How to Lose Everything: 5 beautiful animated Indigenous short films share personal stories of loss
For series creator Christa Couture, telling her story became an invitation for others to tell their own
From instructions on how to survive tragedy, to parallels between two Scottish and Inuit communities, to a bear named Jesus, the five stories in How to Lose Everything span nations, languages, and perspectives on heartache. Stream episodes of How to Lose Everything now on CBC Gem in English, Cree, Anishinaabemowin, Ktunaxa, and Inuktitut.
There was a pause over the phone and a compassionate exhale before the journalist said to me, "I hope one day you don't have to write about yourself."
I felt unexpectedly shy in the moment — like they could see just how much hurt I was really carrying — but I also felt tender and grateful for their hope.
The interview was about my fourth album as a singer songwriter — my "break up album" Long Time Leaving. The songs on my previous albums had delved into painful subjects like having cancer as a kid, my leg being amputated above the knee, abortion, and the deaths of my two sons. After that, divorce felt like an ordinary heartache to explore, but it was still about personal loss.
That journalist was hoping that I would have more than trauma to draw from. That I might one day have the space to create work that came from looking outside of myself; work that came from imagining. At the time, I couldn't ever see reaching that point. I was still too raw.
Sharing my losses through song was how I expressed myself, and how I could understand and process my experiences. It's a powerful practice to share your story over and over, night after night, to a new room of folks who haven't heard it before. You get to keep honing your story until it makes the most sense — and when it comes to grief, sense can be hard to make.
Grief can be exile. Through performing my songs, I felt seen and heard in a way I deeply needed for comfort. I felt my stories reflected in others' compassion, I felt remembered and validated, and I felt my sons, in particular, might be remembered, too. I'm so grateful for the physical and emotional release of music during those years, and for all those kind witnesses who joined me. Performing saved me.
After four albums about loss, I wrote my memoir How to Lose Everything to explore experiences I'd been singing about in detail. Near the end of the editing process, I was tasked with switching the first chapter from present tense to past tense. This was a powerful exercise: changing each "is" to a "was" meant I had to stand rooted in the present. I began to feel that maybe I had told my stories enough times. Finally, those heartbreaks were stories and not active, present pain.
But then what? Who was I, without those stories?
One last project remained of How to Lose Everything — a short animated film of the final passage of the book, "The Field Guide," which gives the reader advice on how to survive heartache. The narration ends with an invitation: tell me about what you lost — the person, place, potential – and I will remember for you. After so many people had received my story, I wanted to offer the same.
That idea grew.
What if I asked other writers to respond explicitly to that question? What if one film about loss became five? What if I made work that didn't draw from personal experiences, but supported other storytellers' journeys through heartache? Was I ready for something like this? Would I like the experience of switching gears or letting go?
Yes, I was ready. And I loved it. In fact, the experience of creating this new work ended up deeply inspiring me.
When asking writers Archer Pechawis, Smokii Sumac, Tara Williamson and Taqralik Partridge what came to mind when watching my film "Field Guide," their own stories of heartache emerged. My one story grew into a collection of five scripts that I knew I would produce. I asked director, writer, producer, actor, singer (she's all that and more!) Michelle St. John to produce with me. She said yes, and the idea kept growing.
We invited animators and artists Terril Calder, Chief Lady Bird, bekky O'Neil, Meky Ottawa and Megan Kyak-Monteith to animate those writers' pieces. We brought in composers Cris Derksen, G.R. Gritt, Melody McKiver, and Inge Thomson. The collection and collaboration grew to be something even more beautiful than I could have planned.
The opportunity to be able to lift up others' stories fuelled all three years it took to complete this inimitable, intricate project. The pace of creating animation is not for a producer faint of heart! But the medium suited these stories of loss so perfectly – like animation, grief moves slowly, too.
For twenty years, I wrote songs alone — my only company a piano or a guitar. I wrote my memoir alone at my computer, with a coffee cup. For twenty years being alone to create was what I needed to do as an artist. But a powerful and freeing turning point occurred in making How to Lose Everything into a series with all of these incredible artists; that hope the journalist had for me years ago came true.
