Icelandic-Canadians make artistic leap into family history

Filmmaker Catherine Legault's debut feature Sisters: Dream and Variations captures importance of keeping family traditions alive

Independent Quebec documentary launches 2021 Absolutely Canadian season

Artist sisters Tyr Jami and Jasa Baka are the subjects of Catherine Legault's documentary. (Catherine Legault/Concerto Films)

"I always told myself that if I didn't have a good story to tell, I would tell the stories of others," says Catherine Legault, the filmmaker behind the Quebec documentary Sisters: Dream and Variations that kicks off this year's Absolutely Canadian series on CBC TV and CBC Gem this weekend.

The award-winning film profiles sisters Týr Jami and Jasa Baka, artists on their journey to reconnect with their Icelandic heritage through clues in folk songs their great-grandmother sang to them on an analog cassette decades ago. 

Animated family archives in Sisters: Dream and Variations. (Catherine Legault/Concerto Films)

Rich in animated archives and musical performances, the film centres around themes of childhood, ancestral traditions and courage to pursue the creative spirit. For Legault's debut documentary, the production was epic in both scope and determination. 

The seven-year journey began when Legault was struck by an air of magic around her cello teacher Týr Jami and the artistic life she shared with her sister Jasa. Their world was visually striking, their soundscape rich and, as the sisters worked toward connecting the dots of their past, a documentary seemed the best form of capturing a story that was about to unfold. 

"Their story was cinematic to me – I was really attracted by their creative process, but when I discovered that their cultural heritage was part of their artistic process, I decided to bring that forward." 

The documentary filmmaker's feature debut, Sisters: Dream and Variations is available to watch on CBC Gem. (Frédérique Ménard-Aubin)

One of the documentary's main themes is the importance of transferring experiences between generations and of doing the work to make our traditions current and alive. 

Legault met with the sisters' parents, who are both prolific artists in their own right, and gained "incredible access" to the family's archives, which the filmmaker has brought to life with animation artists Frances Adair Mckenzie, Kara Blake, Calvin Brett and one of the film's main subjects, Jasa Baka.

While the production of a first film is an accomplishment in itself, the documentary has been well-received at film festivals and recently won an IRIS Award for best original music in a documentary film at the Gala Québec Cinéma, as well as two 2020 IndieFest awards. But the process was not without its challenges.

There was the tiny budget, the complex production design that included many layers of animation, the logistics of shooting in Canada and Iceland (where Baka now lives), and then the pregnancy and birth that Legault experienced during the production. 

"Being a mother gives you a lot of strength. And I think it gives you a lot of energy, even despite the sleep deprivation —you just want to embrace life," Legault said, while packing for her family's summer vacation. She also cites her newfound sensitivity that helped with the process.

"There's a lot of intuitive work we need to do in film. The nonverbal communication you share with a newborn is really a skill that helps with that," says Legault. 

Cellist and composer Tyr Jami in the documentary Sisters: Dream and Variations. (Catherine Legault/Concerto Films)

Sisters : Dream and Variations is now streaming on Gem, and airs on CBC Television in Quebec Saturday July 10 at 7p.m. as part of the Absolutely Canadian series.

The complete motion picture soundtrack is now available to stream on your platform of choice.

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