Winnipeg Aboriginal Film Festival impresses with size, range

The 12th annual Winnipeg Aboriginal Film Festival is going big this year, with four days of Manitoban, Canadian and international films. It’s also going wide, with a mix of feature films, documentaries and shorts, and a real range of genres.

WAFF runs Nov. 20 - 24

The Sapphires plays at WAFF on Nov. 22 at The Globe Cinema (The Weinstein Company)

The 12th annual Winnipeg Aboriginal Film Festival is going big this year, with four days of Manitoban, Canadian and international films. It’s also going wide, with a mix of feature films, documentaries and shorts, and a real range of genres. Yes, there are serious historical dramas, but there are also music videos, sci-fi and horror flicks, animated films and comedies.

A few films to watch out for:

Books to Screen: Winter in the Blood (November 22, 3:00 p.m., The Globe Cinema) is based on James Welch’s award-winning 1974 novel and set against the big-sky beauty of Montana’s Hi-Line. This uneven but intriguing film follows Virgil First Raise (Chaske Spencer), who returns home after some hard drinking to find that his wife has left him and taken his rifle. Setting off after his wife—or maybe after his rifle—Virgil starts a spiralling journey into his own haunted past.

Episodic and enigmatic, the story combines sometimes gritty, sometimes comic realism with strange surrealism. (David Morse’s mad turn as a flamboyant “great white hunter” character is an odd gambit.) Filmmakers Alex Smith and Andrew J. Smith sometimes seem to be struggling with the dense literary source material, but it’s a struggle worth having.  

Mayan Cosmology (This Time According to the Mayans): Remember back in 2012, when many New Age types proclaimed that the Mayan calendar was prophesising the cataclysmic end of the world? Maybe the doomsayers should have talked to some of the six million Maya people who are currently living in southern Mexico and Central America.

           WAFF kicks off Nov. 20

Heart of Sky, Heart of Earth (November 21, 9:00 p.m., The Globe Cinema) is a quiet and intimate exploration of the Mayan cosmology, a holistic vision in which all life is sacred and interconnected. (And not at all like a Hollywood disaster movie.)

Filmmakers Frauke Sandig and Eric Black constructed the film so that six young Maya tell their own stories without outside commentary. The subjects speak about their spiritual world views, which are complemented by beautifully lensed footage of trees, water, hills and sky. The film also addresses current issues facing the Maya peoples, from political persecution to aggressive agribusiness intervention to the environmental devastation of ancestral lands.

The Land Down Under: In the 1990s and 2000s, there was a surge of indigenous filmmaking in Australia and New Zealand. That creative concentration is reflected in this year’s WAFF lineup.

One of the films that started the wave was Once Were Warriors (November 21, 2:00 pm, The Globe Cinema), an Auckland-set drama about a Maori family struggling with violence and addiction. This emotionally shattering 1994 film featured powerhouse performances from Rena Owen and Temuera Morrison and made a name for director Lee Tamahori.

Also from New Zealand this year is Mt. Zion (November 23, 10:00 p.m. The Globe Cinema), about a kid from a rural Maori family who wants to tour with Bob Marley’s band in the 1970s. Fresh Meat (November 23, 7:00 p.m., The Globe Cinema) takes a genre detour into the deliberately trashy and graphically gory. In this cannibal horror story, some young toughs take a middle-class Maori family hostage, and get more than they bargained for.

From neighbouring Australia there is Mystery Road (November 22, 7:00 p.m., The Globe Cinema), a dark, disturbing thriller starring Aaron Pedersen as a rookie cop out of his depth in a local murder investigation. The film raises difficult questions about the epidemic of missing and murdered aboriginal women. Satellite Boy (November 24, 9:00 p.m., The Globe Cinema) looks at an Aboriginal youth caught between his grandfather’s heritage and the modern world when he takes a stand to save his local drive-in theatre and ends up lost in the Outback.  

The Aussie offering I previewed this year was an absolute sweetheart of a film. Inspired by a true story, The Sapphires (November 22, 9:00 p.m., The Globe Cinema) follows an Aboriginal girls group with a likeably incompetent Irish manager that in 1968 heads to Vietnam to sing for the troops. Co-scripted by Tony Briggs, the son of one of the real-life characters, the lightly comic story hits practically every movie cliché around–the unlikely romance, the sisterly rivalry, the getting out on stage even though your heart is breaking.

Is it hokey? You bet. But with an inspiring true-ish story and a lot of sweet, sweet soul music, it’s a real crowd-pleaser.

Local Heroes:  Rhymes for Young Ghouls (November 20, 7:00 p.m. The Globe Cinema), which kicks off the fest, looks like a Canadian standout.

Manitoba Filmmakers Night (November 21, 7:00 p.m., The Globe Cinema) shows off some homegrown talent with a collection of shorts. Some of these are first-time films, and look like it, but there are some strong entries. Letter is a very brief, very simple expression of love and loss, while This is a Real Story relates one woman’s journey of healing in a direct and affecting way.


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