Saturday, April 23, 2011

dawson film festival - day 1

Dawson City, Yukon. Up near the Arctic Circle. This is my favorite community of humans on planet earth.

They say "Truth is stranger than fiction," and the term applies here more than anywhere else I've been. The show "Northern Exposure" seems kind of like this town - but the series is nothing compared to reality.

Today I spoke with Caveman Bill about the depth of the river ice, as he was hauling a sled across in the bright arctic sun. Half the town, including Bill, lives on the other side of a river, and has to pick across carefully during this time of year, when the ice starts to thin. There is a town-wide lottery on when the river ice will break - a wire is rigged from the ice to a firebell, and the whole town hears the ringing when the ice finally shifts and cracks and carries downstream. Then the people in West Dawson are stuck on one side or the other for a few weeks until the ice chunks clear and the ferry is put in the water.

(Caveman Bill actually lives in a cave, by the way.)

There are a tonne of artists and filmmakers up here. There is a writer's residence, an artist's residence, a credited art school, and a great gallery with a very savvy curator who brings in work from across Canada and the world.

There are still gold mines here, and the dirty gamblin' miners that come with them. The Trondek H'wechin First Nations is here, with all their rich history and spirit tied to this land. There are dog sleds, trappers, rough-looking dudes in cowboy hats who haven't seen another person in months, scowling in the dark corners of the bars, including my favorite place in town, "The Snake Pit", which has two sides so it can legally open early in the morning for the breakfast drunks, and close late at night for the regular drinkers.

Last time I was here, they had a weekly lottery where you put money in a pot for a peg, put your name on the peg, and hammered it onto the river ice. Then they took a helicopter and hauled a snowmobile with a mannequin on it high above the river and let it go, to smash down on the ice and explode. The person whose peg was closest to the biggest chunk of snowmobile won the pot.

There is the 'SourToe' shot at the Downtown Hotel where I'm staying, where you can take a shot of your favorite booze with a real human toe in the shot. The toe has to touch your lips for you to pass the test. (Fuck that.)

Today at the film festival I got to see a documentary I worked on a couple years ago, called Cry Rock, by my friend Banchi Hanuse, from Bella Coola. It's about her reluctance to record her mother's stories. Her mother is one of the last remaining Nuxalk elders who knows the stories and the language of their people. It's the second time I've seen the film in its entirety and it's the second time I was blown away by it. Brought to tears by it's importance.

Imagine living in a place where your language was created, and the only place where that same language has been spoken for thousands of years. Their word for "rock" doesn't just mean any rock - it means the rocks in that town, in that valley. Imagine your creation myth being about that mountain across the water. Imagine the encyclopedia of all your stories and knowledge and beliefs being passed on by word of mouth, from generation to generation. It just blows my mind.

I am very honoured to have worked on that film.

Today I learned that there's only two Trondek H'Wechin people left who can speak their language - who know the thousand-year old stories and lessons and words of this land around Dawson. Today someone told me about a place up in the mountains behind Dawson, which us whiteys thought were "nameless wastes", and was given the name of a explorer in the days of the gold rush. It's actual (Trondek H'Wechin) name is something like "The Last Place to go When There is Nothing Else Left".

I don't know what the lady's point was in telling me that, but with a language left with only two people now, there is something poignant in that. It was enough to bring tears to both of our eyes.

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