This year marks the 150 Centennial of the colonial founding of Canada and if you are like me, this year you may feel very uneasy about celebrating the occupation of Indigenous lands. Thankfully, a new commission series of short documentaries appearing now at HotDocs till July 18th is the right fix for your social justice anxiety. In the Name of All Canadians, is a series of films that examine sections of our Charter of Rights and Freedoms in regards to how the Charter affects the lives of its short documentary subjects. These films are meant to have a critical view of our government in regards to implementing rights for everyday citizens. What makes these films particularly powerful is how they demonstrate that rights are often disregarded to visible minority Canadian citizens.
Two shorts that stood out in the series are Vivian Belik’s The Last Resort and Aisha Jamal and Ariel Nasr The Long Way Home. The Last Resort follows the Ktunaxa Nation’s fight to preserve their sacred lands in Northern British Columbia from being developed into a ski resort. For the first time in Canadian history the Ktunaxa Nation are filing a lawsuit under a freedom of religion charge against using their lands for commercial use at the Supreme Court level. Versus The Long Way Home chronicles subject Abousfian Abdelrazik struggle to re-enter Canada in the late 2000s after visiting his dying mother in Sudan. This six year struggle is captured in a 15 minute documentary short film. This film is the most optimistic of the series because it shows the effectiveness of public pressure and power to create change.
I had the pleasure of interviewing directors Vivian Belik and Aisha Jamal about their short yet thought provoking documentaries.
What was the development process of this short documentary and how did it get including in the series of shorts In the Name of All Canadians?
Vivian Belik: I live in the North in the Yukon, and we were originally looking for stories in the North. While we were searching for stories we kind of stumbled upon this story with the Ktunaxa Nation, because their case had been with the Supreme Court in early December. It was a story I had never heard of before. I spent a lot of time in British Columbia and it was a fascinating story and [the fight to preserve the lands] had been going on for 25 years. It was a landmark case and depending on what would happen will have repercussions for Indigenous people in Canada and then around the world. When we heard about this case it became really clear it would be a great opportunity to explore the Charter through the eyes of the Ktunaxa.
Aisha Jamal: We got involved because one of the commissioning editors approached me and asked if we could meet and talk about the series they were working on. I pitched a couple of stories to them. The one that they were interested in didn’t work out, so the lawyer [Paul Champ] that was on that case that I was initially interested in gave us a list of different Charter cases. I teamed up with a fellow colleague of mine in Montreal Ariel Nasr, and we were both immediately attracted to this case of Abousfian Abdelrazik. He was a Canadian citizen he was denied re-entry into Canada. It really spoke to us on so many different levels and we both felt that this is the story we want to tell.
Did you have a personal relationship to the subjects?
VB: I had never met them before. When the case was presented before the Supreme Court, there was a talk that was done the following day at the University of Ottawa that was filmed and Troy Sebastian was there in the lecture and I had seen it. He really spoke to me [because he] was so animated, articulate and passionate. I knew he had to be apart of the film, so I connected with Troy. We went back and forth for quite a while and he led us to meeting other folks in the community. We did a research trip out there and met a lot of people. It was a lot of building a lot of relationships and trust, because we are outsiders and even though we did have some Indigenous crew one of our producers and one of our crew members. It was important to take the time and get to know them.
AJ: Paul Champ was our first contact. My co-director Ariel remembers him vaguely being in the news a lot in 2009, was when [Abousfian’s] case became really big in Canada. And when we started to give into [the case] it spoke to so many aspects of our own experiences and identity, but at the same time it opened so many questions that we wanted to ask and follow.
Vivian, Can you explain more about this Supreme Court Case and what the Ktunaxa Nation are trying to achieve?
VB: The case is a unique one because it is the first time an Indigenous group in Canada has ever tried to protect their traditional lands using a freedom of religion charge. It’s a unique case that the First Nations are bringing forward and it would potentially have effects on Indigenous people across the country. There are a lot of intricacies to the case and the court case has actually only been going on for a few years through the lower courts and now through the Supreme, the fight to protect that land has been going on for decades. There are a lot of layers to the case that don’t show up in the film unfortunately.
Vivian, the fight in this film depicts a spiritual fight for the preservations of these lands, but is this also an environmental fight as well?
VB: I did ask about the environmental aspect, because there is a strong environmental case. That is apart of the argument protecting that land for future generations is part of their culture which is what they are aiming for, [however,] they wouldn’t immediately say it’s an environmental concern. I think it is both, an environmental and spiritual [and] the two are intertwined.
Aisha, what were some of the challenges while making this documentary?
