Tl’entinqox filmmaker Trevor Mack’s newly released film ʔEtsu is a visually stunning short film about family, death and child suicide.
ʔEtsu translates into grandmother, in Tsilhqot’in, and the film paints a first-person narrative of a young Indigenous boy dealing with the death of his beloved grandmother.
Through the use of “data moshing” where pixelated images seem to show his grandmother passing through the film towards the boy, Mack’s film is intimate and heartwrenching.
It’s dedicated to Mack’s own grandmother, who died two years ago.
“I had that family structure and that safety net to keep me from getting into really hard times after she passed away,” Mack told the Tribune.
“This story is about a child on a reserve that doesn’t have that family structure. This child doesn’t know how to grieve, doesn’t have the parents to surround this child with empathetic, unconditional love.”
The topic of suicide is one close to Mack’s heart. As a young filmmaker, Mack travelled with the Provincial Health Services Authority for a suicide awareness program titled Cutstwi, which worked with children on reserves to teach them how to express themselves through filmmaking.
“I noticed there were a lot of children like that in Canada, and I just wanted to film a small little portrait of that,” he said. “It’s just a very intimate portrait of one child struggling to grieve his grandmother’s death and I’m hopefully trying to tell it in a way that is a new experience — in a way that is different than your normal story.”
Too often, Mack said, the issue of child suicide is only discussed in Canada following a tragedy.
“I wanted to create a story in a way that nobody has seen before, but also create a conversation about child suicide on reserves without the tragedies that actualize it, without children really killing themselves. I think if a film can do that, then it is a great thing.”
Making the film itself, said Mack, already sparked conversations he might not have had otherwise.
His cousin, Elias Louie, stars in the film itself, and was a preteen when Mack filmed ʔEtsu.
“I was talking to him about suicide, grievance, loss and I think that is one of the things I like about filmmaking — that you can have these very heavy subjects and you can make yourself vulnerable and talk about them with people you may not normally talk about them with. It opens your emotional wall that you put up on a daily basis and it grounds you. I did that with my cousin and I think our relationship is better for that.”
The film itself shows many small moments of the young boy’s life, as if filmed by himself, during his daily life on the reserve.
During certain moments, what Mack calls “data moshing” happens, and pixels are overlaid and the spirit of the boy’s grandmother seems to push through.
“Think of old memories that have been taped coming back through this data mosh effect, almost like these tapes don’t want to be over-recorded, or these tapes don’t want to be forgotten. We wanted to do that with that being a metaphor for a spirit trying to come through.”
ʔEtsu itself is a proof of concept for a feature film, Portraits of a Fire, Mack hopes to shoot this August, using similar effects, but larger in scale.
Mack and indigenous writer, Derek Vermillion were in the process of writing the feature film, when they decided they wanted to test the visual effects and “meta” style of filmmaking. He told another filmmaker, Kelton Stepanowich, about the idea, who gave the crew $500 to film the proof of concept.
Over a weekend, Mack returned home to Tl’entinqox (Anaham) to shoot the movie, and within the week had a first cut. By the end of the year ʔEtsu premiered to acclaim at the Toronto International Film Festival.
“I think the idea of this data moshing and the meta storytelling and the tapes involved I think are all ways of experimenting with how to tell a story and the style of storytelling that I want to create,” said Mack. “I don’t think I have a set style in my storytelling yet as a director and filmmaker and I think these short films have all been experiments of what kind of style of stories that I want to tell.”
Mack’s past films have also featured Indigenous stories, and the majority were also shot near his home reserve.
Read more: Trevor Mack seeks support for new film
Following film school, he said, he initially wanted to tell big stories.
“The more I turned inward and told stories that were very personal to me and were very personal experiences that I had growing up, the more I realized that that is not only more rewarding, it is also more original and more unique and the more sincere and genuine they are,” he said.
“It really is just being more aware of how I grew up and what has made me an Indigenous person. I want to put that on screen and see what people think about that. I want to put that on screen and hopefully that changes people’s perceptions about Indigenous people or people in general — they are universal stories, really.”
As for ʔEtsu: “What I hope people take away from ʔEtsu is that Indigenous politics aside, and I know there is a lot of controversial subjects for Indigenous politics and nation to nation relationships, the most important thing to remember is that while all of these politics are happening, usually the first forgotten are the children.
“I think this is just an intimate portrait of one child, one of many throughout Canada who have been forgotten, who have been forgotten by the Canadian government, who have been forgotten by their parents, who have been forgotten by the system.”