A New Look at the Cosmos with WILFRED BUCK

“This is my reality-fiction…”

Science can seem rather cold and uninviting at the best of times. It’s logical, methodical, practical, expressed in precise numbers and opaque language. Almost no one would describe the sciences as a spiritual experience, but those folks have likely never met Wilfred Buck, the world’s leading Indigenous astronomer. The man and his mission to expand how we look at the stars are profiled in Lisa Jackson’s docu-drama hybrid of the same name and based partly on Buck’s memoir “I Have Lived Four Lives”.

Told in typical documentary fashion interspersed with astonishingly well-crafted period recreations, Buck follows the Cree elder as he proselytizes the ancient indigenous readings of the constellations at elite institutions contrasted with holding ceremony and workshops in his home territory in Manitoba.

Coming of age in the 1960s, Buck’s family was the victim of a hydro-electric dam project that wiped out his people’s way of life along the river. His family was further victimized by the Sixties Scoop which saw Buck’s siblings adopted by non-Indigenous families as well as multiple suicides as hope in what was left of his community dried up.

Buck himself fell in with a gang of wayward youths who indulged in a life of petty crime and alcoholism. Growing up to be a low-wage laborer, Buck eventually re-connected with his community via a fateful encounter with an elder and began a path to reclaim ancient knowledge that decades of colonialism had threatened to extinguish forever. A recurring image is of the Cree constellation Namew; a sturgeon signifying how we are all a part of the continuity of time. The importance of passing knowledge like this to the next generation through education and ceremony is passionately advocated by Buck, even as he admits to sometimes mentally and emotionally struggling under the weight of being a knowledge keeper for his people.

The film ends with the preparation and aftermath of a Sundance ceremony (the ceremony itself cannot be shown as per tradition). Here we see a community coming together to heal from the generational scars from being cut off from their culture. A montage of close ups are shown near the end. Some faces are smiling, some are more neutral and some are clearly hurting. After all, the healing has only just begun.

Wilfred Buck benefits from an engaging subject and sharp storytelling instincts. The period re-creations of Buck’s life are particularly worthy of praise. Exquisitely shot on 16mm film stock, the material blends so seamlessly with surrounding historical stock footage that you could almost swear someone actually traveled back in time to follow Buck with a camera in the 70s!

“It’s good that you make peace with the unknown.”

The film is not so much a fact-finding mission as it is a spiritual balm for Indigenous and non-Indigenous audiences alike. We’re often taught to take a cold and clinical approach to the natural world with little room to revel in its mysteries and deeper layered meaning. We only get a taste of Buck’s ancestral knowledge here, but the film’s point lies in opening us all up to new ways of looking and understanding rather than mining through the devil of details. “Empty your cup” as the old wisdom says.

Lisa Jackson’s doc earns its place as a bright star in the reconciliation starscape. It’s enough for this city slicker to want to escape Vancouver’s light population and gaze upward at the stories I never knew were there. Maybe I’ll even see the Sturgeon this time…




Wilfred Buck screens at the Hot Docs Theatre in Toronto from May 31- June 9

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *