This Canadian director is leading a new age of Indigenous film
Bretten Hannam’s sophomore directorial debut, Wildhood, premièring at TIFF on Sept. 14, is challenging Canada’s representation of Two Spirit storytelling in cinema, showcasing a touching portrayal of one boy’s coming of age.
The 2021 Toronto International Film Festival began yesterday and runs for the next eight days, highlighting the best in international and Canadian film.
Wildhood follows Link (Phillip Lewitski) as he journeys with his younger brother across Mi’kma’ki, N.S., in search of his mother. Along the way, he meets Pasmay, a Two Spirit fancy dancer, and begins on a path of understanding his complex LQBTQ identity.
Below is On the Record’s conversation with the director ahead of the film’s première.
This interview has been edited for clarity and flow.
ON THE RECORD: I’m really struck by the way Wildhood tackles the journey towards the self, not only through Link’s discovery of their Two Spirit identity, but the way it handles grief, young adulthood, brotherhood and how it all intersects with Mi’kmaw identity. What was the first desire and the inspiration behind the film?
BRETTEN HANNAM: I wrote the scripts about 10 years ago. At the time, it was extremely personal. So a lot of it came from my own life. And then over 10 years of development, while speaking with community and family and friends, the stories become informed from different perspectives in different places, and different understandings. So parts of it are stories taken from my life. And then other parts are guided by the community, specifically working with the Wabanaki Two Spirit Alliance, through the process of writing, filming and editing. Just contributing to a cultural perspective, a language perspective, because there’s a decent amount of language in the Mi’kmaw language in the movie, too.
OTR: You chose to direct the story in Mi’kmaw language as well. Was that difficult? Striking a balance between the two languages?
B.H.: It takes some care to do because it has to be translated properly, because there are different ways to say things. Then, there’s getting guidance for the actors and working with them for pronunciations. So you do need extra care when you’re working to bring in a language like that and to treat it well and with respect. It was important to have it because it’s rooted also in the land. And the place that we filmed right there, it’s Mi’kmaw territory.
All of those things come together and they’re all connected. But then it was a balance between, I put subtitles on some things, and then some things I didn’t. There are subtitles over parts that are of the language that are super important for the story, or for a deeper understanding of a teaching or character in that moment. And then there are other things that are just private little things.
OTR: Wildhood is breaking barriers in Canadian cinema, and the representation of Two Spirit people on screen. Are you optimistic about a new wave where complex queer characters and Indigenous characters can be portrayed freely?
B.H.: Yeah, I’m optimistic that our stories will continue to grow, and all the different nations across Turtle Island will be adding their own voices and their own perspectives to what Two Spirit identity is. It’s an umbrella term, it’s a pan-Indigenous term. It’s different for each community, each nation, and then each person may also have a different experience and understanding of what that means to them. So to be able to see those stories kind of come forward, that’s very exciting.
One of the films that inspired me at TIFF was Fire Song by Adam Garnet Jones. The characters are LGBTQ and Two Spirit people, so that was something I remember seeing. More people are telling stories and they’re wildly different. It’s so awesome that there’s so many Indigenous stories coming out and they’re all so different from each other because that’s the truth of our communities and different nations and languages and cultures. There is a great variety of experience, and they are rich with stories and traditions. So I am optimistic that in the next 10 years there will be even more Two Spirit stories, more stories that are told from our own communities, and our own filmmakers and storytellers.
OTR: I also wanted to ask you a little bit about the dancing part of the movie, since it is so integral to Link’s coming of age. Could you tell me a little bit about the importance of dance?
B.H.: Sure, I will start by saying I’m an awful dancer. I can’t dance at all, but it’s something that I love to watch, and that I admire. In the story, it’s something that is part of the reality for the characters. And it’s kind of like speaking the language, to be able to dance in a traditional way There’s all these different facets to an identity, especially a Two Spirit identity. It’s not stationary, like a label like gay, or male or female. Those are static experiences. And you can jump from box to box and experience to experience, but Two Spirit identity, at least my interpretation and understanding of it, encompasses all of these different things.
Part of it is the language, the relationship to the land and the animals and their relationship to each other. There’s an emotional reality, a spiritual reality and dimension to Two Spirit identity. What I hope is to communicate that clearly in the story.
The dancing in particular, was something that you see in communities across Turtle Island. Beyond these dances are storytelling. It’s one of the older traditions. So the character Pasmay does a traditional dance, he’s a fancy dancer. He learned to do a little bit of grass dancing, the actor Josh, if I’m remembering correctly, when he was very little, but he started studying fancy dancing and the regalia is his regalia. So he looked great. I was like, ‘Wow, it looks like he’s been doing this forever.’ And he was actually teaching Phillip, who plays Link. Phillip wasn’t, didn’t look into it at all, didn’t want to look into it at all. So actually, he is learning when he’s learning. And it becomes this beautiful little moment between them that’s kind of between them in the land and like the rising sun in the morning.
OTR: What was it like financing and pitching the film? Did you encounter any problems getting the story told?
B.H.: When I wrote it initially, 10 years ago, I did get feedback about changing characters or changing certain aspects of the story, from the characters being Indigenous to maybe they don’t all have to be queer and so on. Attitudes from 10 years ago, that were still surprising 10 years ago, have changed and things are changing. But I didn’t change the story. I just sat with it and kept working with it and working with the community and experiencing things and reconnecting and rewriting. From that point on, because things have changed in even the past five years. There’s an Indigenous screen office. There’s an Indigenous fund, and the space is being made, and resources being opened. There was much less resistance than I’ve encountered in the past. But as far as my experience, sharing the story and telling the story, by and large, most of the experience was receptive.
OTR: That seems like quite a long journey. Thank you for telling it. What would be your advice to young Indigenous filmmakers and storytellers who want to tell their stories, but are scared about the process?
B.H.: It’s OK to be scared but really, you have your family behind you. You have your community behind you. I would encourage people to reach out and find the community members and people that will support them. As far as the stories that are being told, as long as they are honest and from people’s hearts, even the mess ups, the mistakes, they all have value, and those are interesting. Failure has a lot to teach us.
There are ways we tell our stories that are different, and they’re just as valid. We need to bring them forward now into film and to make space to say that there are other ways to tell stories. This is one of those stories. It’s not that there’s a right or that there’s a wrong, but there’s your way. That’s the thing that you find.
Wildhood premières at TIFF on Sept. 14, 2021 as part of the Discovery slate.