Through his father’s gift of a secret and tiny hand-carved cedar canoe, a child discovers the strength and resilience to endure his first year at an Indian Residential School.
Hi Allan, thanks for talking to TNC, Shin-chi’s Canoe is part of the Not Short on Talent selection what does it mean to be bringing your film to Cannes?
It’s very exciting to be bringing Shin-chi’s Canoe to Cannes. I feel it’s an important step in my career that a film I directed gets exposure at this high level of the international film world.
Will there be any nerves ahead of the festival or are you just taking it all in your stride?
I love film, I love France, I love wine and cheese. What is there to be nervous about?
What do you hope to take away from your time at Cannes?
I want to learn more about the European audience and market for short films. I understand that short films are far more appreciated in Europe. I am particularly interested in seeing films created by writers and directors who are Indigenous or from diverse backgrounds, and perhaps meeting some of them.
Can you tell me a little bit about Shin-chi's Canoe, how did this film come about?
The film was adapted from a children’s book by Nicola Campbell. It’s about a young boy’s first year at an Indian Residential School. I was approached by producer Kate Kroll to help write and to direct the film. That the film exists is entirely Kate’s doing. She owned the rights to the story and she raised the money to make the film. Many kudos to Kate.
What was the inspiration behind this film?
Indian Residential Schools were government-sponsored religious schools established to assimilate Indigenous children into Canadian settler culture. Children were forcibly removed from their parent's homes. Parents who refused were fined or jailed. At the schools, many children were physically and sexually abused. They were punished for speaking their own language. The century-long social experiment is a bitter wound that the Canadian government and the churches inflicted on Indigenous peoples and that has yet to heal. My own grandparents on my mother's side attended the same Indian Residential School (now a former Residential School) where much of Shin-chi’s Canoe was filmed.
What was the most challenging part of bringing Shin-chi's Canoe to life?
That the narrative and characters were already written by Nicole was challenging to me in that I am used to designing my own story and characters and going my own way. However, in another sense, this left me free to concentrate almost entirely on making the film as visually beautiful as possible. Another challenging aspect of the film was the weather. It was a three-day shoot in November and we had to try to represent all four seasons.
"Figure out the story you want to tell and start telling it."
What have been the important lessons you've taken from making Shin-chi's Canoe?
The main lesson I learned was that the director’s vision for the film is paramount. As a director, you have to protect your vision. Just as importantly, you need people around you who will help you protect your vision.
Have you always had a passion for filmmaking?
I’ve always had a passion for narrative. For sure in film, but also in the written word, and in oral storytelling. I grew up in an oral tradition. We didn’t sit around campfires but we did sit around the kitchen table where I listened to the best storytellers in the world recounting epic tales of hunting, or fighting, of railroad building, or bear attacks on lonely mountains, and of the spirit world. As a child, I would fall sleep with these stories still flashing behind my eyes.
Is there any advice you've been given that's stuck with you?
I don’t know if this is advised but the writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez once said something that has become central to my creative process. He said, “The origin of my stories is always an image, not an idea or a concept. An image grows in my head until the entire story takes shape as it would in real life.”
Do you have any advice you would offer a fellow filmmaker?
Merely loving the idea of being a filmmaker and learning the craft is not enough. You need to be a storyteller. Figure out the story you want to tell and start telling it.
And finally, what do you hope people will take away from Shin-chi's Canoe?
Beyond the obvious political message, I want the audience to see the beauty, strength, and resilience of Indigenous people and their culture. I want them to understand how important family is to Indigenous people, and to realize that Indigenous people have a unique and valuable understanding of what is important about life and about this world we all share.