'Live action could never have created these worlds': Amanda Strong on her latest film, Biidaaban
How Leanne Betasamosake Simpson's writing inspired a story of magic and resistance
Last Friday night in Toronto, Amanda Strong walked the red carpet with the two stars of her new film, Biidaaban (The Dawn Comes) — likely the only stars at the festival who arrived at TIFF in a carry-on bag. But for a couple of puppets, Biidaaban and Sabe have been around.
They just finished an appearance at Wanuskewin Heritage Park in Saskatoon, and before that the characters — along with sets from the Michif director's other stop-motion films — were part of the Winnipeg Art Gallery's Insurgence/Resurgence exhibition. Now finally, after two years of production, the 19-minute film is making its screen debut, and the result is a tale of magic and resistance.
Based on stories and poems by acclaimed Indigenous writer/musician Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, the action takes us to an ordinary Canadian neighbourhood (somewhere in Peterborough, actually), where Biidaaban and Sabe have a secret mission. An Anishinaabe artist and a beyond-ancient shapeshifter, respectively, they're tapping the neighbourhood trees, harvesting sap like their Indigenous ancestors did for generations — but unlike those who came before them, they're forced to sneak out in the middle of the night. The trees that once belonged to the forest now grow on private property, but the duo is guided by spirits of animals who used to roam there (a ghost caribou and ghost wolf) while they work.
Like Strong's past animated shorts — including a couple you can watch now on CBC (Four Faces of the Moon and Flood — the storytelling has a loose, dreamlike quality, though the piece itself raises a variety of current issues: land development, displacement of animal populations, reclamation of Indigenous ceremonies and practices.
Before the film heads to Festival Stop Motion Montreal later this week and the Ottawa International Animation Festival (Sept. 26, 29), Strong talked with CBC Arts about the origins of the project, how Simpson's writing was the catalyst for the film and how the world of Biidaaban (and her other animated movies) takes on another life when it goes "outside the screen" and into art galleries.
How did the project begin?
Well, it's something that started about two and a half years ago.
I've worked with the writer Leanne Simpson before. We did a piece, How to Steal a Canoe, from one of her audio tracks. And she has this poem called "Caribou Ghosts and Untold Stories." It's actually in the film — it's what bookends the beginning and the end.
I was just haunted by the combination of "ghost caribou." Immediately, that puppet was in my mind. That character. I was just picturing this horrifically beautiful ghost animal.
And I talked more with Leanne about it. What does this mean to you? What is behind the ghost caribou, or caribou ghost?
So she was explaining that the caribou have lived in southern Canada, or southern Ontario, in the past and they've been removed from the land or extinct from southern parts of Canada.
I know it's not exactly the same as the bison or buffalo — but for me, doing Four Faces of the Moon, there was this idea of how the presence of humans has pushed away four-legged animals. But for her, the idea was that their spirits are still here, and she still feels their presence. Today.
I was like, "Holy crap, that's amazing!" So it was sort of the seed of this bigger story, which ended up becoming Biidaaban.
How did the poem influence the script?
I realized the poem itself is very abstract. It wasn't, to me, a full story, so I read a few of her shorts and was trying to find different inter-connectivities and there ended up being three different short stories of hers ["Caribou Ghosts and Untold Stories," "Plight," "The Gift is in the Making"] where I found different connections.
"Plight" is actually the story where Biidaaban's character comes from. There's a collective of people who are aiming to reclaim and collect sap from urban neighbourhoods and private properties. And again, in that story, it wasn't enough on its own. So we pulled out the character of Sabe and the idea of Sabe being Biidaaban's guide, in a way.
I always collaborate with my partner who usually does my screenplays — Bracken Hanuse Corlett. He was nervous, because we all look up to Leanne. She's an amazing Indigenous powerhouse and we just sort of came to her. In the end, it's like the three of us wrote it. That's how we credit it.
We constantly shared the scripts with her to make sure and see if she had any sort of feedback or guidance. Even like the process of making the film, we sent her all the designs, the sketches, the characters in development. We always ran everything through her.
Who are the characters? How would you describe Sabe?
They're an ancient sort of shapeshifter who's 10,000 years old, and they are sort of like a guide for the lost ones. They're also a protector of the Earth. In this, in Leanne's stories, they're a very gentle and warm being, so they're not meant to be scary or a monster. Every sort of nation, they have different oral stories around these characters, and Leanne writes about them in a very contemporary way — they're 10,000 years old and they're texting! I think it's a very important, contemporary idea, the idea that we are still living today. It's not just about the past.