Now, I can imagine.
Episode 1: How to Lose Everything: A Field Guide
Watch "How to Lose Everything: A Field Guide" on CBC Gem in: Cree and English.
How to Lose Everything the series is now streaming on CBC Gem. While the episode I wrote, "A Field Guide," is the invitation, the following four episodes are the response.
Episode 2: A Bear Named Jesus
Watch "A Bear Named Jesus" on CBC Gem in: Cree, and English.
In "A Bear Named Jesus," a stop-motion film by Terril Calder, we meet Archer Pechawis. At Archer's Aunty Gladys' funeral, he hears a tap on the window — it's a bear named Jesus, who has come for Archer's mom. "A Bear Named Jesus" is an allegory for religious interference, with an aching yet humorous look at estrangement and mourning for the loss of someone still living.
Episode 3: Heart Like a Powwow
Watch "Heart Like a Powwow" on CBC Gem in: Aninshnaawbemowin and English.
Artist Chief Lady Bird created the illustrations for poet and musician Tara Williamson's "Heart Like a Pow Wow," which explores the depths of grief from an Anishinaabe perspective of love and family. Viewers are called to witness Spirit as they shift to physical form while embodying the love that precedes grief and inevitably foreshadows it.
Episode 4: There Are Hierarchies of Grief
Watch "There Are Hierarchies of Grief" on CBC Gem in: Ktunaxa and English.
In "There Are Hierarchies of Grief," directed and digitally animated by Meky Ottawa, Smokii Sumac reflects on the wisdom and strength of bereaved mothers, as he is faced with the grief of waking up to a changed world — but also with the comfort of the people, memories and emotions left like gifts for those left behind.
Episode 5: Grape Soda in the Parking Lot
Watch "Grape Soda in the Parking Lot" on CBC Gem in: Inuktitut and English.
And in "Grape Soda in the Parking Lot," directed and animated in oil pastel paintings by Megan Kyak-Monteith, Taqralik Partridge asks what if every language that had been lost to English — every word, every syllable — grew up out of the ground in flowers? Taqralik's grandmother's Scottish Gaelic and her father's Inuktitut unfold in memories of her family, of pain, and of love.
Stream How to Lose Everything now on CBC Gem
How to Lose Everything Credits
Created by Christa Couture and produced by Michelle St. John
Episode 1: How to Lose Everything: A Field Guide / tânisi kesiwanihtâyan kahkiyaw kîkway
Director: Christa Couture and bekky O'Neil
Animator and medium: bekky O'Neil, watercolour and in-camera animation
Writer: Christa Couture
Composer: Cris Derksen
Episode 2: A Bear Named Jesus / maskwa Jesus kâ-isiyihkâsoyit
Director: Terril Calder
Animator and medium: Terill Calder, stop-motion
Writer: Archer Pechawis
Composer: Melody McKiver
Episode 3: Heart Like a Powwow / Niimidi'iwin Ode'
Director: Chief Lady Bird
Animator and medium: bekky O'Neil, digital illustrations
Writer: Tara Williamson
Composer: Tara Williamson
Episode 4: There Are Hierarchies of Grief / Ya·qaqa'ki na 'a·kinmiyit
Director: Meky Ottawa
Animator and medium: Meky Ottawa, digital animation
Writer: Smokii Sumac
Composer: G.R. Gritt
Episode 5: Grape Soda in the Parking Lot / ᐸᐅᕐᖔᐲᑦ ᐃᑦᑎᖓ ᑎᕐᑎᑐᖅ ᐃᒥᕋᖅ ᓄᓇᒃᑰᔫᑦ ᓄᕐᖃᖓᕕᖓᓂ
Director: Megan Kyak-Monteith and Taqralik Partridge
Animator and medium: Megan Kyak-Monteith, oil pastels and paintings
Writer: Taqralik Partridge
Composer: Inge Thomson