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Beau Dick and Richard Wagamese: At VIFF, a large absence

The films Meet Beau Dick: Maker of Monsters and Indian Horse are screening in the wake of both artists' deaths earlier this year

Beau Dick in his studio at the University of British Columbia, showing the progress on his final Wind Mask. It was completed shortly before his death.

That gaping hole you might sense at this year's Vancouver International Film Festival is the absence of two tremendous Indigenous artists. Beau Dick and Richard Wagamese would have, should have, been here for the event, but both died this year – unexpectedly and far too young. Dick – a Kwakwaka'wakw master carver from Alert Bay, B.C. – and Wagamese – an Ojibwa author who was born in Ontario – both died in March, both at the age of 61.

One of the most anticipated events of this year's VIFF is the world premiere of the documentary Meet Beau Dick: Maker of Monsters. And following its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, the narrative feature Indian Horse – based on the novel by Wagamese – will screen at VIFF, in the province that became the author's home.

Both will no doubt be emotional, bittersweet events, attended by their directors, family members and friends – but not the men at their centre.

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Meet Beau Dick: Maker of Monsters is a collaboration by LaTiesha Ti'si'tla Fazakas and Natalie Boll. Fazakas is a first-time filmmaker – and Dick's long-time gallerist, who met Dick about 18 years ago.

Beau Dick speaks to the crowd during the journey from Alert Bay to Victoria, where Dick and his cohort performed an ancient copper breaking ceremony on the steps of the Canadian legislature as an act of shaming the government for its treatment of First Nations people.

"I actually met one of his masks first and I was so moved by it and so intrigued that I was, like, 'I need to meet whoever made this,'" she explains during a recent interview. "And then, probably about a month or so after that, I met him in person and I was, like, 'Wow – this personality, this character, this charisma is just as engaging as the artwork.'"

Dick was a supremely talented artist (his masks can sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars, Fazakas says) and an absolutely larger-than-life character. He seemed the perfect subject for a film and Fazakas spent a couple of years trying to develop it herself. Eventually, she felt she needed an experienced filmmaker to work with and asked Boll, whom she had met socially, if she wanted to be involved.

(Neither Boll nor Fazakas is First Nations; Fazakas, however, received the potlatch name Ti'si'tla from Dick's family.)

Boll was not familiar with Dick and busy with other projects, but she agreed to visit Fazakas's home to see Dick's artwork.

One of the most anticipated events of this year’s VIFF is the world premiere of the documentary Meet Beau Dick: Maker of Monsters.

"She brought me down the stairs and there was a huge mask of Beau's in the stairwell and I immediately … had this emotional reaction. I had never seen something like that that gave me chills and tingles – and it kind of felt like I was like meeting a person, but not a person; like a supernatural kind of feeling. And I was just blown away, shivers up my spine," Boll says. "I said, 'I'm in.'"

That was early 2012. They couldn't secure funding from traditional sources – they tried – but started shooting anyway and kept going. "We called in a lot of favours," Fazakas says.

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They spent nearly six years on the film – they finished the final edit about two weeks ago – visiting Dick in Alert Bay and at his studio at UBC, following him to protests and even to a potlatch.

"It ended up in a way being a blessing that we didn't have any restrictions; we could organically tell this story and it organically came to an end," Boll says.

Ahead of what would have been a high-profile appearance at the prestigious international art show Documenta, Dick fell ill. Before he died, he saw a rough cut of the film.

"He was really pleased. He said, ' LaTiesha, you got this, you get it,'" Fazakas recalls. "And I said, 'This really, for me, is my love letter to you.' I really loved that man and so I wanted to do right by him."

Ojibwa author Richard Wagamese died in March at the age of 61.

Indian Horse, based on Richard Wagamese's breakthrough 2012 novel, shines a light on Canada's residential-school travesty through the lens of Canada's national game. Saul Indian Horse, a young Ojibwa boy, is sent to a residential school, where he is removed from his culture and learns to play hockey very well.

"When I read Richard's book it really angered me and saddened me and made me feel ashamed. I didn't know anything about this, what happened to these beautiful people and what we did. It really made me want to take action. I just wanted to do something about it. I wanted to be the director of this movie," says Stephen Campanelli, who has worked as a camera operator for Clint Eastwood for more than 20 years (Eastwood is an executive producer on the film).

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Campanelli, who grew up in Montreal, lived in Vancouver and after many years in Los Angeles is now back in Vancouver, met with Wagamese here. "We wanted his blessing, obviously. We wanted to make sure that he was okay with us telling his story."

The book was adapted by Vancouver-based screenwriter Dennis Foon. Campanelli says he was happy with the initial script, but wanted even more of the book to come through in it. "Because the way Richard writes is so poetic and so cinematic, especially for me being a cameraman, his words just … jumped off the page into my brain."

Campanelli is not Indigenous but most of the cast was, along with many crew members. There were ceremonies on set and smudging daily. Wagamese was like a "rock star," Campanelli says, for the cast. He calls it a life-changing project.

The film was in editing when Wagamese died suddenly last March. It was devastating to know that Wagamese would not see the film.

"At all the screenings, we say we know Richard is with us; we absolutely know he's here, he's proud of it, he's over our shoulder all the time, just cheering and smiling," Campanelli says.

Wagamese's son Jason attended a Calgary Film Festival screening last weekend.

"He gave me a hug at the end of the movie," Campanelli says. "He was crying, very heavy crying. He just held me for two minutes and sobbed on my shoulder and said, 'My dad would be proud.'"

VIFF runs Sept. 28 – Oct. 13. Meet Beau Dick: Maker of Monsters screens Sept 30. and Oct. 11. Indian Horse screens Sept. 30, Oct. 2 and Oct. 11.


A new Indigenous voice at VIFF

"It took me a really long time to figure out the kind of storyteller I wanted to be," Christopher Auchter says. Auchter, 37, is Haida and grew up on Haida Gwaii; his uncle is Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas of RED: A Haida Manga fame. An animator trained at Emily Carr University in Vancouver and Sheridan College in Ontario, Auchter landed on his culture as an anchor for this film. The Mountain of SGaana is a 10-minute, dream-like animated short inspired by a traditional Haida legend involving a sea monster spiriting away a human to the supernatural world.

Auchter's version has a gender twist: A woman rescues a man, rather than the other way around. "I flipped it," he says – to honour the strong women in the Haida culture in general and, specifically, an aunt. The film won the award for best animated film or series for young audiences (six to 12) at the Ottawa International Animation Festival last week. It has no dialogue; Auchter went for a wordless treatment in order to reach as wide an audience as possible. "I want it to be almost a window or doorway into the Haida culture."

The Mountain of SGaana screens at VIFF as part of the Strangers in Strange Lands shorts program on Oct. 5 and 12

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