Shining available light on ecology and culture

Filmmaker Joel Heath never intended to make a movie of the Belcher Islands of Hudson Bay. He went up there for the first time as an ecologist.

Filmmaker Joel Heath never intended to make a movie of the Belcher Islands of Hudson Bay.

He went up there for the first time as an ecologist.

In the 1990s, the Inuit who live there contacted the Canadian Wildlife Service with concerns about huge numbers of eider ducks dying off.

“The people rely on eider ducks,” said Heath. “There’s no caribou in the Belcher Islands so the eiders are their main source of food and clothing. So if the animals are at risk then the people are too.”

Heath got wind of the crisis facing the ducks and the Inuit of these remote northern islands after attending a university seminar in Newfoundland, his home province.

“I went up there to study the animals and to understand why the die-offs were happening,” said Heath. “So it started for me as an ecology project but I was using underwater video. In order to study the birds, I was filming them diving under the ice. And then I had my camera there and I was filming the people, kind of for fun. We were getting really good footage and so we decided to make something, initially, just to show the people in the community what we were doing, but I like to think big.”

And Heath’s film, “People of a Feather,” is going big.

After opening the Yukon’s 10th Available Light Film Festival this coming Monday, Heath is heading off to Paris for the International Environmental Film Festival.

Eider down is not only the warmest feather in the world, it is a crucial element to the lives and culture of the Inuit community on the islands. Heath’s film gives an intimate look at life on the islands but also provides a glimpse of the cumulative effects the hydroelectric systems in Quebec and southern Ontario are having on the natural ecology in the North.

“The big problem is that energy demands peak in the winter, with people turning up their thermostats in the south and so that’s when the rivers flow instead of spring run-off, so it’s kind of in the opposite time of year,” he explained.

“Dumping all that fresh water that sat on the lakes getting warm all summer affects the ice freeze-up and break-up and fresh water freezes and breaks up differently than salt water.

“We’re not just being pessimistic about what’s going on, we’re trying to find ways of addressing the problem too.”

Heath, who considers himself a hybrid between an ecologist and a filmmaker, was inspired by “Atanarjuat” or “The Fast Runner.” It was Canada’s first feature-length fiction film that was written, produced, directed and acted by Inuit people. It was that film, which pushed Heath to turn his footage of Belcher Island’s people and eider into a full-length documentary.

And Heath wasn’t the only one to be inspired by this instant Canadian classic.

“It blew the doors wide open (for aboriginal filmmaking),” said Andrew Connors, director of the Available Light Film Festival.

“Atanarjuat” and its director, Zacharias Kunuk, were a sensation at the inaugural festival in 2003. It will be shown at this year’s festival along with another, more recent film from Kunuk.

“Atanarjuat” has set the tone for the Available Light Film Festival, with this year’s line-up a true testament to the ecological and cultural consciousness that comes with circumpolar filmmaking.

“People in the Circumpolar North are affected more directly by climate change and we have a closer relationship with the land than urban Canadians,” said Connors. “It’s always been a major theme in Available Light. (Atanarjuat) has been a bit of a beacon. I don’t think you can talk about the Canadian North without talking about aboriginal stories. And I feel like the festival just wouldn’t be a legitimate festival without aboriginal stories and voices.

“I am a visitor. Yes, I’ve lived here for 20 years but I’m a visitor, that’s how I see my relationship with the Yukon,” Connors said.

“To acknowledge that non-First Nations people are guests of First Nations and to kind of undo the colonial experience – it’s my personal goal as the (festival’s) director to bring that perspective.

“In the larger idea of Canadian culture and Canadian cinema – especially Canadian English cinema – we really struggle to sort out where we fit in the world of international cinema and we’ve not been very successful because, I think, there’s always been this inclination to compare what we do to Hollywood and not support individual voices. Voices from every region of the country. For me, that’s where everything kind of shifted with “Atanarjuat.”

Other films at this year’s festival include a contemporary Tlingit film from Alaska called “Smokin’ Fish,” and “Happy People: A Year in the Taiga,” a German-made film about Russian fur-trappers.

An Inuktituk film called “Before Tomorrow” is set in Canada’s Nunavik region in the 1840s after a small-pox outbreak.

There are also documentaries. The topics include tree farms on the Pacific Coast, one man’s mission to save oceans and whales, and small-scale organic farming from Saskatchewan.

There is a B.C. documentary that looks at a Ukrainian-Canadian woman raising 16 black orphans and another from Quebec on Canada’s history of mining. A Swiss documentarian looks at an isolated and weathered community in Death Valley, California, the filmmaker who produced “Grizzly Man” probes the human psyche behind killing, and “My Perestroika” follows five childhood friends through the fall of the Iron Curtain.

“The Whistleblower,” with Rachael Weisz, is based on the true story of a Nebraska police officer-turned peacekeeper, who uncovers the connection between sex-trafficking in Bosnia to the United Nations.

Other films include one on the originator of reggae music, another on gangster Jason Patric and the premiere of Yukoner Dan Sokolowski’s “Degrees North.”

Musicians and actors will play a new score and perform Shakespearean dialogue live for the Klondike’s own romance-adventure silent film, “The Grub-Stake.” It was produced in 1923.

The Available Light Film Festival kicks off at the arts centre with films in the afternoon of Feb. 6. The opening reception starts at 5 p.m. with the screening of Heath’s “People of a Feather” at 6:30 p.m.

Film Talks at the Old Firehall will be given at noon every day during the week. They expected to last about 45 minutes. Films will be screened daily until the festival closes on Feb. 12 at 7 p.m.

Information on tickets, films and schedules can be found at the Yukon Film Society’s website, or www.alff.ca

Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at

roxannes@yukon-news.com