News / Vancouver

Haida animator's orca tale hits big screen at VIFF

NFB short re-imagining story of a daring rescue from an orca town has its B.C. premiere Thursday at the Vancouver International Film Festival.

A still from the animated film The Mountain of SGaana.

Courtesy National Film Board of Canada

A still from the animated film The Mountain of SGaana.

When Haida artist Christopher Auchter finally chose which of his nation's stories to bring to screens worldwide, he discovered it had been in front of him his whole life.

His 10-minute animated film, The Mountain of SGaana, will have its British Columbia premiere on Thursday night at the Vancouver International Film Festival.

"I was searching to tell a story from my culture — one that really touched me and got me excited," Auchter, who now lives in Burnaby, said in a phone interview. "And I wanted it to take place on the water.

"I wanted to capture some likeness of my grandpa; I used to commercial fish with him and had all that time to look down into that deep water and have an imagination of what’s under there."

The 37-year-old Emily Carr University of Art and Design graduate was captivated by a traditional Haida story about a hero rescuing their lover from an underwater killer whale village. "SGaana" in the film's title means both "orca" and "supernatural" in his language, he said.

But after picking the tale, he said, friend and renowned carver Jaalen Edenshaw informed him it had actually been carved for decades on a pole standing in Skidegate village.

"That was the one pole I remember standing tall when I was a kid," he said. "I was surprised that the story I told was actually carved on the pole all the time I was growing up!"

The film, produced by the National Film Board, riffs on the original story of a master seahunter saving his wife from an orca town. "But I changed it," Auchter said. "He is the one taken and his wife goes after him to save him. There are so many stong Haida women … I wanted to show their strength."

His aunt is a master weaver whose work he saw displayed in the National Art Gallery after his film screened there recently.

And his own sister sang the film's soundtrack — a reminder for him that, like songs or carvings, animation can be a vehicle for Haida story and culture — and the effect was so powerful he removed the earlier versions' narration.

"This story is about my struggle to belong in culture and understand how powerful it is to know more about (its) stories and language," he mused. "And how great that makes you feel — it anchors you, knowing you have both feet on the ground and don’t feel lost."

The Mountain of SGaana's B.C. premiere is Thursday 9 p.m. at International Village Cinemas (88 West Pender St.). For tickets, visit the Vancouver International Film Festival's website.

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