Biidaaban is a non-binary character, meaning they don't identify as either gender. Their whole premise is that in the night time they set out to reclaim this ceremony of collecting sap from trees — something that Indigenous people have done since time immemorial. But the old-growth trees are on properties owned by people.
The antagonist is the neighbourhood itself. We never actually see another person, but it's meant to feel like someone's always watching. So there's this tension between who owns the land and then Biidaaban, who's trying to mark the old growth on the property.
Biidaaban — I've got to say, you guys share the same sense of style.
You're a character in Four Faces of the Moon. I thought maybe you were a character in this one, too.
(laughs) It's actually based on my friend Whess!
Why was it important to base the character on a real person?
I think it's important to have a real representation of somebody. I mean, this is a non-binary person, and let's face it, there's not a lot of representation of that in film, yet — as a main or lead character. So it's all based on them.
You've described Four Faces of the Moon as a documentary, or hybrid documentary. Do you consider this one a doc, as well?
It's hard. In a way, yes. I feel the subject matter is not fiction. It's not an actual story that happened, per se, but to me, all the pieces are very relevant and very, in a way, fact-based. Our oral histories are our truths, so I argue the boundaries of documentary all the time. I'm sure a lot of people would not consider this a doc, but for me, it's not a made up thing. Land development is an issue. It's a real thing. The animals who have been removed from the land — that's a real thing. People who are disconnected from our culture, it's a real thing. Our oral stories of characters such as Sabe, those are real things. So it's a hard one. I would argue yes, it's a documentary — sort of. (laughs)
What kind of information are you hoping the viewer takes away from the film?
Like a lot of my stories, I don't think there's one message, but the biggest thing is possibly the idea of reclaiming our ceremonies — and in that, I think it's about reclaiming the land and honouring the ancestors and the animals before us who have also lived in these spaces. The spirit of these things is still here.
Tell me more about the nuts and bolts of how you created the world of the film. The sets, are they also based on real places?
Yeah! So, the main red house that Biidaaban goes up to, I think it's Leanne's house. I'm pretty sure it's her house in Peterborough. We got a lot of images from her, a few different models of homes in the type of neighbourhood we were thinking of setting the film. It's not like downtown Toronto per se, but not quite suburban — something in between. Something with old growth, and Peterborough has the old growth trees.
The puppets were part of Insurgence/Resurgence at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, right?
Yes, those were our backup, stand-in dolls. They were built specifically for the exhibit because we weren't done shooting yet.
Making one of your films is, like you say, such a laborious process, but the projects also get this whole other life. Why did you start working with galleries and museums? Where have the Biidaaban characters and world been already?
They travelled last year to the Natural Museum of American history — so Biidaaban and Sabe and the whole basement set travelled there. They were just at Wanuskewin, the galleries there in Saskatoon. For about two to three years now I've been starting to take the work "outside of the screen." That's what I like to call it.
When I see it on screen — and don't get me wrong, I love it; I think it's beautiful and I think my priority is always to create the film — but then, there's something you just don't get from the flatness of the screen. Every detail that goes into all these pieces, when you witness them in person, even though it's the same content, it's like a completely different experience to be able to walk around one of the sets in 360 degrees. It's like experiencing the story in a very different way. And that's super exciting to me.
How long did it take to shoot the film?
It was a full two years, full-time. I would say we spent almost a year building everything. The two main puppets — they're being made simultaneously because we have a team, but they took about six months each. I would say it was just under a year for everything to be built: all the puppets, all the props. And it was between five and six months of shooting. Full-time, long days, alone — just to get the footage. There were definitely over 100 shoot days. (laughs) Which is insane! A lot of feature films can be shot in like 20.
So I'll ask the obvious question: Why stop motion? Why was that the way to tell this particular story?
I don't know. Sometimes I think I'm crazy, but I'm not turning back now, you know?
Live action could never have created these personas or these worlds. So yes, it's insane, but there's just something very magical about it, and I think anybody who does work in stop motion would agree that that's why they do it.
This conversation has been edited and condensed.
Biidaaban (The Dawn Comes). Part of the Short Cuts Programme 01 at the Toronto International Film Festival. Thursday, Sept. 13. Scotiabank Theatre, Toronto. www.tiff.net