think that theme and cross-section of eco-feminism, females and environment, and gender politics in environment came across when the film screened?
I feel like we have smart, smart audiences and there were a number of people who commented and had really wise things to say. I was like, ‘I should be taking notes, I like how you said it.’
I think that the themes come across visually. I mean, the film is primarily non-verbal, which means it doesn’t have a lot of dialogue and the dialogue that is there is fictional and there are no subtitles. It’s intentional since it has got this kind-of universal appeal. The whole film is kind-of leading into ‘show don’t tell.’
Having an all-female cast? First of all I just think, why not? It’s awesome. Ladies are awesome. We get to do stunts like explosions and fun stuff. You get to be grunting like animals – it’s cool, it’s cool stuff. I just think on that level alone, yes. Yes to that. And it’s a gritty, gritty story world and it’s just fun to see women in these roles. I think in the North there’s only an abundance of pretty badass ladies – this is really common in the North, I don’t think this is a novelty at all, but for actors, it’s sometimes challenging to see these roles out there, especially for women.
Some of the comments I had, I wasn’t really expecting, but fully accept and embrace. I had some audience members that said, ‘I really could tell this was directed by a woman. It was as good as any action film I’ve ever seen from any guy, but there was no sexualization of anybody, there was an all-female cast, there was a real emphasis on the environment.’
[In Polaris] there were a lot of moments that were created that – even in this harsh world – felt really soft. We didn’t rush through certain aspects and the camera choices in terms of how the characters were literally represented on screen. Some of that’s intentional, for sure, but I don’t shy away from that. I think it’s a great thing.
This was your second big screening – did it feel any different than when you screened The Sun at Midnight?
Yeah, it’s a bigger film and one of the great things about coming with a bigger film is we already had a Canadian distributor on board and a US sales agent. So we already had a team that deals with the back end of the film. Having a distributor on board means we’re going to have a theatrical release and they’re already invested in seeing the film get promoted, and I don’t have to do that. I have the pleasure of doing interviews that somebody else organized – I don’t have to organize them. And I don’t mind organizing, I don’t mind doing the work, but it’s sure better when somebody else is like, ‘Hey, here’s this great film!’ As opposed to me calling up and being like, ‘Hey, I made a film!” It’s a lot more professional feeling, and more than that, it just allows me some time to actually enjoy the experience and be part of it instead of running around.
So I feel, from a stress level, I had no stress going into all this and I think I’ve changed my life – I was not nervous at all and in Yellowknife [for the Sun at Midnight screening] I was pretty nervous. I just made a real decision, that I’m going to enjoy this, because as we talked about earlier, it’s the opening night of an amazing festival. If I can’t enjoy this, what’s the point? So I got to do the work of enjoying it, and I did that.
Are there any awards you’re hoping Polaris will scoop up at the festival?
Uhm, no. I feel like awards are so weird. I mean, The Sun at Midnight actually won quite a few awards and they always came as a surprise because I just don’t have it on my radar to think about awards. I wouldn’t say they don’t matter – I think awards demonstrate a certain level of achievement and recognition, and I would certainly welcome them – but that’s not why I make the film. The honour is being in the festival.
Although, now I’m thinking like… I wouldn’t say no to an award. I would be super excited, but I just don’t know that way of thinking.