After almost three weeks of continuous filming in and around the First Nations community of Tl’etinqox, the primary photography for Tsilhqot’in filmmaker Trevor Mack’s first feature-length movie is complete.
When the Tribune caught up with Mack after the conclusion of his shoot, he was visibly tired but incredibly satisfied. This film was “monumental” for Mack and is his most ambitious, in terms of scale, to date.
This shoot was a long one, consisting of 16-hour days for three weeks for Mack, his cast and crew, along with various community members who volunteered their time and homes to the movie’s production. Now the result of all that hard work is stored on three, 20 terabyte hard drives, ready to be edited.
Titled Portraits From a Fire Mack describes it as a coming of age drama-comedy centred around an Indigenous teenager who stumbles upon a secret that unravels the story of his parents and how it affects who he is today. Set on a reserve modelled off of Mack’s home community of Tl’etinqox, he said it’s filled with endearing characters and heartfelt moments, with a heavy overarching theme of promoting dialogue within families across the country about trauma they may be going through.
“Everybody is going through trauma, whether we’re suppressing it, dealing with it, how we’re dealing with it,” Mack said. “Everyone, be they big or little, is going through something and I think the more we can be open with each other the healthier our lives can be and a better world we can create.”
This film is particularly close to Mack’s heart, as the inception of the film came in the wake of Mack being assaulted and mugged in downtown Vancouver in 2016. The assault left him bedridden, following three re-constructive jaw surgeries, for three months with his jaw wired shut.
While bedridden, Mack had a lot of time to think about the decisions he was making in his own life and professional career. He came to realize the way he’d been living, lots of partying and drinking, was an unhealthy way to deal with his own trauma he hadn’t realized he had. As he laid there he came up with an idea for a film examining an Indigenous youth learning of the trauma his parents had experienced and what trauma he’d inherited as a result.
Seeing this idea become such a big project, funded with collaboration between Telefilm, Canada Council for the Arts, Creative BC and the BC Arts Council, has been surreal as was the chance to shoot it on his home reserve, which he describes as an honour. Shooting locally, with local people, was important to Mack which is why he held a casting call in Williams Lake as well as Vancouver reviewing over 100 actors for several roles.
Some of these roles ended up going to locals including Anaham Lake elder Sammy Stump, lakecity resident and Alexis Creek native Pauline Bob-King and Xeni Gwet’in teenager William Lulua in a starring role. Mack supplemented them with several experienced film actors, most notably Nathaniel Arcand, and loved the challenge of meshing the various acting experience levels together.
Lulua, who stars in the film’s leading role, was one who impressed Mack from the start walking into his audition cracking jokes with a confident aura, that reminded Mack of himself as a 14 year old. For Bob-King, meanwhile, Mack said it was her ability to make himself and others cry in an incredibly heartfelt moment was what made her his top pick.
Mack also was happy to work with Stump and his fellow community elder Melanie Bobby, both highly respected pillars of his community for decades. With them, he really wanted to embrace and showcase the personalities they already have through their characters and bring a genuine “real” feel to the film.
“It’s easy to make Indigenous caricatures, but to make these characters real and complex and endearing is a challenge, especially when they’re non-actors, but with these two people it was so natural for them,” Mack said. “They were amazing.”
Arcand, meanwhile, who has appeared and starred in a variety of Canadian TV shows over the years, really brought a professional movie star experience to the set for the six days they had him. Watching him teach and mentor Lulua, Stump and the other actors on how to really feel it was a great thing to see, Mack said.
“We had an eclectic mix of non-actors from the rez, up and coming actors and TV stars and it was surreal to have all of them on my rez in the community for three and a half weeks,” Mack said.
A ceremony was held by Cecil Grinder to bless the film, right at the beginning, which Mack feels really helped them get through the “incredible, excruciatingly great experience” that followed. From the cold wetness of lakes to the hot sun of the Chilcotin hay fields and from residents’ homes, to the burnt forest that surrounds his community, Mack and his crew shot everywhere for hours on end all day every day.
At their base camp, Mack said they had all the major movie hallmarks including chefs to make them three square meals a day, set designers, props managers and costumers. As this film takes place in 2002 Mack said it was important to ensure all technology, clothing and vehicles used were from that era. To that end, community donations were especially important to ensuring the success of the film.
“This film was made by the community for the community, 100 per cent. This film could not have been made without my community and I’m so thankful for that,” Mack said.
In addition to his usual crew, Mack also worked with a group of Indigenous filmmaking mentees, funded by Telus STORYHIVE, who put in hours to help make the film happen. It was a pleasure to teach them his trade and hopefully inspire them to create and pursue projects of their own in the future.
All of these elements really came together for Mack in one specific scene where they had to decorate a dilapidated hockey rink with Christmas lights to turn it into a DIY movie theatre. Seeing something that had been in his head for three years created in the real world as a tangible environment populated by community members playing make-believe with him was a powerful moment for Mack.
“It was a feedback loop of inspiration that was happening that day and through all of the hectic haze, all the moving parts those were the moments where I took the time to really be in the moment and appreciate it,” Mack said.
Now, Mack said it will be time to begin the 15-week post-production schedule to edit the film into a cohesive whole that he suspects will take longer than the initial estimate. He may have to return to reshoot some parts, as they shot out of order from the beginning. Mack hopes the film will be ready for release in late summer or early fall of 2020.
For its world premiere, Mack plans to screen it in, not only Tl’etinqox but also Livestream it to hundreds of Indigenous communities across Canada for a shared private movie night. As he grows older Mack has realized that, while premiering films in venues like Toronto and Berlin is exciting, doing so closer to home in the communities he seeks to represent is more meaningful.
When asked what’s next for him, Mack immediately responded that he plans to go on vacation to Hawaii or go meditate in a cave somewhere and recover from the shoot. Afterwards, he has plans for another feature film and to do some work with impact filmmaking to assist Indigenous communities across B.C. and Canada.