AJ: For us our biggest challenge was that it is a very chastised story that this man has, there’s a lot of twists and turns and there are often times that you ask yourself, why? The answer literally comes up there was no evidence, [since] there is no trial. Literally this is just bizarre what this man had to go through, so the was challenge to make it a [coherent] story the audience could understand and also feel and then arrive at the end at some sort of thesis for the film.
Vivian, there were some stunning shots in the film and I wanted to know what kinds of conversations did you have with your Director of Photography (DOP) to create those stunning visuals?
VB: It was important for me to work with a cinematographer who was extremely skilled. Van Royko worked on larger projects and I was extremely luckily to have him working on this. We had such a challenge of not being able to show what the spirit looks like, the Crown is very protective of the idea of discussing the grizzly bear spirit. The challenge was the express that feeling through visuals. That sense of awe one might feel if they hiked to the top of a mountain and they have that sense of solitude and wonder. That’s what we were trying to get across, to bring out that quality in the landscape that made people connect to their own spirit.
Aisha, similar question, there was a reenactment of a child running through the snow that was particularly haunting. What kind of conversations did you have with the DOP on those sequences?
AJ: We went off a memory that Abousfian told us about in a pre-interview my co-director and I went to visit him. We asked him tell us one of your memories that got you through this ordeal? He told us about this snow storm he had been through with his wife who unfortunately passed away and his daughter, and he said it was one of the most beautiful memories that he would like to go back to [in order] to survive this ordeal which was very evocative.
We talked about that [sequence] and we literally had to be on snowstorm watch and we had two child actors ready because we didn’t know which one would be available when the snowstorm hit. We wanted to have a place a park at night lite. The DOP worked very closely with the director, and we had a conversation beforehand about what kind of shots we want and what kind of mood we’re going for. We talked about slow motion we talked about the light at the park, we talked about the face being a bit obstructed so that we don’t see her very clearly. That sort of evoking memory, evoking a time and a place. Beautiful but very haunting.
Aisha, you’re film felt like the most optimistic out of the entire series because you showed the power of community. Was that an important message to bring out to your audience?
AJ: We were interested in a story [where] the laws of the Charter rights were not protected [and] we had to fight to get his charter rights, but it’s also a really beautiful story about how the members of community can really protect you in those moments. Canadian citizens were there at the airport to welcome him back. I think that is really important. The government is one thing but there is also something there called ‘The People,’ the people power and what the community can achieve as well, which is an important message.
Aisha, has Abousfian faced any new challenges at the border even though his case has been resolved?
AJ: Yes. He got up on stage after the screening and I got very emotional. He said he’d been trying to renew his passport. He [asked], “Why do people get to renew their passport in weeks, but [my] passport has been held for two months?” He also was coming back from a trip to Iceland, and he was held at the airport [there] on the request of the Canadian government. So he says, “Why? Why more of this?” Considering that there has been no evidence against him and there is no trial. Why is he still going through this ordeal? His pre-trial is going through in the fall. He’s suing the Canadian government, the Minister of Transport for 24 million dollars.
What were your thoughts making films surrounding the backlash of the colonized celebrations of Canada 150?
VB: There’s been a lot of pushback in Canada especially with Indigenous issues. You see so much like #decolonize. 15,000 years rather than 150. This is something that I strongly felt working with the producer on this [film]. We didn’t want this to be a piece that simply upheld the current system. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms as it is now doesn’t have anything in it that specifically protects Aboriginal rights, [which is] an oversight. The U.N. has the declaration of the rights for Indigenous peoples and we believe that should be included [in our Charter]. Also the conversations that have been going on about reconciliation, [and] we wanted the piece to tell people about [that] colonialism is still very much alive in Canada and here are the repercussions. We’re very clear about how that affects their lives daily and how it has affected their ability to practice their spirituality. I know it was important for not just for my film but for the compilation, it was important to have that sense of provocation [to] be critical.
AJ: I think our film is an example of a man did not have his rights as they were given. In an atmosphere of the late Harper reign of terror, Islamophobia was really big. We also can’t cancel out the fact that he’s black. These films are really taking stock at where we are at as a nation with things like xenophobia, islamophobia or racism. Take a critical look, but also celebrate who we are and I think our film in that ending sequence is really about that and that was our big intent to take real stock but not lose hope. There are a lot of things about Canada that are worth praising and talking about in a positive light, especially for me I’m a refugee. I came to this country seeking this kind of protection, but at the same time we need to be honest to see where we are at. I think that’s a more honest approach in celebrating Canada 150.