Seal hunters, mushers and more come to the big screen in Whitehorse

This year’s Available Light festival will feature a number of Yukon films, including a series of local documentaries screening on Monday, Feb. 6. The series includes the world premiere of Pictures Don’t Lie, the story of Tr’ondek Hwech’in elder J.J. Van Bibber’s life in the territory, and Underdog, which focuses on Yukon musher Yuka Honda.

This week, award-winning Inuk throat singer Tanya Tagaq made headlines after claiming that Facebook had suspended her account because she shared a photo of a young man wearing seal fur. The post called on people to eat and wear seal in support of Inuit culture.

For years, Tagaq has been an outspoken advocate of the Inuit seal hunt. But she’s one of few well-known voices in support of a practice that’s been undermined for decades by animal rights groups and celebrities who say it’s cruel and inhumane.

Now Angry Inuk, the opening gala film at the 15th Available Light Film Festival in Whitehorse, aims to shine a light on some of the seal hunters who’ve had a hard time making their own voices heard.

“It’s hard for us Inuit to meet with those animal activists,” says one man in the film’s trailer. “I’d sure like to meet them face to face.”

Angry Inuk won an audience award at the 2016 Hot Docs festival in Toronto. It was also featured in the 2016 Canada’s Top Ten Film Festival, organized by the Toronto International Film Festival — one of three Top Ten films coming to Whitehorse this year.

The others are Window Horses, an animated film by Ann Marie Fleming and featuring the voices of Sandra Oh and Ellen Page, and Maliglutit (Searchers), an epic inspired by the 1956 John Ford western of the same name, but set in Nunavut in 1913.

Maliglutit is the “first Inuit western,” said festival director Andrew Connors. “Instead of horses, there’s a dogsled!”

This year’s Available Light festival will also feature a number of Yukon films, including a series of local documentaries screening on Monday, Feb. 6. The series includes the world premiere of Pictures Don’t Lie, the story of Tr’ondek Hwech’in elder J.J. Van Bibber’s life in the territory, and Underdog, which focuses on Yukon musher Yuka Honda.

An episode from the second season of Yukon filmmaker Allan Code’s documentary series, Arctic Secrets, will air later the same day, featuring some of the territory’s iconic wildlife.

“The niche for this festival is northern programming,” Connors said. “So we try and solicit work from the North and about the North.”

Still, the lineup also includes films from across Canada and from the United States, Europe and Australia.

Some of last year’s big award contenders, including La La Land, Moonlight, and I, Daniel Blake are already sold out, or nearly there.

But Connors said those bigger-budget films aren’t really what Available Light is about.

“Certainly it’s great that we’re able to bring those films for our audiences,” he said. “But given the incredible challenge of having Canadian stories brought to Canadians… that’s the really critical impetus for the festival.”

Currently, English-language Canadian films garner only about one or two per cent of box-office sales at theatres in Canada. Festivals like Available Light create a platform for films that otherwise might have trouble finding an audience.

And Connors said Yukoners aren’t just buying tickets to the better-known films. Angry Inuk, he said, is selling well, as is Quebec My Country Mon Pays, a film about the anglophone exodus from Quebec after the province’s Quiet Revolution in the 1960s.

Connors believes documentaries are making a resurgence in mainstream culture. “It’s become just accepted that people go to the cinema to see feature documentaries,” he said. “The community has really embraced this festival and they make it their own that way.”

Though most of this year’s films are contemporary, the festival will also be screening a few older National Film Board documentaries, including the 1963 Quebec film Pour la suite du monde, the first Canadian film ever to compete at the Cannes Film Festival.

Connors is also excited about Weirdos, a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story about growing up and coming out in Cape Breton in the 1970s. “It’s a sweet film,” Connors said, adding that screenwriter Daniel MacIvor will be in attendance at the screening on Saturday, Feb. 11.

This year’s festival will also feature a couple of live, multimedia shows that offer a very different experience from a conventional film screening. Sinister Oculus, a Yellowknife-based collective performing on Sunday, Feb. 4, combines music and spoken word with film being cut and edited live, as the performance unfolds.

“Think of it as a concert that’s loosely improvised, or structured improvisation,” Connors said.

Aside from the films and performances, Available Light hosts an industry conference and various workshops.

VICE Media executive John Turner will give a public keynote address at the Old Fire Hall on Feb. 4, followed by a screening of the VICELAND documentary CUT-OFF, about Canada’s isolated Indigenous communities.

The National Film Board will give an overview of its current projects and plans on Feb. 5. Other workshops — registration is required – include an acting master class with Sandra Oh, an introduction to virtual reality, and a screenwriting master class with Daniel MacIvor.

A couple of industry panels will be broadcast live on CBC Radio’s Airplay with Dave White, with musical guests Soda Pony and Jennihouse.

Connors said the number of visiting artists and delegates is around 60 this year, up from about 40 last year.

And festival producer Andrew Seymour said ticket sales also seem to be up.

“We should be pretty well surpassing overall ticket sales from last year, right about now,” he said. The festival is offering 10-film passes for the first time this year, as well as the usual five-film passes.

The Available Light Film Festival runs from Feb. 4 to 12. Tickets are available at yukontickets.com, at Arts Underground, at the Yukon Arts Centre box office or at the door. The complete lineup is available at alff.ca.

The festival kicks off with a concert at the Yukon Arts Centre on Feb. 3, headlined by Winnipeg singer-songwriter John K. Samson.

Contact Maura Forrest at maura.forrest@yukon-news.com

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